Skip to main content

Legislative Career

James Madison's Legislative Career

Madison's Whiggish sentiments, born in college debate, strengthened after his visit to Philadelphia in April 1774, which coincided with news of the passage by parliament of the Coercive Acts. His contributions to the independence movement were restricted to Orange County, however, until his election to the Virginia Convention of 1776. There he made his first contribution to American constitutional law by his defense of the free exercise of religion as a right and not a privilege.

In October, Madison participated in the newly-created Virginia House of Delegates, making the acquaintance of his lifelong friend and colleague, Thomas Jefferson. Madison lost the election for the 1777 session of the House of Delegates, purportedly because he refused to provide liquor for the voters, a tradition affectionately referred to as "swilling the planters with bumbo." However, his good offices in the legislature were not forgotten. He was elected to a seat on the eight-member Council of State that same year, and in 1779 was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress sitting in Philadelphia.

Continental Congress

Madison served in Congress from March 1780, when the Revolutionary War had reached its nadir, to December 1783, soon after its triumphant conclusion. He was known as a conscientious legislator and admired for his committee work and his forcefully argued and closely reasoned speeches. Madison was among those who thought that the Confederation government needed to be invested with more power at the expense of the states. Though he engineered compromises in the spring of 1783 on taxation and import duties--including the famous three-fifths ratio, in which for purposes of representation five slaves would be equivalent to three free persons--the Confederation continued to lose power and prestige in the wake of the war's end.

Religious Freedom

Before he took up the task of reformulating the American system of government in 1787, Madison left national office to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1784 and for the two subsequent years. His major triumph there was blocking the establishment of state support for churches. The passage of the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1785, in Madison's view, "extinguished for ever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind."

In 1785, Madison was appointed a delegate to a convention on interstate trade to be held in Annapolis in September 1786. The report of this meeting called for a general convention to meet the following summer in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation in such a way as to make "the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." Madison was again elected as a Virginia delegate to Congress, arriving in New York in February 1787. That spring Madison drafted a comprehensive plan for a more powerful national government.

Shaping the Constitution

At the Constitutional Convention, the Virginia delegation, of which Madison was a member, seized the initiative by presenting its plan to scrap the Articles of Confederation and substitute a national government that operated directly on individual citizens rather than the states. Madison took a leading role in shaping the Constitution that emerged and kept notes of the proceedings that are the most complete record of the debates.

Madison then devoted himself to the task of getting the new Constitution ratified. He, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote a series of essays for the newspapers exploring the benefits of the new Constitution and defending some of its more controversial provisions. These were collected and published in 1788 as The Federalist. In March 1788, Madison returned home for election to the Virginia ratifying convention, where he ably defended the Philadelphia convention's handiwork, helping Virginia become the tenth state to ratify the Constitution.

U.S. House of Representatives

Shortly thereafter, Madison narrowly defeated James Monroe for election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served as a guiding light to his fellows. George Washington, in particular, relied on him for advice on how to conduct a Republican presidency. In addition, Madison had promised his Virginia constituency that in spite of his own reservations, he would sponsor a series of amendments to safeguard individual rights. He reduced a multitude of suggested amendments to nineteen. Congress chose twelve to send to the states for consideration; ten of these were ratified and have since become known as the Bill of Rights.

Madison's time in Congress was shaped, in large measure, by developing discord with the influential secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, over the latter's financial plans for the new Republic. The rift between the two men widened over the course of following years, as factions developed around their views, ultimately leading to the formation of the Federalist and Republican parties. Madison and other proto-Republicans believed that Hamilton's financial system aped the corrupt policy of Great Britain, with its national bank, sizable public debts, and droves of speculators. In recreating that system in the United States, they believed, Hamilton was betraying the ideals of the American Revolution. Madison further felt that Hamilton was breaching the limits of power of the federal government as designed in the Constitutional Convention. The war between France and Great Britain which began in 1793 further polarized the two groups. As Federalists sided with Great Britain and Republicans with France, domestic questions became embroiled with foreign policy issues, introducing into the simplest difference of opinion a heavy dose of ideological fervor.

Marriage and Return to Montpelier

Dolley Payne Todd

Madison resolved to retire from Congress when his term ended in early 1797. Part of his decision was no doubt prompted by his 1794 marriage to the young Philadelphia widow Dolley Payne Todd and a desire to enjoy the pleasures of private life far from the scenes of factional discord. Part of it was due to the death of his brother Ambrose and the increasing responsibilities entailed in caring for his aging parents. When the time came, he quietly relinquished his party leadership and returned to Virginia.

Virginia Resolutions

However, Madison could not disengage from national issues simply by retreating to Montpelier, his family's Virginia plantation. Increasing hostility to France under the presidency of John Adams culminated in the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Madison's initial reaction to the draft alien bill was that it was "a monster that must for ever disgrace its parents." In December 1798, at Jefferson's urging, he drafted the Virginia Resolutions, which called on the states to protest the infringement of their rights and liberties by the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts and generally criticized the enlargement of federal powers that had taken place in the previous five years. Coupled with Jefferson's more dramatic and extreme Kentucky Resolutions, the statement provided a rallying point for Republicans, but it was not well received by the other state legislatures. In order to defend his resolutions, Madison was persuaded to stand for election to the Virginia Assembly in 1799. He was elected and undertook their defense by producing the Report of 1800, a comprehensive attack on the unconstitutionality of the two acts as well as a ringing statement of the inviolability of the right of free speech.

David Mattern (edited for use here by Jewel Spangler and Anne Colony); source: The American Revolution 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia, ed. Richard L. Blanco and Paul J. Sanborn (2 vols.; New York, 1993), 2:1002-8.