James Madison: Father of the Constitution (1809 – 1817)
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James Madison: Father of the Constitution (1809 – 1817)


Hey it’s Professor Dave; let’s talk about
James Madison. Though James Madison stood a mere five foot
four, and only 100 pounds, he was an American Colossus, a Founding Father of both the Constitution
and Bill of Rights. Along with Thomas Jefferson he co-founded
the Democratic-Republican Party, he served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State, supervised
the Louisiana Purchase, and was the President of the United States during the War of 1812,
which saw the emergence of the United States as a world power. Madison would frequently change his political
views during his life. He favored a strong national government at
the Constitutional Convention yet rejected calls for a Bill of Rights before becoming
its strongest advocate. After witnessing Federalist excesses under
John Adams, Madison joined Jefferson in penning resolutions that argued that the states could
reject compliance with unconstitutional Federal laws. But after assuming the Presidency, he began
appreciating the effectiveness of a strong Federal government during the War of 1812. In the end, he arrived at a position between
the two extremes. Born into the Virginia plantation slave owner
class that produced four of the first five presidents, Madison served in the Virginia
state legislature and became a protégé of fellow delegate Thomas Jefferson. He attained prominence in Virginia politics
while aiding Jefferson with the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786, which revoked
the power of the State in religious matters, and would influence the drafting of the Constitution. It quickly became apparent that the Articles
of Confederation, which had served as America’s first constitution beginning in 1777, were
not sufficient to govern the expanding nation. The Congress had no authority to tax or raise
revenue, and the individual colonies couldn’t pay off their war debts. Many people, including George Washington,
feared bankruptcy and disunion. Partly at Madison’s initiative, a national
convention was called. He was crucial in persuading Washington to
attend, knowing how instrumental his fellow Virginian would be in uniting the various
factions. Although its original intent was only to revise
the Articles, many attendees, like Madison and Alexander Hamilton, wanted to create a
new government. The convention met in the Pennsylvania State
House in Philadelphia, and Washington was unanimously elected as its president. The 55 delegates who drafted the Constitution
would later become known as the Founding Fathers, who among them possessed a remarkable depth
of knowledge. Thomas Jefferson, who was Minister to France
during the Convention, wrote to John Adams calling it, “An assembly of demigods.” 36-year-old Madison, the youngest man at the
Convention, spoke over 200 times and was a forceful advocate for the Federalist cause. Two plans for structuring the federal government
arose at the outset: The first was Madison’s Virginia Plan, proposing that the new legislative
branch of government be composed of a bicameral Congress based on population-weighted representation. The second proposal, the New Jersey Plan,
proposed a unicameral legislative body with one vote per state, which favored the smaller,
less populous states. Madison’s plan was the more influential. One of Madison’s lasting legacies was the
Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights modeled on various state
declarations was suggested during the convention, but the motion was defeated, with many delegates
tired and wanting to adjourn. Jefferson urged the inclusion of guarantees
of individual liberties, writing to Madison, “If we cannot secure all our rights, let
us secure what we can.” Delegate Elbridge Gerry refused to sign the
Constitution because it lacked such a guarantee of Rights, along with other prominent figures
like Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee. Initially, both Madison and Hamilton dismissed
the need for a bill of rights in their Federalist Papers, and both men wrote many essays that
advocated Constitutional ratification. Madison argued that the states were sufficient
guarantors of personal liberty while Hamilton felt such amendments were unnecessary because,
as he wrote, “The Constitution is itself, in every rational sense and to every useful
purpose, a Bill of Rights.” In December 1787 and January 1788, Delaware,
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut ratified the Constitution, but the Massachusetts
Convention was contentious. A fistfight between Francis Dana and Elbridge
Gerry broke out, and the conflict between those who wished to ratify and those who didn’t
was only resolved when leading Anti-Federalists Samuel Adams and John Hancock agreed to ratify
on the condition that certain proposed amendments be included, one requiring a grand jury indictment
in capital cases, which would form part of the Fifth Amendment, and another reserving
powers to the states not expressly given to the Federal government, which would form the
basis for the Tenth. Federalists in Virginia and New York were
able to obtain ratification by linking its passage to other amendments, and ultimately,
only North Carolina and Rhode Island abstained, waiting for assurances from Congress before
ratifying. On September 13th, Congress certified that
the new Constitution had been ratified by enough states for a new government to be implemented,
and directed it to meet in New York City the following year. On March 4th, 1789, the new government came
into being with eleven of the thirteen states participating. On June 8th, Congressman James Madison introduced
a bill proposing up to 20 potential amendments, suggesting they be incorporated into the body
of the Constitution. The House rejected that idea but it adopted
17 of the amendments and sent the bill to the Senate, which made further modifications. A joint House–Senate Committee resolved
the differences between the two proposals and it was this version that was approved
by Congress on September 25th, 1789. Madison was active throughout the legislative
process, and as one historian wrote, “There is no question that it was Madison’s personal
prestige and his dogged persistence that saw the amendments through the Congress. There might have been a Federal Constitution
without Madison but certainly no Bill of Rights.” Yet even at the outset, ideological divisions
between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson
divided the new government. Hamilton had contributed to the organization
of the American economy, which was a masterpiece of economic engineering, but Jefferson clung
to his idealized view of the United States as an agrarian nation. Madison supported Jefferson’s view. He was also opposed to Hamilton’s creation
of a national bank and became increasingly frustrated with Washington’s constant support
of Hamilton over Jefferson. Madison had begun organizing fellow House
members in Congress who were hostile to Washington’s Federalist policies. On March 13th, 1791, he wrote to Jefferson
proposing that they make a tour of northern New York so Jefferson could indulge in botanical
