James Madison is the often overlooked founding father. He doesn’t have statues everywhere, or his face on any of our currency (apparently he is on the $5,000 bill, but those don’t even exist anymore) and when you hear of the founding fathers, it seems as if it’s always Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton that get mentioned, while Madison somehow fades into the background.
I find the lack of modern day respect for this particular founding father to be rather staggering, given the immensity of his role in the creation of this nation. Madison, was, for all intents and purposes, the author of the U.S. Constitution. Very literally, he wrote our Constitution. He is commonly referred to as the Father of the Constitution because of this. As far as contributions go, it doesn’t get much better than that.
And perhaps that is why he is the forgotten founding father? Perhaps he is swept under the rug because the government is trying to sweep the Constitution under the rug.
Friends, Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who I will discuss next week, developed and formed the government we have today.
So, while Washington played a major role in keeping the country unified—while also setting the precedent for all future presidents to follow—Madison and Hamilton were the brains behind the government itself. Washington was no philosopher. He simply filled the role he needed to, and the respect that the colonists had for him gave Madison and Hamilton’s new government experiment a chance to bear itself out.
So, without further ado, let me introduce you to James Madison.
James Madison: Biography
Madison was a Virginia native, born on March 16th, 1751. He was the oldest of twelve children and was apparently a small and sickly child. This caused him to stay inside and read, a lot—fortunately for the United States. He attended New Jersey College (now Princeton) when he was 18, and graduated in two years. He was intelligent and astute and learned many languages and studied law while in school. This excerpt from History.com explains why his mind was so prepared to construct the U.S. government while still in his 30s.
“He proceeded to blaze through the four-year course in only two years, often sleeping just four hours a night to make time for reading law and Greek and Roman philosophy. Though a natural scholar, Madison was still unsure of what career path to take after graduating, so he remained at Princeton for another year and studied Hebrew and other subjects under the direction of the school’s president, John Witherspoon. While Madison wasn’t awarded an advanced degree, the University now considers him its original graduate student.”
A few years after graduating, he became a member of the Virginia State Legislature and not much later a member of the Continental Congress at age 29. This was around 1780. He soon realized that the country could not and would not last under the Articles of Confederation and set out to change the government in a way that would allow it to survive and hopefully thrive. Because he was so well read in political philosophy and world history he knew how different types of government worked and was able to construct a government most suited to the United States, and the United States’ purpose for government.
James Madison: The Constitution
During the mid-1780s, he, with the help of the Continental Congress, penned the U.S. Constitution. Remember, he’s just in his early to mid-thirties while writing one of the most renowned historical political documents to ever be written.
He made sure to set up a government founded upon the assumption that those in government would seek after power. This basic and fundamental assumption led Madison to break the government up into three separate branches. He wanted “ambition to counteract ambition”.
The idea of checks and balances is probably one of the most crucial and pivotal contributions Madison gave to the American government. He was deeply skeptical of human nature and therefore terribly cautious when putting humans in power. Consider these quotes:
“The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted.” and
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
“You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
He distrusted people so much, that he was also passionately against establishing a democracy. He says, “Democracy is the most vile form of government.”
After writing the Constitution, Madison, along with Hamilton and John Jay, penned the Federalist Papers in an attempt to defend and promote the new Constitution as it traveled from state to state for approval. The Federalist Papers are one of the best recourses we now have to explain the intent and meaning of the Constitution. Why not go to the author of the Constitution if we want to understand the basic theoretical expectations of the Constitution? In these papers, Madison lays out in clear detail what he meant when writing the Constitution.
He later penned the Bill of Rights and then served as America’s fourth president. He served two terms, after which he stepped down—of his own volition—as Washington did.
James Madison: The Immensity of His Influence
I think there’s not much more I need to say to emphasize to you the critical role this small, quiet man played in the founding of America. The fact that he wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights should be enough.
Readers, he wrote the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights. Have you digested the immensity of that? I could have said so much more about him but don’t miss the immensity of this small man’s contributions to our nation simply because of my brevity.
All of our Constitutional debates, our discussions of rights, our understanding of checks and balances, came primarily from this one brilliant mind.
And guess what? His government experiment worked. Get that. It not only worked, it produced the government of one of, if not, the most powerful, successful and free nations to ever exist in world history. And this one little man, James Madison, was the brains behind the structure and make up of its government.
I’d say to modern Americans that we should give his words and advise far more credence than we do.
James Madison: From His Own Mouth
Madison was America’s smallest president. He was 5 ft 4 inches tall and weighed only 100 pounds. He was quiet and reserved and known to be rather sickly. When he spoke, sometimes people had trouble hearing him, but he was a brilliant mind and made his arguments in a way that, by virtue of their logic, moved people. Perhaps the greatest example of this was during his debate with Patrick Henry over the new Constitution. Henry was a brilliant orator and argued passionately against the new Constitution during the Virginia ratifying convention. However, Madison, in his small quiet way, is said to have made compelling and logical arguments, that, in the end, won the day with Virginia voting to ratify the new Constitution by a margin of 89-79.
So, I’ll leave you with some of his own words, because I can’t say them better.
One of Madison’s greatest contributions and constant passions in the world of politics was the preservation and promotion of religious freedom. Having been tutored closely by John Witherspoon, a famed theologian and president of Princeton, Christianity and religious freedom were very important to him.
He said of the First Amendment:
“Every new and successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” and
“The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”
“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate…It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.”
Of the Second Amendment he says, “Americans have the right and advantage of being armed – unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”
He defined government’s role many times as being incredibly limited. He said, “Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”
He was a champion of an educated and informed citizenry. Many of his quotes express this. In one example he says, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”
He again realizes the threat to liberty that mankind’s nature provides when he says, in a quote that is far deeper than it initially appears: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.”
My goal in this article is not to talk about whether or not Madison was a “great man”, but rather to present to you the great work he did in building the country we now enjoy. Had it not been for Madison, this country would very literally not exist. I could write a whole book detailing all of the brilliant words of wisdom that Madison provided over the course of his life. And if we chose to adhere to those words of wisdom, that book would be all Americans would need to be equipped and prepared to protect and preserve liberty.
So, I’ll leave you with this final nugget of wisdom. In all of his studies, Madison astutely realized something all Americans should now be realizing.
“Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
The Liberty Belle