Madison was born in King George County, Virginia. His parents Colonel James Madison, Sr (March 27, 1723 - February 27, 1801) and Eleanor Rose "Nellie" Conway (January 9, 1731 - February 11, 1829) were the prosperous owners of the tobacco plantation in Orange County, Virginia where James spent most of his childhood years. In 1769, James left the plantation to attend Princeton University (it was called the College of New Jersey at the time), finishing its four-year course in two years, but exhausting himself from overwork in the process. When he regained his health, he became a protegé of Thomas Jefferson. In this capacity he became a prominent figure in Virginia state politics, helping to draft their declaration of religious freedom and persuading Virginia to give their northwestern territories (consisting of most of modern-day Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) to the continental congress.
In the 1780s, Madison helped convince the political leaders of the time to call for a constitutional convention. Madison's influence at the convention in 1787 has led some historians to call him the "Father of the Constitution". His notes on the convention became the basis for his contributions to the Federalist Papers, which are considered the definitive contemporary commentary on the Constitution of the USA. Madison's arguments were powerfully influenced by the political thought of Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu.
When the constitution was ratified, Madison became a U.S. Representative from his home state of Virginia. It was he who proposed the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, based on earlier work by George Mason. The chief characteristic of Madison's time in Congress was his desire to limit the power of the federal government. It was when he and the other followers of Thomas Jefferson denied the power of the federal government to form its own bank that the first political parties in the United States were formed: the Federalists, who followed Hamilton and believed in a strong central government, and the Democratic-Republicans, who followed Jefferson and believed strongly in limiting centralized power.
At 5 ft 4 in (1.63 m) and 100 pounds (45 kg), Madison was frequently ill and highly religious. In 1794, Madison married his wife Dolley (Dolley Madison), who cut as attractive and vivacious figure as he a sickly and antisocial one. It was Dolley who is largely credited with inventing the role of "First Lady" as political ally to the president.
In 1797 Madison left Congress; in 1801 he became Jefferson's Secretary of State. In 1808, he ran for president in his own right, and won, largely on the strength of his abilities in foreign affairs at a time when United Kingdom (Britain) and France were both on the edge of war with the United States. Both countries were blockading the ports of the other, preventing American commerce with either. In the end, Britain's efforts to destroy American maritime commerce put them over the top. In 1810, a bill was passed that would break off relations with any nation that would not remove the blockade: France did, and Britain didn't.
The ensuing War of 1812 was not a wonderful success; the British won victory after victory, including a temporary occupation of Washington, D.C., when Madison was driven out. The British also armed American Indians in the west, including the Shawnee under their leader Tecumseh. Neither side was terribly enthusiastic about the war, however: the British had nothing to gain, and in the United States, New England threatened secession if the war was not ended. In 1814, the Treaty of Ghent ended the war. The Battle of New Orleans (1815), in which Andrew Jackson distinguished himself, was fought several months after the end of the war, the news not having reached the Louisiana territory in time. The major lasting effect for the political face of the country was the end of the Federalist party, who were considered traitors when they opposed the war.
After leaving office, Madison retired to Montpelier, his farm in Virginia. He was briefly the rector of the University of Virginia, but spent most of his days farming. He died on June 28, 1836.
Madison's portrait was on the U.S. $5000 bill. There were about twenty different varieties of $5000 issued between 1861 and 1946, all but three had James Madison.
See also: List of places named for James Madison
- James Madison: Writings by James Madison (1999, ISBN 1883011663)