On March 16 1751, James Madison was born.
Born to a prestigious family, he built his political career upon his role in the inception of Virginia’s first republican constitution and his advocacy for the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom. Butting heads with Patrick Henry in the 1780s, he opposed funding for religious establishments in Virginia and favored severing the state’s connection to its own established Anglican church. Madison believed religious freedom to be one of the most important axioms of liberty, and thought that government should not intervene in the religious practices of individuals.
Along with Edmund Randolph, Madison constructed the “Virginia Plan,” a proposal for a nationalistic government model that became the basis for much of the debate during the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Though many of the key elements of his plan were discarded by the convention, Madison, along with Randolph, was tasked with explaining the end result of the Constitution in Virginia. Additionally, he lent his effort to the ratification struggle in New York through his writings in The Federalist. Within the essays, he described the Constitution as a model that would delegate “few and defined” powers to the general government, and wrote that ratification would be a federal act, not a national referendum.
In the following years, Madison aligned with Thomas Jefferson to promote his political objectives. He helped create the Republican Party, opposed the Hamiltonian economic plan, fought against the proposed national bank, railed against the Jay Treaty, and worked to reject the Alien and Sedition Acts. His Virginia Resolutions of 1798 were adopted by the his own state legislature, which condemned the controversial acts as unconstitutional and declared that each state “have the right, and are in duty bound, to interpose for arresting the progress of the evil.” According to Madison, the states created the federal government and the Constitution was a compact among the several states, and therefore “there can be no tribunal above their authority, to decide in the last resort, whether the compact made by them be violated.”
As president, Madison vetoed efforts to establish unconstitutional “internal improvements” projects, presided as Commander in Chief during the destructive War of 1812, signed the 1816 tariff, and re-chartered the national bank. While not a perfect president, Madison was one of the most important men of his time and one of the most significant contributors to the early republic.
While today he is deemed the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison had initial misgivings about the document, which were noted in his correspondence to Thomas Jefferson. Truthfully, the finalized Constitution was far less nationalist and left far more authority to the states than Madison had originally envisioned. Nonetheless, Madison should be respected as someone who accepted the true ratified Constitution – a document that gave the general government a minimal amount of enumerated authority rather than the sweeping powers he once desired. Madison recognized the true product of the framework while people like Alexander Hamilton sought to undermine it.
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