President James Madison

President James Madison, (1751-1836)

It’s said that if one can connect one president to your family then the others will be connected also. The ancestral background of presidents of the United States has been relatively consistent throughout American history. With the exception of John F. Kennedy, Martin Van Buren, and perhaps Dwight D. Eisenhower, every president has ancestors from Great Britain.

I’m not going to go into much detail about who James Madison was since just about everyone should know who our fourth United States President was. His background is extremely lengthy. I will touch on a few things though taken from Wikipedia.

Portrait by John Vanderlyn, 1816

James Madison was an American statesman, diplomat, expansionist, philosopher, and Founding Father who served as the fourth president of the United States from 1809 to 1817. He is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” for his pivotal role in drafting and promoting the Constitution of the United States and the United States Bill of Rights. He co-wrote The Federalist Papers, co-founded the Democratic-Republican Party, and served as the fifth United States Secretary of State from 1801 to 1809.

Born into a prominent Virginia planter family, Madison served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Continental Congress during and after the American Revolutionary War. He became dissatisfied with the weak national government established by the Articles of Confederation and helped organize the Constitutional Convention, which produced a new constitution to supplant the Articles of Confederation. Madison’s Virginia Plan served as the basis for the Constitutional Convention’s deliberations, and he was one of the most influential individuals at the convention. Madison became one of the leaders in the movement to ratify the Constitution, and he joined with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in writing The Federalist Papers, a series of pro-ratification essays that was one of the most influential works of political science in American history.

After the ratification of the Constitution, Madison emerged as an important leader in the United States House of Representatives and served as a close adviser to President George Washington. He was the main force behind the ratification of the United States Bill of Rights, which enshrines guarantees of personal freedoms and rights within the Constitution. During the early 1790s, Madison opposed the economic program and the accompanying centralization of power favored by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Along with Thomas Jefferson, Madison organized the Democratic-Republican Party, which was, alongside Hamilton’s Federalist Party, one of the nation’s first major political parties. After Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, Madison served as Secretary of State from 1801 to 1809. In that position, he supervised the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States.

Gouverneur Morris signs the Constitution before George Washington. Madison sits next to Robert Morris, in front of Benjamin Franklin. Painting by Hintermeister, 1925.

Madison succeeded Jefferson with a victory in the 1808 presidential election. After diplomatic protests and a trade embargo failed to end British seizures of American shipping, he led the United States into the War of 1812. The war was an administrative morass and ended inconclusively, but many Americans saw it as a successful “second war of independence” against Britain. The war convinced Madison of the necessity of a stronger federal government. He presided over the creation of the Second Bank of the United States and the enactment of the protective Tariff of 1816. By treaty or war, Madison’s presidency added 23 million acres of American Indian land to the United States. He retired from public office in 1817 and died in 1836. Madison never privately reconciled his Republican beliefs with his slave ownership. Madison is considered one of the most important Founding Fathers of the United States, and historians have generally ranked him as an above-average president.

Early Life and Education

James Madison Jr. was born on March 16, 1751, (March 5, 1750, Old Style) at Belle Grove Plantation near Port Conway in the Colony of Virginia, to James Madison Sr. and Nelly Conway Madison. His family had lived in Virginia since the mid-1600s. Madison grew up as the oldest of twelve children, with seven brothers and four sisters, though only six lived to adulthood. His father was a tobacco planter who grew up on a plantation, then called Mount Pleasant, which he had inherited upon reaching adulthood. With an estimated 100 slaves and a 5,000 acres (2,000 ha) plantation, Madison’s father was the largest landowner and a leading citizen in the Piedmont. Madison’s maternal grandfather was a prominent planter and tobacco merchant. In the early 1760s, the Madison family moved into a newly built house that they named Montpelier.

From age 11 to 16, Madison studied under Donald Robertson, a Scottish instructor who served as a tutor for several prominent planter families in the South. Madison learned mathematics, geography, and modern and classical languages—he became exceptionally proficient in Latin. At age 16, Madison returned to Montpelier, where he studied under the Reverend Thomas Martin to prepare for college. Unlike most college-bound Virginians of his day, Madison did not attend the College of William and Mary, where the lowland Williamsburg climate – thought to be more likely to harbor infectious disease – might have strained his delicate health. Instead, in 1769, he enrolled as an undergraduate at Princeton (then formally named the College of New Jersey).

