History recalls James Madison as the father of the U.S. Constitution, one of the three authors of The Federalist Papers, secretary of state under President Thomas Jefferson, and the fourth president of the United States. He was all of these things, and more. Yet students of history often gloss over Madison’s position as a member of the first Congress of the United States. It is no exaggeration to say that Madison’s pivotal role as a congressional leader calling for ratification of the Bill of Rights was instrumental in ensuring passage of those important civil liberties protections. In fact, he became the most influential and important member of the first Congress of the United States. I discuss his legislative service in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.
He was born James Madison, Jr., in Virginia on March 16, 1751, one of 12 children, although only half survived childhood. His father was a successful planter, entrepreneur, and Anglican parish, or vestryman. When the boy (affectionately called “Jemmy”) was nine years old, his father built a new home, christened Montpelier, and the son lived there, when he was not off tending to public business, for the rest of his life.
Madison came of age when Virginia planters relied on slave labor to produce the harvest. His father and eventually he, as his father’s legatee, owned dozens of slaves. He would grapple with the so-called peculiar institution throughout his long life. Like his close friend and mentor Jefferson, Madison condemned the inhumanity and degradation associated with keeping human beings as chattels against their will, and yet he, like Jefferson, would not find it in himself to emancipate his property. He knew that slavery was abhorrent as an abstract philosophical principle, but his personal wealth and self-interest were too intertwined with the institution to allow him to free his slaves and diminish his assets. Madison’s contributions to The Federalist Papers ruminated on the primacy of self-interest, and much of his career as the master of Montpelier would illustrate the point more vividly than anything he ever wrote.
Madison was an awkward boy, shy and slight of stature. He discovered a love of books from an early age, and his family possessed the wherewithal to ensure that he would rise as far as his academic talents would allow. First, he studied with a Scottish schoolmaster and a local minister, a common custom for the well-to-do. Later, he ventured off to the College of New Jersey at Princeton for his university education. He completed his college studies in two years, although he stayed on for an extra year to study miscellaneous subjects.
In December 1774, when he was 23 years old, he was elected to the Orange County Committee of Safety, an organization formed to protect the interests of the local gentry. As the colonies moved close to open rebellion against England, Madison and others became involved in quasi-revolutionary activities. He was elected to represent the county to a statewide convention in Williamsburg, and that convention voted to direct the Second Continental Congress to declare independence. It was a momentous decision, a radical step that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier.
Madison served in a variety of positions in his youth. Notably, he was a delegate to the fifth Virginia Convention, which adopted the state’s first constitution. Moreover, he supported the Virginia Declaration of Rights and vehemently spoke on the need to protect freedom of religion. He subsequently served in the Virginia House of Delegates and the Confederation Congress organized under the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. For a brief period during the Revolutionary War, he served as a colonel in the Orange County militia under his father, but he never saw battle.
During the 1780s, Madison became a vocal critic of the Articles of Confederation, believing they were too weak and unworkable to govern a growing nation. At the Annapolis Convention in 1786, Madison urged his fellow delegates to convene a convention the following year to amend the existing constitutional structure. He was already ruminating on the possibility of supplanting the articles, but he knew he must tread carefully. Not everyone was in favor of increasing consolidated power at the expense of state governments.
While serving as a delegate to the Philadelphia convention, which convened in May 1787, Madison was instrumental in adopting the Virginia plan, a series of proposals that greatly enhanced the power of the central government. Among other things, the plan provided for three branches of government—the legislative (law-making), executive (law-enforcing), and judicial (law-interpreting)—a bicameral (two-chambered) legislature, and a grant of power to the central government to exercise “a negative in all cases whatsoever” over state legislation. As is generally the case when a body of delegates debates serious issues, the Virginia Plan changed during the convention. Madison’s plan for a bicameral legislature won majority support, but the two houses were organized differently to balance the interests of big states and small states. The United States Senate provided for equal representation, with each state earning two senators, while the House of Representatives was based on population.
Madison was not completely satisfied with the final document approved by the Philadelphia delegates. He was bitterly disappointed that his proposal to allow the central government to veto state laws had been rejected. With no clear mechanism for resolving state and federal conflicts, the new constitution was weaker than Madison would have liked. Still, he believed that no convention of delegates representing diverse, competing interests could produce a finer document. Despite its deficiencies, the Philadelphia constitution was a distinct improvement over the deeply flawed Articles of Confederation.
