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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

James Madison Dies, June 28, 1836

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James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, died today in 1836. He was one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, perhaps the most influential articles ever published. He is known today as the “Father of the Constitution” because of his staunch support for the ratification of the document and the leading role he played in its creation.

Madison was born in Port Conway, Virginia on March 16, 1751 and was raised on a tobacco plantation. His family’s comfortable economic position allowed him to attend the College of New Jersey, which would later become Princeton. He finished the coursework in two years instead of four. From 1776-1779, he served in the Virginia state legislature and became a well-known state politician.

Madison first made a mark on the national stage as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1780 to 1783. It was during this time that he first became aware of the frailties of the Articles of Confederation, the document which governed the young nation during and immediately after the War for Independence. Thus, when the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison was there making the case for not just an overhaul of the Articles of Confederation, but for a new governing document. The United States Constitution was the result.

The future President served as a representative from the state of Virginia in the new US House of Representatives during the first four sessions of Congress. During that time, he offered a group of twelve amendments to the Constitution; ten of them would later become the Bill of Rights and the 11th would become the 27th Amendment, which went into effect in 1992.

Madison helped create one of the first political parties in the new nation, the Democratic-Republicans. The party’s main plank was the belief in the need to limit the power of the federal government. The Federalist Party, on the other hand, believed in a strong central government. This fundamental disagreement shapes debate between the two main American political parties to this day.

Thomas Jefferson chose Madison as his Secretary of State, a position he held from 1801-1809. Most of his time was spent trying to maintain US neutrality during the on-going war between Britain and France. He helped win Congressional approval for the Louisiana Purchase and helped convince Jefferson of the need to place an embargo on British goods coming to the US as punishment for British conscription of American sailors. The embargo was failure as both a punishment and as sound foreign policy---in the end, it only served to further sour relations between the United States and England.

James Madison became the fourth President of the United States in 1809. Relations with Great Britain continued to deteriorate to the point where Madison actually tried to stir up public opinion in the west and south in favor of a war. However, the American military was hardly ready for a war against the world’s greatest power and when war finally came in 1812 several months before Madison won a second term, the British won a string of early victories, including the capture of Washington, D.C. and the burning of the White House. Madison was forced to flee the house while his wife, Dolly, worked to save as much of the nation’s precious artwork as she could. He barely escaped the city, becoming the first and only commander-in-chief to take fire from an enemy while serving as President.

The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war in 1814 (the fighting did not end for some time because of the speed of communications) granted each side no more than it had possessed before the war. However, the American people believed that a great victory had been won, for they had faced down the most powerful nation on earth for a second time and had walked away with their freedom. Because this had happened on Madison’s watch, the opposition party, the Federalists, slowly withered and died.

After eight years in the White House, James Madison returned to his tobacco plantation in Virginia. He served in various positions for the University of Virginia, becoming the rector after Thomas Jefferson’s death in 1826. He held that position for ten years until his death in 1836. He was the last of the founding fathers to die. He had no children except those Americans who have lived and prospered in the free society ourM Constitution guarantees.

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