President James Madison: Facts and Biography

James Madison
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James Madison (March 16, 1751–June 28, 1836) served as America's 4th president, navigating the country through the War of 1812. Madison was known as the "Father of the Constitution," for his role in its creation, and a man who served during a key time in the development of America. 

Fast Facts: James Madison

  • Known For: America's 4th president and the "Father of the Constitution"
  • Born: March 16, 1751 in King George County, Virginia
  • Parents: James Madison, Sr. and Eleanor Rose Conway (Nelly), m. September 15, 1749
  • Died: June 28, 1836 in Montpelier, Virginia
  • Education: Robertson's School, College of New Jersey (which would later become Prrinceton University)
  • Spouse: Dolley Payne Todd (m. September 15, 1794)
  • Children: One stepson, John Payne Todd

Early Life

James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, the eldest child of James Madison, Sr., a plantation owner, and Eleanor Rose Conway (known as "Nelly"), the daughter of a wealthy planter. He was born at his mother's stepfather's plantation on the Rappahannock River in King George County, Virginia, but the family soon moved to James Madison Sr.'s plantation in Virginia. Montpelier, as the plantation would be named in 1780, would be Madison Jr.'s home for most of his life. Madison had six brothers and sisters: Francis (b. 1753), Ambrose (b. 1755), Nelly (b. 1760), William (b. 1762), Sarah (b. 1764), Elizabeth (b. 1768); the plantation also held more than 100 enslaved persons.

The earliest education of James Madison, Jr. was at home, probably by his mother and grandmother, and at a school located on his father's plantation. In 1758, he began attending the Robertson School, run by Scottish tutor Donald Robertson, where he studied English, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian, as well as history, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and geography. Between 1767 and 1769, Madison studied under the rector Thomas Martin, who was hired by the Madison family for that purpose.


Madison attended the College of New Jersey (which would become Princeton University in 1896) from 1769–1771. He was an excellent student and studied a range of subjects, including oratory, logic, Latin, geography, and philosophy. Perhaps more importantly, he made close friendships at New Jersey, included the American poet Philip Freneau, writer Hugh Henry Brackenridge, lawyer and politician Gunning Bedford Jr., and William Bradford, who would become the second attorney general under George Washington.

But Madison grew ill in college, and stayed in Princeton after he graduated until April 1772, when he returned home. He was sickly most of his life, and modern scholars believe he likely suffered from epilepsy.

Early Career

Madison didn't have a vocation when he left school, but he soon became interested in politics, an interest perhaps stirred but at least fed by his continuing correspondence with William Bradford. The political situation in the country must have been exhilarating: his zeal for freedom from Britain was very strong. His first political appointment was as a delegate to the Virginia Convention (1776), and then he served in the Virginia House of Delegates three times (1776–1777, 1784–1786, 1799–1800). While in the Virginia house, he worked with George Mason to write Virginia's constitution; he also met and established a lifelong friendship with Thomas Jefferson.

Madison served on the Council of State in Virginia (1778–1779) and then became a member of the Continental Congress (1780–1783).

Father of the Constitution

Madison first called for a Constitutional Convention in 1786, and when it was convened in 1787 he wrote most of the U.S. Constitution, which outlined a strong federal government. Once the Convention ended, he, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton together wrote the "Federalist Papers," a collection of essays that were intended to sway public opinion to ratifying the new Constitution. Madison served as a U.S. Representative from 1789–1797.

On September 15, 1794, Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a widow and socialite who set the pattern for the behavior of White House first ladies for centuries to come. She was a well-liked hostess throughout Jefferson's and Madison's time in office, holding convivial parties with both sides of the Congress in attendance. She and Madison had no children, although John Payne Todd (1792–1852), Dolley's son from her first marriage, was raised by the couple; her son William had died in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that killed her husband.

In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, in 1798 Madison drafted the Virginia Resolutions, a work that was hailed by anti-federalists. He was secretary of state under President Thomas Jefferson from 1801–1809.

Embargo Act and the Presidency

By 1807, Madison and Jefferson became alarmed at increasing reports on upheavals in Europe suggesting that Britain would soon go to war with Napoleon's France. The two powers declared war and demanded that other nations needed to commit to a side. Since neither the Congress nor the administration were ready for all-out war, Jefferson called for an immediate embargo on all American shipping. That, said Madison, would protect American vessels from almost certain seizure, and deprive European nations of a needed trade that might force them to allow the U.S. to remain neutral. Passed on December 22, 1807, the Embargo Act would soon prove unpopular, an unpopularity that eventually led to U.S. involvement in the War of 1812.

