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James Madison, fourth president of the United States from 1809 - 1817

James Madison sitting

Chappel, Alonzo, 1828-1887, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Predecessor and Successor

Thomas Jefferson | James Monroe


Democratic-Republican Party

Term Dates

March 4, 1809 - March 4, 1817

James Madison was the fourth president of the United States, succeeding his political ally Thomas Jefferson in 1809, until transitioning power to James Monroe in 1817 after two terms. James Madison is mostly known for his work before his presidency, known as the Father of the Constitution and promoting it and the Bill of Rights. Many forget though that he was also the president during the War of 1812 (which was when the White House was burnt down). He was the shortest president, at just five foot four inches.

Birth & early life

James Monroe was born on March 16, 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia. He was born in a big slave-owning plantation. He was the oldest of twelve siblings; seven brothers and four sisters. Three brothers and three sisters would survive. From 11-16, Daniel Robertson was Madison's tutor. He learned many subjects like math and geography. He also became fluent in some languages, especially Latin. In college, he focused on many speech and debate subjects, and went over things like the Enlightenment. Some of his college friends were William Bradford and Aaron Burr.

Work on the Constitution

Madison took a chair on the Committee of Safety, which supported the colonie's militia and wanted the colonies to rebel. He then became colonel of the Orange County militia. He then was a delegate in the Fifth Virginia Convention, and Madison rallied for religious freedom. Later, the Declaration of Independence was created, and Madison supported it. However, Madison became involved in the Articles of Confederation. Madison's signature wasn't needed for it, and his ideas of freedom didn't pass through. Madison would later serve on the Second Continental Congress from 1780-1783. It was a period full of problems, as the Revolutionary War dragged on. Inflation and uncooperativeness spread in the government, and something needed to happen. Madison, though, focused on the financial troubles, and motioned an amendment to the Articles of Confederation that would allow Congress to pass tariffs. Since all colonies had to support it, though, it failed. Madison left office in 1783, the same year Britain surrendered. Madison then took a chair in the Virginia House of Delegates the next year. He successfully created and passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which guaranteed religious freedom in the state. He then became a land speculator, buying some land along the Mohawk River with James Monroe. Madison wasn't a fan of the system created by the Articles of Confederation. In summary, when something needed to be passsed, delegates from all thirteen states would meet, which was referred to as the Congress of the Confederation. Most or all delegates had to vote yes to bills to pass them, and it caused the process to be very weak and slow. It was more of a direct democracy. Madison, though, didn't like it. Instead, he was a fan of something more like a republic, where a more structured and complex government would represent the people. Madison worked on a document called the Virginia Plan, which was essentially a precursor to the Constitution. It suggested the three branches of government, a Congress with two chambers, but instead of a president or head of state proposed a Council of Revision which could veto Congress. Besides being the structure of New York for a little while, it didn't on its own become adopted by the federal government, but it was the base of what the Constitution would be. After compromising and many votes, though, Madison was able to motion the new Constitution in 1787. The first political divide then occurred in the country. Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and Madison, supported the Constitution. Anti-Federalists (later Democratic-Republicans) opposed it. During the process, Madison, Hamilton and John Jay created a collection of 85 essays supporting the Constitution and criticizing the Articles of Confederation. They later became the Federalist Papers. Finally, on June 25, 1788, in a vote of 89-79, the Constitution was ratified.

