American History: The Life and Legacy of James Madison


By Scott K. Sholl


“The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venal love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.”

— James Madison

Among the Founding Fathers, James Madison has received less attention from historians than some of his contemporaries have received. The principal architect of the Constitution, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and author of the Bill of Rights has often been overshadowed by the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

Indeed, Madison lacks the military honors and the Cincinnatus reputation of Washington, he did not possess the reckless zeal and charisma of the enigmatic Jefferson, nor did Madison have the unflinching political brashness of Adams.

On the surface, Madison was not even suited for politics. He was physically frail, nervous, and shy — and his voice was shrill. During an age in which fiery baroque oratory was revered, Madison wasn’t an imposing public speaker.

Yet for too long history has oversimplified the image of Madison, reducing him to a bookish, diminutive political theorist and tactician, better behind the scenes than out on the political stage, a mere sidekick to some of the most influential Founding Fathers.

During his lifetime, however, Madison was one of the most respected and revered political figures. His political ally and confidant, Thomas Jefferson, considered him “the greatest man in the world.” Even his political rivals issued praise, with John Adams having said, Madison “has acquired more glory, and established more union, than all his three predecessors — put together.”

In 1776, Virginia adopted “God bestowed upon us this leisure” as its state motto, reflecting the belief of the landed gentry and political elite of the Old Dominion that it was their divine right to live a life of pleasure filled with horse racing, fox hunting, dancing, drinking, socializing, etc. Though a scion of Virginia tobacco planters from the state’s famed Piedmont region, Madison chose not to pursue the aforementioned lifestyle. Additionally, while descendants of the Virginia gentry traditionally attended the College of William and Mary, Madison headed north to the College of New Jersey, a.k.a. Princeton University. Following a period of intense study that allowed him to graduate in two years but also detrimentally affected his physical well-being, Madison returned home in a state of depression and poor health.

Though Madison ultimately survived to 85 years of age, outliving all other Founding Fathers, repetitive bouts of illness left him infirm throughout his life. In particular, according to Lynne Cheney in her book James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, he was prone to “sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy,” which historians in the past dismissed as “epileptoid hysteria.” However, based on new research and the opinions of many medical experts, modern historians claim that, to the contrary, Madison wasn’t some manic hypochondriac. In fact, Madison did, indeed, suffer from a mild form of epilepsy.

Despite Madison’s era being dubbed the Age of Enlightenment, medicine lagged in the period. Medical books from that era read as if penned by sorcerers, and fundamentalist Biblical interpretations led many people to believe sufferers of neurological diseases, such as Madison, were possessed by demons.

Some modern historians now argue that Madison’s personal experience as a victim of this kind of religious thought was quite probably the catalyst that propelled him into the political arena on the side of religious tolerance as he sought to defend Baptists in Virginia from Anglican persecution.

As a politician, Madison was a rare amalgam–humble, scholarly, pragmatic, shrewd, and productive. And, unlike many of his political contemporaries, he kept both his passion and ego in check. According to Lynne Cheney, “Thomas Jefferson believed that Madison’s reserve had held him back when he first began his political career.” And yet, in a span of three decades, Madison did the following: guided Virginia through rebellion and independence, designed and implemented the Constitution, led the campaign for its adoption as co-author of the Federalist Papers, authored the Bill of Rights, and formed the Democratic-Republican Party with Jefferson.

The key for Madison was the correlation between education and liberty. He famously wrote, “Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw light over the public mind, which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”

Furthermore, he was known as a voracious reader with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Nowhere was this better displayed than in Madison’s actions during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and during the subsequent campaign for its ratification.  In fact, Madison’s preparation for his leadership role at the Constitutional Convention had begun, unbeknownst to him, a year earlier at his home, Montpelier, in Orange County, Virginia.

He was supplied with “literary cargo” sent from Paris by his friend Thomas Jefferson. It included numerous books about the rise and fall of ancient confederations, a topic of great interest as Madison began his research on different forms of government. That research would eventually lead to the design of the United States Constitution in which the powers of the federal government are limited and enumerated.

After the convention delegates left Philadelphia, the future of a newly drafted Constitution was still in doubt. Madison, along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, understood that the key to ratification would be educating the public. The three men wrote 85 essays, of which Madison composed 29, espousing the virtues of the Constitution. They were published in newspapers in New York.

Despite these efforts, compromise – more specifically a balance of power between large states and small states — was still needed, and Madison returned to Virginia to continue the struggle. And it was in Virginia, in 1789 that Madison, as a member of U.S. House of Representatives, proposed the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Known as the Bill of Rights, they ensure the protection of individual liberty.

Madison was not just a bookish political philosopher from a gentrified background, who as luck would have it, was born during a revolutionary time. To discover the real James Madison is to uncover the origins of our Democratic-Republic, for no other Founding Father did more to ensure the survival and longevity of our individual liberties and self-government.


Source Credits: James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney