James Madison: America’s First Politician by Jay Cost

James Madison Jr. was nicknamed Jemmy as a child. At five foot, four inches, he was the shortest American president and he never weighed more than 100 pounds. He had a sickly constitution and suffered “sudden attacks somewhat resembling epilepsy” throughout his life. Although he was raised Anglican, he was never a particularly devout Christian.

Jemmy was born to a wealthy slave-owning family. The oldest of twelve children, he attended the College of New Jersey (known as Princeton today). He was soft spoken and had trouble speaking in front of large groups. He was not a fan of drunkenness. At parties, he would water down his drinks or only pretend to take a sip to avoid getting too drunk.

He was an excellent student, but didn’t know what to do with himself after college. When the Boston Tea Party happened, he found a purpose and got involved in politics. He was on the committee to amend the religious section in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. He was against the establishment of a state religion, believing religious institutions were full of ignorance and corruption.

He served as an adviser to the governor of Virginia between 1777 to 1779 under two different governors, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson (who became his best friend). After that, he became a member of the Continental Congress.

He focused on work and didn’t have much of a social life. He got engaged to a 15-year-old named Kitty when he was in his early thirties, but it didn’t work out and she married someone else. He didn’t pursue another woman until Dolley Payne Todd who he would wed in his early forties.

Congress unwisely gave power over currency and the military to the states. The states didn’t want to tax their citizens, so there wasn’t enough money for the Revolutionary War. Soldiers from some states had more provisions than soldiers from others, which led to jealousy amongst the troops. The states acted in their own self-interest, not working together for the common good. A strong federal government was the solution Madison and others pushed for.

In 1782, Jefferson asked Madison to purchase property near him and their mutual friend James Monroe so they could all live near each other, but Madison didn’t have the money. He was in his early thirties, but being a politician didn’t pay very well and his father was still alive, so he hadn’t inherited the family estate yet. He had to pinch his pennies.

After serving in the Continental Congress, he served in the Virginia state legislature where he succeeded in passing several bills including the Statute for Religious Freedom, despite Patrick Henry’s objections.

He worked with George Washington to expand Virginia’s commercial interests. They were also concerned about international trade. If one state raised tariffs on British goods, another state could lower tariffs, which worked out in Britain’s favor and pitted the states against each other. A strong federal government was needed to unite the states and keep them from competing with each other.

The economic downturn after the Revolutionary War impoverished many poor farmers who started taking over courthouses in Massachusetts in protest of the government not helping them. This sedition was called Shays Rebellion. Washington was worried this could be the end of America. This event finally got the states to consider revising the Articles of Confederation which kept the federal government too weak to do anything. The Constitutional Convention was held.

The Constitution gave the federal government more power, made branches of government independent of each other, set up two chambers of the legislative branch, set up ways to elect representatives, and also gave some power to the states so power was balanced between groups.

Madison was originally disappointed in the Constitution right after it was written. His original plan was diluted. For example, the slave states got extra power in the House and small states got extra power in the Senate. The states ended up getting more power than he wanted them to.

There was pushback from some states who didn’t want to ratify the Constitution. Madison and Hamilton decided to join forces and write the Federalist Papers to convince people the Constitution was a good thing. Once it had been ratified, Madison ran for the House of Representatives against his friend Monroe and won.

He took charge of the House due to being a workaholic and being more knowledgeable than anyone else there. He convinced Congress to pass a national tax to fund the government despite major pushback. He took the lead on writing the Bill of Rights and early amendments to the Constitution.

He also served as President Washington’s advisor early on when Washington didn’t have much of a cabinet. Madison wrote both Washington’s inaugural address and the official response from the House of Representatives, so he was basically talking to himself.

The House voted to make Philadelphia the capital (New York was currently the temporary capital). Madison opposed this and tried to work behind the scenes to change it to his home state of Virginia.

Madison had been a Federalist (in favor of a strong federal government) until the end of the first session of the first congress. He went on to dissociate himself from his Federalists allies (like Hamilton) instead joining with Jefferson and many Anti-Federalists to stop the growth of federal authority.