Rise in politics

Madison returned to New York after his Constitutional work. He lost his re-election for Senate, but soon ran for the House of Representatives. He was concerned that a second Convention would take place and that the Constitution was in danger, which was why he ran. The district he was running in, though, was very heavily Anti-Federalist, and the Anti-Federalist politicians made sure Orange County was located primarily in this district. Oh yeah, this is called "gerrymandering", and this was one of the first instances. The term was named after vice president Elbridge Gerry, who was ironically Madison's vice president from 1813-1814. Anyways, Madison was in a difficult situation, as his opponent was a strong Anti-Federalist, who was none other than James Monroe. To try and win the vote, Madison said he'd support amendments that would guarantee individual liberties (hey, that sounds a bit familiar.) It worked. He helped George Washington a lot since Madison obviously knew quite a bit about the Constitution. He helped write his first inaugural address, helped create some cabinet positions and helped Thomas Jefferson become the first Secretary of State. In Congress, Alexander Hamilton wanted to pass a bill that would have the federal government basically assume all the debt the states had from the Revolutionary War. It would help Northern states but wouldn't help the southern states, such as Virginia. Madison was one of the biggest people that opposed this plan. It was settled in the Compromise of 1790 which passed what Hamilton wanted but also passed another bill that proclaimed the location of the nation's Capitol to be at Washington D.C., by the Potomac River. Another big thing Madison did was the Bill of Rights. Madison believed individual liberties should exist in the new country, and one thing he especially supported was the second amendment. The Bill of Rights wasn't opposed that much (besides a few changes in the Senate) but it was still a big deal when it was passed and ratified. During the 1790s, the US began to be divided for the first time, and it was shown in George Washington's cabinet. The Federalists, mostly from the North, were led by Alexander Hamilton, wanted to keep close relations with Britain, while the Southerners who were opposed to them were led by Thomas Jefferson and Madison. While Washington still wouldn't engage in the political divide, he still passed a bill passed by Congress that created the First Bank of the United States, which was created by Hamilton that Madison opposed. In the 1792 election, Madison along with the other Democratic-Republicans supported George Clinton for vice president. After Thomas Jefferson left his office of Secretary of State in 1793, Madison basically became the leaer of the Democratic-Republican party. In the 1796 election, though, he was able to help convince Jefferson to run for president. The results of the election caused Adams to awkwardly become president while Jefferson would be his vice president. Because Adams was a Federalist, Madison was no longer in the Cabinet. Despite this, though, he remained a key critic against the Adams administration and the Federalist party. Adams was especially attacked for the Alien & Sedition Acts, which would later be found to be unconstitutional. It helped Jefferson get the presidency in the 1800 election, with fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr as vice president.

Secretary of State

Jefferson appointed Madison to the position of Secretary of State, though Madison didn't have much foreign experience. He still accepted it, though, and got a lot of help from his wife. At the beginning of his term, the big thing was the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Madison & Jefferson both made clear that they remained neutral in the conflicts. Jefferson also reduced the size of the Navy and Army. Montpelier, where Madison had lived, by the way, was owned by Madison's father, but he died in 1801. Because of this, Madison took it over. The biggest thing that happened under Madison's term as Secretary of State though was the Louisiana Purchase. It all started when it was heard that France might colonize the land west of the Mississippi, meaning France would expand their empire right next to America. Negotiations then went underway between France and James Monroe (the minister to France who was appointed by Jefferson & Madison). However, because of France's issues, they decided to abandon their idea of expanding. They needed money and didn't need the land, so they sold it to the United States for $15 million. A lot of people say that Jefferson fully acknowledged and supported it, but this isn't true. In fact, Jefferson wasn't really aware of it, and thought that to buy land Congress needed to pass it, and he recommended a constitutional amendment that would do that. Madison convinced him otherwise, though, and the purchase was successful. The United States doubled in size. After the purchase, the only other notable thing was the relations with France and Britain. Britain, especially, was important. The relationship between Britain and America was deteriorating after several naval affairs, and the U.S. responded with bans on most British imports. In what was likely Jefferson's most unpopular move as president, he passed the Embargo Act of 1807, which banned all foreign exports. Not only was it unpopular, but it was also hard to enforce. It was eventually replaced in March 1809. With all of this, Madison got pretty close with Thomas Jefferson and was an influental leader in the Democratic-Republican party. He had been rumored for a while to run for president, but not everyone was sure. If anyone would beat him, though, it would be other Democratic-Republicans, as the Federalists were no longer doing so well. In January 1808, though, Madison got the nomination for president.. In the 1808 election, Madison easily beat Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Just like that, Madison was now president. It really showed just how notable he truly was. He officially became president on March 4, 1809.



Madison was sworn in as president in the House chamber as Thomas Jefferson watched from a seat nearby. Madison's vice president, George Clinton, was also Jefferson's vice president, making Clinton the first of two vice presidents in history that served under two different presidents.