research and some much needed relaxation. Jefferson promptly agreed, feeling that such
a trip would be beneficial to his health, having been plagued by migraines due to the
constant conflict with Hamilton. But both men had an agenda – organizing
resistance to Federalists policies. Frustrated that the Federalists had their
own paper, the Gazette of the United States, Jefferson and Madison intended to try and
launch an anti-Federalist paper during their New York City stopover, as well as reach out
to state and local leaders in New York. At that point, Madison was better known than
Jefferson, who’d been in Europe during the long debate over the new Constitution, whereas
Madison’s writings in support of the Constitution had been influential in largely anti-Federalist
upstate New York. Madison was also widely appreciated as author
of the recently adopted Bill of Rights. Their trip, however, drew much speculation
that it was for more than just for relaxation. A British envoy wrote London that “The Secretary
of State, together with Mr. Madison, are now gone to proselyte as far as they are able
a commercial war with Britain,” with Jefferson’s favoritism for France being well-known. Alexander Hamilton’s son John claimed the
duo were meeting secretly with the newly elected Senator Aaron Burr, before going on to meet
with Governor George Clinton, another leading anti-Federalist; dismissing their professed
excuse of a botanical excursion to Albany, insisting it was in reality, to study “Clintoniana
borealis.” Refreshed by their journey, the two men returned
to Philadelphia, determined to create a political party opposed to what they saw as Federalist
overreaching. This party would embrace the rights of the
common man against the very elites Jefferson and Madison had come from. But in writing the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions,
meant to curb federal overreach, both men would justify arguments that would lead to
secession and Civil War. When Jefferson was elected president in the
so-called “Revolution of 1800,” he chose Madison to be his Secretary of State, and
Madison would supervise the negotiations with France for the Louisiana Purchase, which was
the acquisition of land stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. With the Napoleonic Wars raging in Europe,
Madison tried to maintain American neutrality, and insisted on the legal rights of the U.S.
as a neutral party under international law, but neither London nor Paris showed much respect
for the American position. The situation between the U.S. and the two
European nations deteriorated during Jefferson’s second term as Napoleon tried to starve Britain
into submission with an embargo ruinous to all three countries. Madison and Jefferson decided to punish Britain
and France, launching their own disastrous embargo, forbidding American trade with any
foreign nation. This caused massive hardships along the Atlantic
seaboard, which was dependent on foreign trade, and was allowed to expire as Jefferson was
leaving office. Madison was easily elected President in 1808
as the Federalist Party had shrunk to a small base in the Northeast. Determined to continue Jefferson’s dismantling
of the Federalist system, Madison allowed the charter of the Bank of the United States
to expire, which he would later come to bitterly regret. In 1807, Britain issued the Orders of Council
forbidding French trade with the UK, its allies, or any neutral country. The United States saw this embargo as a violation
of international law and an attack on its sovereignty. Relations deteriorated as Britain armed Indian
tribes in the Northwest Territory, encouraging them to attack American settlers, even though
the region hadn’t been British territory for over twenty years. Americans called for a “second war of independence”
to restore honor to the new nation as an angry public elected a hawkish Congress, led by
Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Madison asked Congress for a declaration of
war, which was issued on June 18th, 1812, unaware that the British had repealed the
Orders of Council as a concession to the Americans just two days earlier. At first, the war was a disaster for the United
States. Madison faced a divided cabinet, obstruction
from state governors, incompetent generals, and militias that would not fight outside
their own states. There were threats of disunion from New England,
which refused to provide financial or military support, fearing damage to their seaport-based
livelihood. The reduction of the senior command at the
War Department had led to cowardice and incompetence amongst its ranks, and the war was almost
impossible to fund, since the national bank was abolished in 1811, and major financiers
in the Northeast refused to help. But, after a victory at the naval Battle of
Lake Erie in 1813, the British retreated and General William Henry Harrison destroyed the
British and Indian armies at the Battle of the Thames, permanently destroying Indian
power in the Great Lakes region. Madison remains the only president to lead
troops in battle during wartime while in office, in this War of 1812, though it did not go
well for the Americans. His defeat allowed the British to raid the
capital, and his wife Dolley rescued White House valuables and documents shortly before
the British burned the White House, the Capitol, the Library of Congress and other public buildings. But the tide began to turn as Harrison and
General Andrew Jackson destroyed the British-incited Indian threats in the West and South, and
in a famous three-hour sea battle the USS Constitution earned her nickname, “Old Ironsides.” The American naval squadron on Lake Erie successfully
defended itself and captured six British vessels, crippling British military forces in the western
theatre of the war. Commander Oliver Hazard Perry reported his
victory with the simple statement, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” Meanwhile, the successful defense of Fort
McHenry against one of the most intense naval bombardments in history led Francis Scott
Key to write the poem that became “The Star Spangled Banner” after seeing the flag still
flying at daybreak after the attack. Jackson put together a force including regular
Army troops, militia, frontiersmen, Creoles, Native American allies and Jean Lafitte’s
pirates and repulsed the British invasion army in the Battle of New Orleans, the most
decisive victory of the war. The US ratification of the Treaty of Ghent
ended the war in February 1815 with no territorial gains on either side, but Americans felt that
their national honor had been restored in what has been called “the Second War of
American Independence.” To most Americans, the quick succession of
events appeared as though American heroism at New Orleans had forced the British to surrender
after almost winning. Though inaccurate, this belief contributed
to the post-war euphoria that lasted a decade. Madison’s final years ushered in an unprecedented
period of peace and prosperity known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” Madison’s reputation grew and Americans
believed the United States had established itself as a world power. Madison’s presidency, like his life, was
a testament to his many great contributions to the United States.

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