James Madison: Significant Facts and Brief Biography

James Madison was the fourth president, and was Thomas Jefferson's choice of a successor. Madison's two terms as president were marked by the War of 1812 and the burning of the White House by British troops in 1814.

Accomplishments: Madison's greatest accomplishment in public life actually came decades before his presidency, when he was deeply involved in writing the United States Constitution during the convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787.

James Madison

Engraved portrait of President James Madison
President James Madison. MPI/Getty Images

Life span: Born: March 16, 1751, Port Conway, Virginia
Died: June 28, 1836, Orange County, Virginia

To put the life span of James Madison in perspective, he was a young man during the American Revolution. And he was still in his 30s when he played a major role at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

He did not become president until he was in his late 50s, and when he died at the age of 85 he was the last of the men who would be considered founders of the United States government.

Presidential term: March 4, 1809 - March 4, 1817

Political Affiliations

Supported by: Madison, along with Thomas Jefferson, was a leader of what became known as the Democratic-Republican Party. The party's principles were grounded on an agricultural economy, with a fairly limited view of government.

Opposed by: Madison was opposed by Federalists, who, going back to the time of Alexander Hamilton, had been based in the North, aligned with business and banking interests.

Presidential Campaigns

Madison defeated the Federalist candidate Charles Pinckney of South Carolina in the election of 1808. The electoral vote was not close, with Madison winning 122 to 47.

In the election of 1812 Madison defeated DeWitt Clinton of New York. Clinton was actually a member of Madison's own party, but ran as a Federalist, essentially with a platform opposing the War of 1812.

Spouse and Family

Engraved portrait of Dolley Madison
Dolley Madison. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison, played a major role in the social scene of Washington, D.C., in its earliest years as the nation’s capital. And her perceived influence on her husband has led to her being considered a political figure in her own right.

And beyond her legendary charm and social skills, she is also revered for bravery and quick thinking on August 24, 1814, when British soldiers were marching on the city of Washington.

Dolley Madison saved government documents before the British burned the White House.

She is also credited for having given the order that saved a priceless portrait of George Washington that hangs in the East Room of the White House today.

A popular legend holds that she worked to ensure that Washington remained the nation’s capital following the destruction of most of its public buildings by the British. Her role in the decision is probably exaggerated, and, like many aspects of her life, it is difficult to separate fact from myth.

With the possible exception of Mary Todd Lincoln, Dolley Madison is the most memorable of First Ladies of the 19th century.

Early Life

Education: Madison was taught by tutors as a youth, and in his late teens he traveled northward to attend Princeton University (known as the College of New Jersey at that time). At Princeton he studied classical languages and also received a grounding in the philosophical thought which was current in Europe.

Early career: Madison was considered too sickly to serve in the Continental Army, but was elected to the Continental Congress in 1780, serving for nearly four years. In the late 1780s he devoted himself to the writing and enactment of the U.S. Constitution.

Following the adoption of the Constitution, Madison was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia. While serving in Congress during the administration of George Washington, Madison became closely allied with Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as secretary of state.

When Jefferson won the election of 1800, Madison was appointed secretary of state. He was involved in the purchase of the Louisiana Purchase, the decision to fight the Barbary Pirates, and the Embargo Act of 1807, which grew out of tensions with Britain.

Later Career

Later career: Following his terms as president Madison retired to his plantation, Montpelier, and generally retired from public life. However, he helped his longtime friend Thomas Jefferson found the University of Virginia, and he also wrote letters and articles expressing his thoughts on some public issues. For instance, he spoke out against arguments for nullification, which went against his concept of a strong federal government.

Interesting Facts

Nickname: Madison is commonly called the "Father of the Constitution." But his detractors tended to mock his short stature (he was 5 feet four inches tall) with nicknames such as "Little Jemmy."