In the 1808 election, Jefferson supported Madison's nomination to run, and George Clinton was chosen to be his vice president. He ran against Charles Pinckney, who had opposed Jefferson in 1804. Pinckney's campaign centered around Madison's role with the Embargo Act; nevertheless, Madison won 122 of the 175 electoral votes.

Negotiating Neutrality

Early in 1808, Congress replaced the Embargo Act with the Non-Intercourse Act, which allowed the U.S. to trade with all nations except France and Great Britain because of the attacks on American shipping by those two nations. Madison offered to trade with either nation if it would stop harassing American ships. However, neither agreed.

In 1810, Macon's Bill No. 2 was passed, repealing the Non-Intercourse Act and replacing that with a promise that whichever nation would stop harassing American ships would be favored and the U.S. would stop trading with the other nation. France agreed to this and the British continued to stop American ships and impress sailors.

By 1811, Madison easily won the renomination for the Democratic-Republicans, despite being opposed by DeWitt Clinton. The campaign's main issue was the War of 1812, and Clinton attempted to appeal to both those for and against the war. Madison won with 128 out of 146 votes.

War of 1812: Mr. Madison's War

When Madison started his second administration, the British were still forcibly attacking American ships, seizing their cargo, and impressing their sailors. Madison asked Congress to declare war: but support for it was far from unanimous. The war, sometimes called the Second War for Independence (because it resulted in the end of U.S. economic dependence on Britain), pitted a barely prepared U.S. against the well-trained force that was Great Britain.

On June 18, 1812, Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain, after Congress, for the first time in American history, voted to declare war against another nation.

America's first battle was a disaster called the Surrender of Detroit: The British, led by Major General Isaac Brock, and allies from Indigenous communities, led by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, attacked the port city of Detroit on August 15–16, 1812. U.S. Brigadier General William Hull surrendered the town and fort, despite having a larger army. America fared better on the seas, and eventually retook Detroit. The British marched on Washington in 1814, and on August 23 they attacked and burned the White House. Dolley Madison famously stayed in the White House until she ensured that many national treasures were saved.

The New England Federalists met at the Hartford Convention in late 1814 to discuss pulling out of the war, and there was even talk of secession at the convention. But, on December 24, 1814, the U.S. and Great Britain agreed to the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the fighting but resolved none of the pre-war issues.


After his presidential term in office ended, Madison retired to his plantation in Virginia. However, he still stayed involved in political discourse. He represented his county at the Virginia Constitutional Convention (1829). He also spoke against nullification, the idea that states could rule federal laws unconstitutional. His Virginia Resolutions were often cited as a precedent for this but he believed in the strength of the union above all.

He took a leadership role in the formation of the University of Virginia, especially after Thomas Jefferson's death in 1826. Madison was also an enslaver—Montpelier had 118 enslaved people at one point—who helped found the notorious American Colonization Society to help resettle freed Black people in what would become Liberia, Africa.


Although Madison remained vigorous and active during his early retirement, beginning after his 80th birthday in 1829, he began to suffer from longer and longer spells of fever and rheumatism. Eventually he was confined to Montpelier, although he continued working when he could through the winter of 1835–1836. On June 27, 1836, he spent several hours writing a thank you note to George Tucker, who had dedicated his biography of Thomas Jefferson to him. He died the next day.


James Madison was in power at an important time. Even though America did not end the War of 1812 as the ultimate "victor," it did end with a stronger and independent economy. As the author of the Constitution, Madison's decisions made during his time as president were based on his interpretation of the document, and he was well-respected for that. In the end, Madison attempted to follow the Constitution and tried not to overstep the boundaries set before him as he interpreted them.


  • Broadwater, Jeff. "James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation." Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
  • Cheney, Lynne. "James Madison: A Life Reconsidered." New York: Penguin Books, 2014.
  • Feldman, Noah. The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President. New York: Random House, 2017.
  • Gutzman, Kevin R. C. "James Madison and the Making of America." New York, St. Martin's Press, 2012.
  • Ketcham, Ralph. "James Madison: A Biography." University of Virginia, 1990. 
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Kelly, Martin. "President James Madison: Facts and Biography." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). President James Madison: Facts and Biography. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "President James Madison: Facts and Biography." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).