Hamilton was surprised to find his old friend working behind the scenes to stop the federal government from assuming states debts and creating a Bank of the United States. Biographers have been puzzled by this too, but Madison didn’t really flip-flop. He believed government should be neutral between all parties regardless of economic status, while Hamilton felt government should be involved in economic development. Also, Madison thought Congress should have the most power while Hamilton thought the President should. This rift between the two would lead to the creation of the first political parties.

Hamilton wanted the US to pay off its debt so it would be seen as trustworthy and US currency would be worth something. Many veterans had been paid in government bonds which they sold to speculators at 10 to 15 cents on the dollar. The speculators, not the veterans, would get rich if the US bought these back. Madison proposed the profit should be split between the speculators and the veterans in order to be fair, but this would have been disastrous for the economy. No one would have faith in the US paying back its debts if the speculators only got half the money due to them. The value of existing bonds would have plummeted.

Hamilton proposed the federal government take on states debts. Certain states had a lot of debt from fighting the Revolution, but it was only fair the burden be shared equally by all. Also, this would shift the loyalty of the creditors to have a financial stake in the national government. Madison saw this as unfair since some states had already started paying back their debts. He only agreed to it later in exchange for the capital being moved to the Virginia border.

Madison and Jefferson started the Democratic-Republican party to counteract the Federalists. Madison and Hamilton became enemies and Washington was no longer close with Madison.

Madison married the young widow Dolley Payne Todd when he was in his forties and she in her twenties. She was considered very beautiful, and at 5 foot 7 she was a bit taller than him. It was said men on the street would stare at her dumbstruck. Aaron Burr served as matchmaker between the two. She was kicked out of the Quakers for marrying again less than a year after her first husband died, but she didn’t really want to be a Quaker anyway.

When John Adams became president, Madison retired from Congress to work on his house Montpelier and oversee his slaves.

Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to win reelection. It gave him the power to put Democratic-Republicans in jail for printing anything critical of him, but this backfired. The number of Republican newspapers skyrocketed despite him. Madison came out of retirement and got elected to the state legislature in 1799 where he’d write the Virginia Resolutions against the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Jefferson appointed Madison secretary of state when he became president. Unlike his predecessors, Jefferson didn’t host parties as president, so it fell to Madison and Dolley to throw tea parties and dinners for foreign diplomats, members of Congress, and the local gentry. Full of cards, alcohol, snuff, witty conversation, and dancing, their parties were a hit. Washington DC at the time was still largely under construction, so the Madison house was the social heart of the capital. Dolley was a great politician in her own right, using these social gatherings to further her husband’s career.

Madison was elected president in 1808 and sworn in in 1809. He ran against his former friend Monroe who was now his enemy. When he took office, tensions were high with both Britain and France. Britain was seizing US merchant vessels to keep them from supplying Napoleon and Napoleon was also seizing US vessels to aid in his fight. Jefferson started a trade embargo to hurt Britain, but it ended up only hurting America’s economy.

Monroe became his Secretary of State in 1811 after the two had reconciled. The new Congress was more pro-war, partly because they believed Britain was turning Native Americans against them. Although, the Native Americans had their own reasons to be against the US. The Shawnee warrior Tecumseh was trying to forge a native alliance against the US and was defeated by William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe, although the US suffered heavy casualties as well.

Madison recommended Congress declare war against Britain in 1812 after years of trying for a diplomatic solution. Despite being in favor of war, Congress was reluctant to raise taxes to expand the army and navy. The Whig party in Britain, which opposed war, gained power and was willing to give the US what it wanted, but it was too late. War had already arrived. Madison became the first war-time president.

The US wasn’t ready for the war it declared. The army and navy were underfunded. The US was going to rely on state militias, but they were poorly trained and the New England states who didn’t want war, didn’t commit troops. The Secretary of War was a political appointee lacking experience and different branches of the military had to compete for supplies. Officers were selected based on their political party, excluding Federalists even when they were the best qualified.

The US attacked Canada, thinking they’d be able to easily conquer territory in a three pronged attack. The group crossing the Detroit River was tricked into surrendering by the British and their native allies including Tecumseh who made it look like they had more troops than they did.

The group crossing the Niagara River argued amongst themselves who should be in charge (militias versus regular army). They didn’t have enough boats to bring their whole force across the Niagara River. A thousand ended up surrendering.