As the Philadelphia convention was winding to a close, Virginia’s George Mason identified a potentially devastating problem: the constitution that the delegates had labored all spring and summer to draft did not include a bill of rights. Mason mused that the document might be “prefaced with a Bill of Rights,” and the labor need not be extended for a lengthy period. He argued that “with the aid of the State declarations, a bill might be prepared in a few hours.” Despite Mason’s assurances that the bill could be drafted in short order, the proposal won little support. The states unanimously voted it down. Other representatives took up the idea, but it was too late. The delegates were tired from their exertions and desired nothing so much as to return to their homes with dispatch.
The notion of listing the rights afforded to citizens as a means of limiting the oppressive powers of a centralized government was well known at the time. Americans were familiar with the Magna Carta, dating from the thirteenth century, where the English barons had compelled King John to make promises protecting the rights of the nobility. After King James II left the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Parliament crafted a bill of rights.
Madison did not believe a bill of rights was a necessary addendum to the Constitution. Mason’s observation, coming at the conclusion of the Philadelphia meeting, might unnecessarily complicate ratification by introducing yet another series of provisions into an already controversial document. Moreover, Madison believed that bills of rights amounted to little more than “parchment barriers,” a series of vaguely written promises that may or may not be enforced.
He famously changed his position between the time the delegates departed from Philadelphia in 1787 and the time he became a representative to the first Congress in 1789. Many events that occurred during that time convinced him that a bill of rights should be included. As Madison learned, it was one thing to argue against amending a document as a philosophical matter; it was another thing to persuade wary delegates to the state constitutional conventions that they should trust a new government to secure the liberties of the people.
With the ratification of the Constitution and the establishment of a new American government, Madison hoped to become one of Virginia’s United States senators. It was not to be. His well-known political rival Patrick Henry threw his weight behind defeating Madison. At the time, state legislators elected United States senators. Henry, a former governor of Virginia, still enjoyed considerable political support in state government. He used his influence to elect two cronies to the Senate seats, shutting out the father of the Constitution altogether.
It was a setback, to be sure, but Madison was not completely defeated. He set his sights on becoming a member of the new United States House of Representatives. Virginia was slated to send 10 representatives. As Madison set out to campaign, his political enemies convinced Madison’s sometime-friend James Monroe to oppose him. Monroe claimed that he had resisted for a time, but eventually he agreed to stand for election. Madison and Monroe had a prickly relationship. They sometimes worked together, and sometimes opposed each other.
Friends and neighbors appreciated the public service that Jemmy Madison had rendered to state and nation in past years despite the rumors and innuendo that Henry and his followers spread. It was an unexpectedly close election, but Madison eked out a win, besting Monroe by 1,308 votes to 972. Afterward, Madison, rapidly becoming an astute politician, assured one and all that his friendship with Monroe had not suffered “the smallest diminution” as a result of the contest.
On June 8, 1789, the newly-minted congressman took to the House floor to discuss a proposed bill of rights, and he and used his considerable skills to shepherd the bill through the chamber. For all of Madison’s ambivalence about the need for a bill of rights, his efforts to secure their passage became an enduring part of his legacy. Some scholars have argued that his historical reputation owes as much to his support for the bill of rights in 1789 as it does to his efforts to produce a new constitution in Philadelphia two years earlier.
He offered nine articles containing 20 proposed amendments, believing that the changes would be written into the body of the constitution. The House eventually passed 17 amendments, but rejected the idea of inserting them into the document. They would appear at the end of the constitution as addenda.
The bill went to the Senate, which made its own changes. Among them was to reduce the number of amendments to 12. Madison had hoped to apply some of the bill of rights to the states, but the senators refused. A House and Senate conference committee reconciled the versions produced by the two chambers and issued its recommendations on September 24. The following day, Congress passed a joint resolution approving the conference report. Amendments 3-12 were ratified and renumbered. Those first 10 amendments became known as the Bill of Rights. Another of the original amendments, requiring changes in congressional pay to be effective following the next regularly scheduled election, finally became law in 1992. Fisher Ames, a congressman from Massachusetts, reasoned that the amendments “might do some good towards quieting men, who attend to sounds only.”
Although the bill of rights was ratified in 1791, the legal ramifications of the amendments did not become apparent until the twentieth century. One scholar found only one reference to the bill of rights during the nineteenth century, and that one occurred in 1840. It appeared that Madison’s objection that parchment barriers were unnecessary had been proven right. Only many decades after he had passed from the scene did his insistence on including a bill of rights, regardless of his initial reluctance, bear fruit.
James Madison went on to serve his nation in several executive capacities after he successfully urged his colleagues to amend the U.S. Constitution. As Jefferson’s secretary of state and eventually fourth president of the United States, he enjoyed new highs and lows in his political career. Those achievements added to his legacy as the Father of the Constitution and chief contributor to The Federalist Papers, but Madison’s contributions as a member of Congress, while sometimes overlooked, rank among his most valuable services to his nation.