James Madison Biography ID 13

Although one of the Library of Congress' building was recently named after him, there is no memorial to James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," in our nation's capital. Yet no delegate to the Constitutional Convention had a greater impact on our system of government. As a member of the first Congress, he introduced the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

He was short in stature ("no bigger than a snowflake," observed a contemporary), and had weak speaking voice. Secretly, he suffered from epilepsy. Nevertheless, he dominated the Constitutional Convention. As the principal author of the Virginia Plan, he set the terms of debate. The plan's essential feature, including the separation of powers among branches of government, enumerated powers, and federal supremacy over foreign affairs and interstate commerce, were eventually adopted. His notes, published after his death in 1836, give us the only daily account of what happened at the Constitutional Convention.

Before the convention, he had studied the history of the Greek city-states, the Roman empire, and the nations of Europe. Convinced that the American Revolution was degenerating into chaos, he persuaded Washington to leave his retirement at Mount Vernon to go to Philadelphia.

Unlike Jefferson, he had little faith in the essential goodness of humanity. The separation of powers among different branches of government was necessary because politicians could not be trusted. "If men were angels," he wrote, "no government would be necessary." In the Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper essays in defense of the Constitution that remain guides to the framers' intentions, he argued that liberty could best be assured in an extended republic. A large nation made up of many interest groups does not permit a single faction to dominate the rest. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," he said.

William Pierce, a Georgia delegate, said of Madison: "He blends together the profound politician with the scholar. In the management of every great question, he evidently took the lead in the convention, and tho' he cannot be called an orator, he is a most agreeable, eloquent and convincing speaker."

His life mirrored the history of the new nation. At 29 he was the youngest member of the Continental Congress. At 36, he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Later he served two terms in the House of Representatives, formed the Democratic-Republican party that nominated Thomas Jefferson to the presidency, served eight years as secretary, and was elected the fourth president in 1809.

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