James Madison - early years

JAMES MADISON, was born on 16 March 1751 of a family that had been in Virginia since the mid-seventeenth century. Tradesmen and farmers at first, his forebears quickly acquired more lands and soon were among the "respectable though not the most opulent class," as Madison himself described them. The family moved to Orange County in the Virginia Piedmont about 1730 and settled on a plantation that over the next century grew to five thousand acres, produced tobacco and grains, and was worked by perhaps a hundred slaves. Although Madison abhorred slavery, he nonetheless bore the burden of depending all his life on a slave system that he could never square with his republican beliefs.

Madison learned the fundamentals at home and then went to preparatory school before entering the College of New Jersey at Princeton. There he got a fine classical and Christian education, receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1771. He studied for six months more under President John Witherspoon, whose intellectual independence, practicality, and moral earnestness profoundly influenced him. Madison read John Locke, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, David Hume, Voltaire, and others whose Enlightenment world-view became his own. He considered becoming a clergyman or a lawyer but never entered either profession.

While Madison was small and unimpressive physically, he had bright blue eyes, a quiet strength of character, and a lively, humorous way in small groups that made him a welcome and influential colleague in many endeavors. He had some serious illnesses during his life, many bouts of a probably nervous disorder that left him exhausted and prostrate after periods of severe strain, and a hypochondriacal tendency to "fear the worst" from sickness, but he actually lived a long, healthy life free from the common scourges of his day and was capable of sustained, rigorous labors that would have overwhelmed many seemingly more robust men.

As the Revolution approached, Madison served on the Orange County Committee of Safety from 1774, and two years later he was elected to the Virginia convention that resolved for independence and drafted a new state constitution. There he sought successfully to change the clause guaranteeing religious "toleration" only to one proclaiming "liberty of conscience for all." From 1777 to 1779 he served on the Virginia Council of State under two governors, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.

Elected to the Continental Congress in 1780, Madison became one of the leaders of the so-called nationalist group, which saw fulfillment of the Revolution possible only under a strong central government. He thus supported the French alliance and worked persistently to strengthen the powers of Congress. When he retired from Congress in 1783, he was regarded as its best informed and most effective debater and legislator. Madison then served for three years in the Virginia legislature, where he worked to enact Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom and other reform measures. Six years of legislative experience, as well as his studies, increasingly convinced him that weak confederacies were prey to foreign intrigue and domestic instability.