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James Madison

Dolley Madison proved to be quite a popular first lady when her husband, James, was president. Image © 2002 www.clipart.com.

James Madison
After considering a career in law or the ministry, James Madison became a two-time president and one of America's most respected leaders. Image © 2002 www.clipart.com.

Had James Madison continued his studies, the "Father of the Constitution" might have answered a much different calling.

Madison was the oldest of 10 children. He was born into a Virginia planter family that he himself described as "respectable, though not the most opulent class." He lived all his life at Montpelier, his family's 5,000-acre tobacco-and grain-producing plantation in Orange County.

He received his early education from his mother, from tutors, and at a private preparatory school. An excellent student though frail and sickly in his youth, he graduated from the College of New Jersey (later called Princeton). There he got a thorough classical education in Latin and Greek studies. His special interest was government and the law.

After graduating in 1771, he stayed on for a year of postgraduate study in theology. Madison was profoundly influenced by the works of John Locke, Isaac Newton, Jonathon Swift, David Hume, Voltaire, and others who shaped the Enlightenment world view, which he embraced as his own. Yes, Madison had every intention of entering the ministry or law as vocations. Fortunately for American history, he never got the chance.

Still undecided on a profession, Madison embraced the patriot cause. State and local politics began to take up much of his time. Serving in the Continental Congress, Madison made his mark. His efforts at formulating and guiding the Constitution through the Continental Congress earned him the title of "Father of the Constitution." He was its leading defender and interpreter for 50 years.

His public service spanned many years and three offices, with eight years in each. He began as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Next he was secretary of state during both of Thomas Jefferson's terms. He then was elected to two terms himself as president, serving from 1809-1816.

Madison's name is famously associated with the Supreme Court's first precedent-setting court decision, Marbury vs. Madison, though his role was relatively minor. As secretary of state, Madison was empowered to carry out duties that the present Department of Justice now performs. In the waning days of President Adams' term, a number of new judgeships were created. One of the first acts of the Jefferson administration was to repeal Adams' Judiciary Act of 1800. A number of the judgeship commissions had yet to be delivered at the time. One of the appointees, William Marbury, sued Madison to force Madison to deliver his commission. The court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, eventually ruled the Judiciary Act unconstitutional. In essence, the court had established the right of judicial review of acts of Congress. This was the first important test of the system of checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The court would not assert the right of judicial review again until after Madison's death.

Meriwether Lewis honored Madison in a slightly different way. When the Corps of Discovery came upon the three forks of the Missouri River, Lewis named one of the rivers the Madison.

Madison was 57 years old when endorsed by his long-time friend, Jefferson, to succeed him as president. At his inauguration, Madison was described by Washington Irving as "but a withered little apple-John" because of his small stature and his old and worn appearance. But whatever his deficiencies in stature and charm, his buxom wife, Dolley, compensated for them with her warmth and gaiety.

Madison had married Dolley Payne Todd in 1794. She was a vivacious widow 16 years his junior. She had a son from her first marriage, but the Madisons had no children of their own. While Madison served as secretary of state, his wife often served as President Jefferson's hostess. She was the toast of Washington.

After the War of 1812, a fervent nationalism marked Madison's last years in office. Twice tested, independence had survived. At the conclusion of his second term, Madison retired to Montpelier but continued to be active in public affairs. He died at the age of 85 in 1836, survived by his wife and stepson.

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