Life & Contributions
James Madison (1751–1836) is best known as the Father of the Constitution. His proposal at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 framed the outline of government, with its three branches and system of checks and balances. He was also the author of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution that he guided through the First Congress as the representative from his native Virginia. Madison was the nation’s fourth president, elected following eight years of service as secretary of state for his friend, President Thomas Jefferson. For nearly two decades he played an important role in shaping American foreign policy.
Most notably, Secretary Madison worked with Jefferson to organize the negotiations with France for the purchase of Louisiana in 1803. This new territory doubled the size of the nation, with vast lands across the Mississippi River. Like Jefferson, Madison believed in a bright future for the United States. But his terms as secretary of state and then as president were roiled by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. As France and Britain fought battles on the European Continent and challenged each other for supremacy at sea, the United States was caught in the middle. Both warring nations attacked its shipping, a violation of the rights of neutrals. Following foreign policy principles established under President George Washington, Jefferson and Madison contended that commerce should enjoy the “freedom of the seas,” but U.S. objections went disregarded. One violation of neutral rights, however, Madison could not tolerate — impressment, the British practice of seizing sailors off U.S. ships by claiming they were British citizens. “We consider a neutral flag on the high seas as a safeguard to those sailing under it,” Madison wrote.1James Madison to James Monroe, January 5, 1804, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archive.gov/documents/Madison/02-06-02-0264 (accessed March 14, 2020) (original source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 6, 1 November 1803–31 March 1804, ed. Mary A. Hackett, J.C.A. Stagg, Ellen Barber, Anne Mandeville Colony, and Angela Kreider [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002], 282–308).
Pressed by British violations on the high seas and agitations in the western borderlands, Madison reluctantly led the nation to war in 1812. The treaty settlement, at the end of 1814, restored the status quo, as Napoleon’s empire in Europe had crumbled. But British troops had burned Washington in August of that year. President Madison’s decision to rebuild the city ushered in an era of patriotism and pride in the nation whose independence was now doubly assured.
Portrait of James Madison
High-Relief Profile Bust of James Madison
Portrait of James Madison, 5th Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson
Four Language Ship's Papers [Laissez-Pensez]
Paris Nast Porcelain Plate from President James Madison's Service
French Porcelain Coffee Cup and Saucer from Dolley Madison's Service