By Geneva Wright ’14
A small, serious man whose shy demeanor masked one of the greatest political minds of all time, James Madison—statesman, president, Founding Father—was a Princeton graduate.
Born in 1751 to a wealthy Virginian planter, at the age of 18 he enrolled in what was then the College of New Jersey to study law and political philosophy. He helped found the American Whig Society, where he honed his ability to engage in vigorous political and philosophical debate. Graduating in only two years, Madison remained on campus for another year to study Hebrew with then-president of the university John Witherspoon. Unlike the many Wilsons, Witherspoons, and Rockefellers, Madison’s name is rarely heard on campus today; and yet, for any student of American history, he remains perhaps one of Old Nassau’s most important graduates.
The American Revolution soon thrust Madison into politics. At the age of twenty-five he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he met another brilliant young statesman, Thomas Jefferson. The two became lifelong friends, thanks to their shared commitment to religious freedom and the principles of republican government. Four years later Madison was sent to represent Virginia at the Continental Congress. Despite being, at age twenty-nine, the youngest delegate, he gained considerable respect among the other delegates for his well-reasoned opinions. After the war, Madison returned to the House of Delegates, but the disunity and economic turmoil he witnessed under the newly established Articles of Confederation soon convinced him that the role of the federal government should be increased.
Finally, in 1787, delegates from every state met in Philadelphia for a Constitutional Convention, in which Madison quickly assumed a powerful role. He authored the Virginia Plan, a proposal for a bicameral legislature with representatives distributed according to state population (an idea that favored the more populous states, such as Virginia). One house would be composed of popularly elected representatives, with shorter term limits in place to encourage rotation in office, while the other would be elected by the state legislatures, with longer term limits to mimic the British House of Lords.
In a departure from the weak system put in place by the Articles of Confederation, which emphasized state sovereignty, Madison emphasized a strong national government with the power to make and enforce federal laws. The government would be composed of an executive, legislative, and judicial branch, as per the philosophy of Montesquieu, with power distributed amongst them; a system of checks and balances would be put in place to prevent any one branch from gaining control over the others. Although many aspects of his plan were eventually changed, most of the central principles and concerns remained in place, earning Madison the affectionate title “Father of the Constitution.”
Once the document was written, the long struggle toward ratification led Madison to participate in one of the greatest outpourings of political commentary in all of American history. In 1787-88, writing under the pseudonym “Publius,” he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay on a series of essays defending the Constitution to the reading public. These eighty-five essays, of which Madison is believed to have written around twenty-six, are now known as The Federalist Papers.
A realist about human nature, Madison set out to explain the philosophy behind the new system of government, particularly the importance of a strong federal government to protect individual rights and balance the interest-driven state legislatures. Federalist No. 10 argues that a large republic will better guard against the dangers of faction by representing a diverse variety of interests and opinions, thus checking the power of the majority. In No. 51, he explains the importance of separating powers and balancing them against each other in order to keep selfish human interests in check. Madison wrote:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary.If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
By June of 1788 the new Constitution had been successfully ratified, but objections still remained. In particular, the Anti-Federalists still worried that a strong central government would curtail the rights of individuals. Initially wary of attaching specific protections to the Constitution, Madison, now a leading member of the House of Representatives, eventually came to see that setting down some list of enumerated rights was necessary for the comfort and security of the nation. He therefore proposed a series of amendments to the Constitution, which would eventually become the Bill of Rights. Among other things, Madison’s amendments guaranteed to all citizens freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, as well as the right to due process, protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to bear arms. The last of the amendments was ratified in 1791, and with it, the last foundational piece of American government was laid in place.
Though a supporter of a strong national government during the writing of the Constitution, by the 1790s Madison aligned himself against the Federalist policies of Alexander Hamilton—particularly his plan for a national bank, which he saw as governmental overreach. Together Madison and his old friend Thomas Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party, which championed the principles of egalitarianism, states’ rights, and republican values.
Madison is less known for his foreign policy, although it dominated his two terms as President of the United State. In 1808, after serving for four years as Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State, Madison was elected to the presidency amid increasing tensions with Britain and France, whose superior naval forces allowed them to harass American trade. The breakdown of peaceful solutions, including several economically disastrous embargos, and repeated calls for action from the young “war hawk” faction of Congress eventually left Madison no choice but to declare war. The War of 1812, though at first a failure for the vastly unprepared American military (British forces famously captured and burned Washington, D.C. in 1814), ended after a series of victories that caused a surge of national unity and patriotism.
After his second term Madison retired from the public eye, preferring to spend the remainder of his life with his wife, Dolley, at Montpelier, their Orange County plantation. Madison was active in Virginia political and civic life during those final years, becoming a member of the controversial American Colonization Society and taking over from Jefferson as Rector of the newly formed University of Virginia in 1826. He also served as a delegate at Virginia’s own Constitutional Convention. Madison’s final words, a short message entitled “Advice to my Country,” were published after his death in 1836. “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions,” Madison wrote, “is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated.”
The website of the James Madison Society, an academic organization dedicated to public policy, aligns itself with Madison’s belief that “only a well-instructed people can be permanently free” and his “commitment to instill within rising generations an appreciation of the common good and the moral foundations of democratic governance.” The description is apt for a man who played a key role in the development of American political philosophy. Deeply committed to the principles of liberty, education, and republican government, Madison’s insights about human nature in relation to the law shaped a Constitution and a nation that has stood proudly for 225 years. He deserves greater recognition and appreciation within the Princeton community as one of the university’s most distinguished graduates.