His studies at Princeton included Latin, Greek, theology, and the works of the Enlightenment. Great emphasis was placed on both speech and debate; Madison was a leading member of the American Whig Society, which competed on campus with a political counterpart, the Cliosophic Society. During his time in Princeton, his closest friend was future Attorney General William Bradford. Along with another classmate, Madison undertook an intense program of study and completed the college’s three-year Bachelor of Arts degree in just two years, graduating in 1771. Madison had contemplated either entering the clergy or practicing law after graduation but instead remained at Princeton to study Hebrew and political philosophy under the college’s president, John Witherspoon. He returned home to Montpelier in early 1772.

Madison’s ideas on philosophy and morality were strongly shaped by Witherspoon, who converted him to the philosophy, values, and modes of thinking of the Age of Enlightenment. Biographer Terence Ball wrote that at Princeton, Madison

was immersed in the liberalism of the Enlightenment, and converted to eighteenth-century political radicalism. From then on James Madison’s theories would advance the rights of happiness of man, and his most active efforts would serve devotedly the cause of civil and political liberty.
After returning to Montpelier, without a chosen career, Madison served as a tutor to his younger siblings. Madison began to study law books on his own in 1773. Madison asked Princeton friend William Bradford, a law apprentice under Edward Shippen in Philadelphia, to send him an ordered written plan on reading law books. At the age of 22, there was no evidence that Madison, himself, made any effort to apprentice under any lawyer in Virginia. By 1783, he had acquired a good sense of legal publications. Madison saw himself as a law student but never as a lawyer – he never joined the bar or practiced. In his elder years, Madison was sensitive to the phrase “demi-Lawyer”, or “half-Lawyer”, a derisive term used to describe someone who read law books but did not practice law. Following the Revolutionary War, Madison spent time at his home Montpelier in Virginia studying ancient democracies of the world in preparation for the Constitutional Convention.

Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.

Marriage and Family

Portrait of Madison, age 82, c. 1833

On September 15, 1794, Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a 26-year-old widow, previously wife of John Todd, a Quaker farmer who died during a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Aaron Burr introduced Madison to her, at his request, after Dolley had stayed in the same boardinghouse as Burr in Philadelphia. After an arranged meeting in spring 1794, the two quickly became romantically engaged and prepared for a wedding that summer, but Dolley suffered recurring illnesses because of her exposure to yellow fever in Philadelphia. They eventually traveled to Harewood, Virginia for their wedding. Only a few close family members attended, and Winchester Reverend Alexander Balmain pronounced them a wedded couple. Madison enjoyed a strong relationship with his wife, and she became his political partner. Madison was an extremely shy individual who deeply relied on his wife, Dolley, to help him in dealing with social pressures that came with the politics of the day. Dolley became a renowned figure in Washington, D.C., and excelled at hosting dinners and other important political occasions. Dolley helped to establish the modern image of the First Lady of the United States as an individual who takes upon a role in the social affairs of the nation.

Madison never had children, but he adopted Dolley’s one surviving son, John Payne Todd (known as Payne), after the marriage. Some of Madison’s colleagues, such as Monroe and Burr, alleged that Madison was infertile and that his lack of offspring weighed on his thoughts, but Madison never spoke of any distress on this matter.

Throughout his life, Madison maintained a close relationship with his father, James Madison Sr, who died in 1801. At age 50, Madison inherited the large plantation of Montpelier and other possessions, including his father’s numerous slaves. He had three brothers, Francis, Ambrose, and William, and three sisters, Nelly, Sarah, and Frances, who lived to adulthood. Ambrose helped manage Montpelier for both his father and older brother until his death in 1793.


James Madison gravestone at Montpelier estate west of Orange, VA.

Madison’s health slowly deteriorated. In a remarkable coincidence, former presidents Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe had all died on the fourth of July. In his final week, his doctors advised Madison to take stimulants which might prolong his life to July 4, 1836. However, Madison refused. He died of congestive heart failure at Montpelier on the morning of June 28, 1836, at the age of 85. By one common account of his final moments, he was given his breakfast, which he tried eating but was unable to swallow. His favorite niece, who sat by to keep him company, asked him, “What is the matter, Uncle James?” Madison died immediately after he replied, “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.” He is buried in the family cemetery at Montpelier. He was one of the last prominent members of the Revolutionary War generation to die. His will left significant sums to the American Colonization Society, Princeton, and the University of Virginia, as well as $30,000 to his wife, Dolley. Left with a smaller sum than Madison had intended, Dolley suffered financial troubles until her own death in 1849.

Find A Grave Memorial


President Madison’s line can be found through the Bradley’s lineage. 

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