The Cabinet was the first big thing Madison wanted to take care of as soon as he was inaugurated. He really wanted to appoint Albert Gallatin as Secretary of State, but Congress didn't agree. Madison decided not to fight Congress, but kept Gallatin in his current position. He ended up appointing Robert Smith for the job. Madison didn't like his own Cabinet at all. The Secretary of War was only a Revolutionary War surgeon and his Navy Secretary was an alcoholic (that's just nice). Madison, because of this, barely had any Cabinet meetings and instead just talked with Gallatin. In 1811, Smith had been feuding with Gallatin, so Madison replaced him with James Monroe. After Madison's re-election in election of 1812, he decided to fix his Cabinet, making many replacements and began to regularly meet with the Cabinet. One interesting thing about Madison is that after the he is the only president who has had both his vice presidents die in office. Clinton died in 1812, and at the time it meant the office of vice president remained vacant until the 1812 election. In that election, Madison nominated Elbridge Gerry, who died in 1814. The remainder of Madison's presidency would be with no vice president.

Judicial appointments

  • Associate Justice of the Supreme Court: Gabriel Duvall to replace Samuel Chase
  • Associate Justice of the Supreme Court: Joseph Story to replace William Cushing
  • Economy

    Originally, Madison's economic plan was to continue Jefferson's policies, and attempt to cut taxes and make the debt smaller. Two big things were the First Bank of The United States, which had an expiring charter in 1811 and an economy that was beginning to not do so good, as it had taken a downturn (but not to the rate of a recession). The bank issue was a bit interesting. Gallatin wanted to renew the charter, but the Democratic-Republicans didn't support such a move, as it was more of a Federalist thing. Madison himself was more neutral, though, and the number of banks tripled.

    Foreign policy (pre-war)

    Two eventful things happened before the War of 1812 (sorry, forgot the spoiler alert). The first was the Wilkinson Affair, which was basically just a long feud between Madison and General James Wilkinson. The more eventful thing was the dispute in West Florida. Madison and his administration believed it was included in the Louisiana Purchase, but Spain said it was theirs. Madison was worried, because while Spain was weakened due to war, it was feared that Britain would try and take the territory. Long story short, diplomats were sent, citizens rallied for US Annexation, and the US got its way. It was a bit more complex, but it's not like it's the biggest foreign policy moment in Madison's presidency. (Spoiler alert!)

    War of 1812

    (Note: I might make a dedicated page for the War of 1812, but for now the details will be here.)

    The reason why the War of 1812 began has been debated for quite some time. However, a culmination of trade laws passed by the US, the US expansion, border disputes with Canada and the Napoleonic Wars probably all culminated to cause this war. Tensions with Britain had already started to raise in 1809. Madison sent diplomats, but things became nasty. However, he opposed all calls for war, saying the debt needed to be reduced and that a war would be unnecessary. It also started to get nasty with Madison and one of the diplomats, Francis James Jackson. He accused Madison of duplicity with the previous diplomat, and Madison wasn't happy. He fired Jackson and, in 1810, asked Congress to expand the Army & Navy to prepare for a possible war. After that, Congress then passed a law, known as Macon's Bill Number 2. It reoponed trade with Britain but it said that if one country ended attacks on the United States Navy Fleet (which was happening due to the Napoleonic Wars), the other country would get an embargo on them. France ended up stopping the attacks, but really just did it to further divide the US and Britain. Britain still didn't change their policies, though, and France pulled out shortly after and started attacking the Navy again. All these failed attempts led Madison to believe that he had no other choice. People called for a "second war of independence". It didn't help that because of all this, the people were angered and elected a more, war-favorable Congress. It was known as the "war-hawk" Congress. On June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress to declare war on Britain, which they promptly did. France was going into Canada because they wanted to weaken Britain. Madison wanted to send the Army towards the North for protection, but he had to rely on state militias. However, the states up in the North East were not so cooperative. Also, the British army was a lot more formal and organized. They even allied with some Native American tribes. They seiged Detroit in August Several attacks and attacks on military generals led to Madison having to rely on state loans to finance the war. It wasn't looking so good for the US. Also, it still wasn't going well politically in the North East for Madison as they were not favorable of Madison and the war. Also, the 1812 election conveniently happened at the same time. To help his support in the Northeast, Madison nominated Northerner Elbridge Gerry for vice president to replace the late George Clinton. Though it was the narrowest majority since the 1800 election, Madison still won. In the meantime, the US Navy began winning some battles against the British, which boosted morale. Madison, though, still wanted to end the war, and diplomats such as Albert Gallatin and John Quincy Adams were sent to Russia to negotiate. Britain was still achieving successes on land, attacking Buffalo and stopping all American attacks into Canada. The most notable moment of the war, though, took place on August 24, 1814. Britain, expectedly, landed on Chesapeake Bay. Madison was able to escape the White House and fled to Virginia riding on a horse, and the British burned down many Washington D.C. buildings, including the White House. However, historical documents and the portrait of George Washington were saved. While it looked really bad, the United States then repelled all later British attacks, including attacks on several cities and an invasion of Canada. The British then started to not be so favorable of the war. By 1815, the US was stopping (but not defeating) the British, most notably in the Battle of New Orleans where Andrew Jackson's forces stopped the British. At the same time, Madison received word from John Quincy Adams that a treaty had been made, the Treaty of Ghent. The Battle of Waterloo later in 1815 ended the British and French seizing of the Navy, as the Napoleonic Wars ended.