The group that was to attack Montreal was unable to raise enough troops for several months. When they finally had the numbers, two thirds of the troops refused to cross the Canadian border and the assault was called off.

So conquering Canada wasn’t going very well. However, the US navy did have some victories that boosted morale. Madison won reelection, but just barely.

Madison was prone to attacks of bilious fever throughout his life. During the war, in 1813, there was fear it would finally kill him, but it didn’t.

Federalists were opposed to the war and Republicans were luke warm on it. In the spring of 1813, the US attacked York and burned the public buildings down. York didn’t have strategic value, but the pro-war faction needed a win for political reasons. The US had some victories in 1813, managing to retake land they’d lost earlier, but they also had some devastating defeats. Worse, Napoleon had finally lost in Europe, being sent into exile in early 1814. This meant Britain could now focus its full attention on the US.

In revenge for York, the British marched on Washington DC. Hours before the Battle of Bladensburg, Madison retreated just in time to avoid being captured. Even though the American militia outnumbered the British, they were poorly trained and poorly disciplined leading to an easy British victory.

The British burned down the House, Senate, Treasury, State Departments, Library of Congress, and other public buildings. They also burned down the White House, although Dolley Madison managed to save Gilbert Stuart’s famous painting of George Washington.

The British then moved on to Baltimore, where the Americans defeated them. Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-spangled Banner about the victory. After a few more battles, the Americans and British signed a peace treaty in 1814. The Americans hadn’t managed to conquer Canada, but they did get some concessions from the British.

After the war, Madison ended his presidency on a high note by funding the army, making transportation improvements, and chartering a national bank (even though he’d been opposed to this earlier, he now recognized its necessity.)

After retiring, he helped Jefferson found the University of Virginia (he became rector of it in 1826). In 1829, he was part of a convention to redraft the state constitution. He frequently hosted guests at his Montpelier estate.

He generally stayed out of the public side of politics, but when South Carolina invoked his name in the late 1820s claiming states could void federal laws to do away with the protective tariff, he entered the public debate one last time.

Madison wrote letters against this, using his clout as Father of the Constitution to point out how bad their arguments were. South Carolina was on the verge of disunion, but a newly renegotiated tariff convinced them to stay with the union.

Due to an agricultural depression, he had to sell a lot of his land. Also, his stepson Payne was a gambler who constantly needed to be bailed out, further impoverishing him.

Ill health caused Madison to be bedridden the last three years of his life. He lived to be 85, outliving both Jefferson and Monroe. He died in 1836. He never had any biological children of his own.

Although he didn’t write it all by himself, James Madison is called the Father of the Constitution because he contributed more than others. Like other founding fathers, he was a man of contradictions. He said powers not mentioned in the Constitution (like chartering a bank) were forbidden, but he looked the other way when the government purchased Louisiana and he even chartered a bank himself when he was president. He was against political parties, but he helped create one. Although he knew slavery was wrong, he did nothing to stop it because his livelihood depended on it.

I think the best way to judge a president is by how many lives and deaths they contributed to. Although he did many note-worthy things, I don’t think Madison saved any lives. As for deaths, 35,000 died in the War of 1812. To his credit, Madison didn’t declare war until after trying for years for a diplomatic solution. However, if he’d waited just a few more weeks for news of British concessions to reach him, the War of 1812 could have been avoided entirely. Even if you think the war was justified, declaring war without funding a proper army or navy was foolhardy.

After the War of 1812, many Native Americans were pushed out of their territories. Natives lost 26 million acres of land during Madison’s presidency either through war or treaty. This likely led to a lot of deaths. About 100 people died in the Battle of Tippecanoe, and 10,000 Native Americans died during the War of 1812 (which included the Battle of the Thames, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, the Peoria War, and the Creek War.)

There’s also the fact Madison did nothing to stop slavery. Jefferson at least ended the international slave trade and avocated for new states to be free states. The British freed thousands of slaves during the War of 1812, but this was done in spite of Madison. Unlike Washington and Jefferson, Madison never freed any of his own slaves, not even in his will.

Madison was responsible for causing more deaths while president than Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. If we’re judging presidents based on body count, this makes him the worst president of the four.

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