James Madison was born at Port Conway, Virginia, and spent his youth on his father’s estate, Montpelier. In 1722, he graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Real or imagined health problems – which would span his life – plagued young Madison, but they also gave him time to become a student of government and political philosophy.
In 1774, Madison served on the local committee of public safety, allying with other patriots in opposing British policies. Two years later, he attended the Virginia Convention, aided in drafting the state’s new constitution and formed a permanent bond with Thomas Jefferson.
From 1780 to 1784, Madison served in the Continental Congress and became an influential delegate despite his youth. Later he was a member of the state assembly and worked with Jefferson to establish full religious liberty in Virginia.
Madison’s experience in Congress convinced him of the need for a stronger central government, leading him to participation in the Mount Vernon Conference (1785), the Annapolis Convention (1786), and finally the Constitutional Convention (1787). His knowledge and dedication enabled him to make a tremendous contribution to the drafting of the new constitution (text), earning him the title "Father of the Constitution."
Madison also was active in the ratification effort, collaborating with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in writing The Federalist Papers, a penetrating analysis of the Constitution (narrative). In Virginia, Madison was effective in countering the anti-Federalism of Patrick Henry.
In a short essay that appeared in January 1792, Madison wrote:
In every political society, parties are unavoidable. A difference of interests, real or supposed, is the most natural and fruitful source of them. The great object should be to combat the evil: (1) by establishing political equality among us all; (2) by withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few to increase the inequality of property by the immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches; (3) by the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth toward a state of mediocrity and raise extreme indigence toward a state of comfort."From 1789 to 1797, Madison was a prominent member of Congress. He authored the Virginia Resolutions (1798), which opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts. In 1801, Madison became secretary of state under Jefferson and was rewarded with his predecessor’s support for the presidency in the Election of 1808. Madison’s two-term, eight-year administration was dominated by the War of 1812. He was not a distinguished wartime leader.
Although he had long held the republican views that favored states over the federal government, Madison was willing to sign a number of measures that strengthened central power, such as the Second Bank of the United States, as well as the Tariff of 1816, which promoted manufacturing. On his final day in office, however, Madison reverted to form and vetoed the "bonus bill," which had been pushed through Congress by John C. Calhoun in order to promote internal improvements. In this case, Madison held that the bill had "insuperable difficulties" that he could not reconcile with the Constitution of the United States. In 1817, at the end of his second term of office, Madison retired to Montpelier and lived quietly for the remainder of his life, emerging to help draft a new constitution for Virginia and assist Jefferson with the establishment of the University of Virginia. He was also the first president of the Albemarle (Virginia) Agricultural Society, which devoted itself to applying innovative and scientific methods to agriculture. He died of heart failure at Montpelier on June 28, 1836.