    Era of Good Feelings

    After the war, though it was a draw, everyone still felt good. Ending in a draw with the most powerful army in the world still feels a bit like a win. Anyway, the Era of Good Feelings began, and it was exactly how it sounds. Though the Panic of 1819 was a bit of a hassle, Americans were proud of themselves and everyone united. Furthermore, the Federalist party disintegrated. Congress because of this had one of the best records, being able to pass a lot of laws together, united. The only notable thing to mention about Madison during this period was the continuation of the Native American affairs. General William Henry Harrison Many treaties were signed, but it didn't work out, and the Battle of Tippecanoe. A treaty was signed though, but Secretary of War William Crawford said interracial marriages should be allowed, causing people to get mad and sent angry letters to Madison, who kept quiet. (Early America moment.) The election of 1816 took place, and Madison kept the two-term tradition and didn't run. Instead, James Monroe ran and easily won. The 1816 election was the last in which the Federalists were in, but even then the candidate they nominated wasn't even a formal candidate. Madison left office on March 4, 1817.


    Madison went back to Montpelier, but he was poorer. The plantation declined in profits mostly because of mismanagement. He stayed in politics a little bit. He didn't like the Northern abolitionist movement. He also had relations with all the candidates in the 1824 election, but all of these opinions he kept secret. He disapproved of the Nullification Crisis and believed no state could secede. His last appearance in a public office was in 1829 when he was a representative in the Virginia Constitutional Convention. Madison was 78 years old. During his later years, Madison became obsessed with making sure his career was seen positively, modifying records and letters daily. Sometimes, he forged Thomas Jefferson's handwriting. He became more concerned about it. He dealt with money problems and was bedridden with anxiety at some points.


    Madison's decline in health would continue into the 1830s. On June 28, 1836, Madison was having breakfast with his niece. He tried eating, but couldn't swallow. His niece then asked, "What is the matter Uncle James?" Madison then said in reply, "Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear." It would be his last words. He died shortly after.



    Madison is ranked as an above-average president, mostly due to his handling of the War of 1812 and the Era of Good Feelings that took place after. However, it wasn't as notable as his work on the Constitution or Bill of Rights.

    Political career

    Madison is known to be one of the most influental American figures. He is most known for the work he did on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. His leadership in the Democratic-Republican party is also a notable thing, and it could be said that because he helped convince Jefferson to run for president, he was the reason why the long string of Democratic-Republican presidents happened in the first place.

    Historic places & resources

    Belle Grove Plantation, Madison's birthplace

    Montpelier, Madison's residence

    Best Madison biographies

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