James Madison

4th president - 1809-1817

 

A small, unprepossessing man (dismissed by the essayist Washington Irving as "but a withered little apple-John"), Madison was nonetheless one of the most important early presidents.

Brought up in Orange County, Virginia, and educated at what would later become Princeton, he helped with the framing of the Virginia Constitution in 1776, served in the Continental Congress, and was a leader in the Virginia Assembly. Madison was a prominent contributor to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and was subsequently described as the "Father of the Constitution" – although he always insisted that that document was not "the off-spring of a single brain" but "the work of many heads and many hands".

In Congress, he helped frame the Bill of Rights and enact the first revenue legislation. As Secretary of State under Jefferson, he was a champion of the unpopular Embargo Act and was mocked for his ineffectual protests against seizures of US shipping by the warring French and British.

His first term as President was dominated by unsuccessful attempts to end British and French abuses of American shipping. (He also seized West Florida from Spain, so consolidating US control of the Gulf Coast.) His second term was dominated by the war that he was eventually persuaded to declare on Britain, in 1812. The war proved largely disastrous: America was militarily unprepared, and the British were able to inflict a series of defeats, culminating in the sack of Washington (and burning of the White House and the Capitol) in 1814; Madison was forced to flee. But the military tide began to turn in America's favour, notably at sea, and the restoration of the status quo at the Treaty of Ghent in 1815 allowed the war to be presented as a success. An upsurge of nationalism followed, and Federalists who had opposed the war were so thoroughly discredited that their party never recovered as a political force.

Meanwhile, the economic pain of the embargo on international trade had begun to stimulate the domestic economy. And while it would be hard to describe Madison as a popular president ("He seems to be incapable of smiling," said one observer), his presidency was widely seen as a success.

His lack of charm was, in any case, partly compensated for by the vivacity of his young and buxom wife, Dolley. Her "Wednesday drawing-rooms" were the toast of Washington. A flamboyant dresser – she often wore a feathered turban – she was also an extravagant home-maker. Congress gave her $26,000 to refurbish the White House; most of the work was undone by the British burning in 1814.

After his presidency, Madison retired with Dolley to Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Virginia, where he lived for another 19 years, occasionally speaking out against the threat to the Union posed by disruptive insistence on the rights of individual states. He died in 1836; Dolley returned to Washington and once again became a prominent figure on the social circuit.

In his own words

"A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

"The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated."

In others' words

"I can say conscientiously that I do not know in the world a man of purer integrity, more dispassionate, distinterested and devoted to genuine Republicanism; nor could I in the whole scope of America and Europe point out an abler head." Thomas Jefferson

Minutiae

At 5ft 4in, Madison was the shortest US president to date. He was also the lightest, weighing just 7st 1lb

He suffered from a wide range of medical complaints, including dysentery, rheumatism and haemorrhoids

His nose was scarred from frostbite

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