Madison, James (1751–1836)

Author:Lance Banning

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James Madison, "the father of the Constitution," matured with the AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Educated at a boarding school and at patriotic Princeton, he returned to the family plantation in Virginia at age twenty-one, two years before

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the infamous Coercive Acts. As Orange County mobilized behind the recommendations of the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, he joined his father on the committee of safety, practiced with a rifle, and drilled with the local militia company. As he wrote much later, in a sketch of an autobiography, "he was under very early and strong impressions in favor of liberty both civil and religious."

Civil and religious liberty were intimately linked in Madison's career and thinking. His early revolutionary ardor is the necessary starting point for understanding his distinctive role among the Founders. The young man first involved himself in local politics, in 1774, to raise his voice against the persecution of dissenters in neighboring Virginia counties. When feeble health compelled him to abandon thoughts of active military service, the gratitude of Baptist neighbors may have helped him win election to the state convention of 1776, which framed one of the earliest, most widely imitated revolutionary constitutions. (See VIRGINIA CONSTITUTION AND DECLARATION OF RIGHTS.) It seems appropriate that Madison's first major office should have been in this convention, his first important act to prepare amendatory language that significantly broadened the definition of freedom of conscience in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The American Revolution, as he understood it, was a grand experiment, of world-historical significance, in the creation and vindication of governments that would combine majority control with individual freedom, popular self-government with security for the private rights of all. Through more than forty years of active public service, he was at the center of the country's search for a structure and practice of government that would secure both sorts of freedom. His conviction that democracy and individual liberty are mutually dependent?and, increasingly, that neither would survive disintegration of the continental Union?guided his distinctive contributions to the writing and interpretation of the Constitution.

Defeated in his bid for reelection to the state assembly?he refused to offer the customary treats to voters?the promising young Madison was soon selected by the legislature as a member of the Council of State. Two years later, in December 1779, the legislature chose him as a delegate to Congress. Here he gradually acquired a national reputation. He was instrumental in the management of Virginia's western cession, which prepared the way for ratification of the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION and creation of a national domain. He introduced the compromise that resulted in the congressional recommendations of April 18, 1783, calling on the states to approve an amendment to the Articles granting Congress power to impose a five percent duty on foreign imports, to complete their western cessions, and to levy other taxes sufficient to provide for the continental debt. He learned that the confederation government's dependence on the states for revenues and for enforcement of its acts and treaties rendered it unable to perform its duties and endangered its very existence.

Reentering Virginia's legislature when his term in Congress ended, Madison became increasingly convinced that liberty in individual states depended on the Union that protected them from foreign intervention and from the wars and rivalries that had fractured Europe and condemned its peoples to oppressive taxes, swollen military forces, and the rule of executive tyrants. In 1786, as he prepared for the Annapolis Convention, Northerners and Southerners clashed bitterly in Congress over the negotiation of a commercial treaty with Spain. When Madison and other delegates decided to propose the meeting of a general convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, they acted in a context of profound, immediate concern for the survival of the Union.

By 1786, however, Madison no longer hoped that a revision of the Articles might reinvigorate the general government, nor was he worried solely by the peril of disunion. In all the states popular assemblies struggled to protect their citizens from economic troubles. Although Virginia managed to avoid the worst abuses, Madison thought continentally. Correspondents warned him of a growing disillusionment with popular misgovernment, particularly in New England, where SHAYS ' REBELLION erupted in the winter of 1786. Virginia's own immunity from popular commotions or majority misrule appeared to him in doubt. He had not been able to achieve revision of the revolutionary constitution and had often suffered agonizing losses when he urged support for federal measures or important state reforms. In 1785, in his opinion, only the presence of a multitude of disagreeing sects had blocked the passage of a bill providing tax support for teachers of the Christian religion, which would have been a major blow to freedom of conscience and an egregious violation...

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