James Madison and Executive Power

What Was James Madison's Legacy to American Constitutionalism and Citizenship?

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Purpose of the lesson

This lesson examines the legacy of the "philosopher statesman," James Madison. Madison combined the intellectual knowledge and creativity of the scholar with the practical savvy of the politician, a man of strong principles who also realized the value of compromise. He was one of the principal architects of the constitutional and political institutions that continue to shape our nation's life today. In his ability to translate ideas into action Madison also exemplified what has become an important characteristic of American citizenship.

When you have completed this lesson, you should be able to judge the degree to which Madison deserves to be considered the "father" of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. You should also be able to explain and evaluate Madison's successes and failures in putting his ideals into practice as regards political parties and slavery.

Who Was James Madison?

James Madison (1751–1836) was born in Virginia and raised on his father's plantation in that state, Montpelier, in Orange County. His parents encouraged his studies, engaging tutors to provide a classical education and sending him to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he excelled.

After college Madison had difficulty choosing a career, showing little interest in law or the clergy, the traditional professions of those who went to college. Within a few years, however, he was drawn into the growing colonial resistance to the imperial policies of Great Britain. He was elected to the Virginia convention in 1776, where he helped draft the state's new constitution. In 1779 Madison was elected as the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress. Despite his youth, he quickly became one of the Congress's most active members. His service in the Virginia state assembly (1784–87) convinced him of the dangers inherent in the powerful state legislatures and of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. He became an advocate of a stronger central government, helped bring about the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, and was elected as a Virginia delegate to the Convention.

Madison was a slim man who stood just five feet, four inches tall. One colleague described him as "no bigger than half a piece of soap." Almost painfully shy, he had a soft voice and suffered from chronic ill health. Lacking physical charisma, he influenced others primarily by the force of his intellect and his political skills. Madison's knowledge of constitutionalism, as well as his willingness to find compromises, made him one of the most influential delegates at the Constitutional Convention.

After the Convention, Madison helped lead the effort to win ratification of the Constitution. He wrote many of the most important essays that became known as The Federalist. In Virginia's ratifying convention, his knowledge and reasoning overcame the firebrand objections of Patrick Henry to secure approval of the Constitution. In the new government Madison was elected to the House of Representatives, where he became its most influential member, drafting the Bill of Rights and supporting legislation that gave strength to the new federal government. He was a close friend and advisor of George Washington in the first years of his presidency.

With Thomas Jefferson, Madison formed the nation's first political party in the 1790s in opposition to the policies of Alexander Hamilton. Madison served as secretary of state during Jefferson's presidency and was elected president in 1808. He led the new nation through its first major war (the War of 1812). His wife Dolley was so successful in establishing the hospitality of the presidency that she inspired the term "First Lady." At the end of his second term in 1817, Madison retired to his home, Montpelier, where he continued to serve as advisor and confidant to many leaders of the day. He died there in 1836.

What role did Madison play at the Philadelphia Convention?

In later years Madison denied that he was the "Father of the Constitution," observing that the nation's charter was "the work of many heads and many hands" rather than the "the offspring of a single brain." Other delegates to the Convention, however, acknowledged Madison's special stature, one noting that "he blends together the profound politician, with the scholar."

Madison showed this blend of abilities in his preparation for the Convention. He researched texts examining every form of government that was known. He summarized his conclusions in two papers, one on "Ancient and Modern Confederations," the other on "Vices of the Political System of the United States." From his studies and his own experience in government, Madison concluded that a confederated form of government would not work and that small-scale republics had inherent shortcomings because of their size. Madison designed an alternative constitutional framework that would avoid these problems. Introduced at the Convention by Virginia's delegates, it became known as the Virginia Plan.

Madison's Virginia Plan determined in large measure the direction the Philadelphia Convention would take. It ensured that the work of the delegates would focus not on whether the Articles of Confederation should be replaced, but rather on the composition of the new government to replace it.

Madison's views, however, did not always prevail at the Convention. Of the seventy-one suggestions he proposed or supported, forty were voted down. He was disappointed that the Convention delegates rejected proportional representation for the Senate in favor of equal representation of the states (the Great Compromise). He considered this a breach of republican principles of representative government. He also opposed giving the selection of senators to state legislatures. The Virginia Plan's call for Congress to have a veto power over some state legislation was also rejected in favor of the more general Supremacy Clause. This compromise, however, would later provide the basis for judicial review and for accomplishing much the same purpose Madison had in mind. The delegates' work on the executive branch, to which Madison had given little thought beforehand, sharpened his appreciation of the Constitution's use of checks and balances, a benefit he would emphasize in his Federalist essays.

Madison was probably the most active Convention delegate. His role in the debates, in which he spoke over 160 times, and as the Convention's unofficial secretary, taking detailed notes of the proceedings in his own special shorthand, required Madison's almost constant attendance that summer. The effort, he later confessed, "almost killed him."

Why did Madison take a front seat at the Convention?

What were the major themes of Madison's Federalist essays?

Along with his co-authors, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Madison wrote as a partisan defender of the Constitution against the attacks of the Anti-Federalists. Madison wrote twenty-four of his twenty-nine Federalist essays in seven weeks, at the remarkable pace of three essays a week. Many of these essays rank among the best political thought ever produced.

His Federalist writings allowed Madison to expand upon his vision of republican government and on his belief that the proposed Constitution would accommodate both the ideals and the political realities of the young republic. In Federalist 10, which many scholars consider to be Madison's masterpiece, he redefined the traditional concepts of democracy and a republic. He demonstrated that by "extending the sphere" of republican government to a national scope, the nation could avoid many of the problems of such a form of government at the local level. The greater diversity of large republics minimized the evils of faction and popular passion, making it more difficult for tyrannical majorities to combine.

The representative government provided by the Constitution for such a republic, he argued, would also shield those in government from local passions. Larger constituencies and the indirect procedures for selecting a president, senators, and federal judges would encourage the choice of the most qualified. Madison described such provisions in the Constitution as a "republican remedy" for the "diseases most incident to republican government."

In Federalist 51 Madison offered what is perhaps the best explanation of a system of government based on separation of powers that has ever been written. Acknowledging that if "men were angels" no government would be needed, Madison argued that any government "administered by men over men" must be so constituted so as to control itself as well as the governed.

The electoral process provided a primary means of controlling government, but "auxiliary precautions" were also needed. The Constitution would provide these precautions by so constituting the national government in its separate branches as to discourage the abuse of power. A system of checks and balances, Madison believed, would give "to those who administer each department, the necessary constitutional means, and personal motives, to resist encroachments of the others." A president, for example, would have both the necessary powers and the self-interest to resist encroachments from the legislature or judiciary. Similarly, Congress and the Supreme Court would combine personal motives and constitutional powers to resist any intrusion by the other branches. "Ambition," Madison declared, "must be made to counteract ambition."

Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote The Federalist as part of a campaign for ratification of the Constitution. Their writings have since become a classic text for representative democracy, translated and read by many people around the world.

What contribution did Madison make to establishing the principles of religious freedom?

From his first year in the Virginia legislature in 1776, Madison was an advocate of religious freedom. In colonial Virginia, the Anglican (Episcopal) church was established by law as the official religion and received public funding. Madison became convinced such favoritism was wrong, because it discriminated against Baptists and other religions in Virginia. Madison believed that allowing a diversity of faiths to exist together on an equal footing was the best assurance against religious persecution and strife. Though he helped persuade George Mason to endorse the "liberty of conscience for all" in the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), he was not able to separate church and government in Virginia's new constitution. Madison, however, did not give up. Ten years later in the Virginia legislature he led the effort to adopt the Statute for Religious Freedom drafted by Thomas Jefferson. The law provided the basis for ending a state church in Virginia and granting equal freedom to all faiths. In Madison's words it "extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind."

Madison's strong belief in religious freedom is also evident in his drafting of the U.S. Bill of Rights. He had originally opposed adding a bill of rights to the Constitution because he doubted the effectiveness of mere "paper barriers" to tyranny and because he did not see a need for such formal guarantees in a government limited to enumerated powers. He had promised his Baptist friends and others, however, that he would work for the addition of a bill of rights if the Constitution were adopted. He also became convinced that a formal declaration of rights would widen support for the new Constitution and would help the nation's courts protect the rights of minorities against majority encroachments.

Almost single-handedly, Madison worked through the summer of 1789 to draft and secure agreement on the measure. Overcoming the apathy and skepticism of congressional colleagues and working out an acceptable draft from among many proposals required all of Madison's political skills. Though many among the Framers could claim to have had a hand in "fathering" the Constitution, the Bill of Rights was primarily Madison's offspring.

Critical Thinking Exercise


In his Federalist essays and earlier writings Madison reflected the negative view of party and faction that was common to eighteenth-century thought. In Federalist 10 he defined a faction as a "number of citizens...united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." Though he acknowledged that partisan differences were inevitable in a free society, Madison feared these differences would bring "instability, injustice, and confusion...into the public councils." The only value Madison would grant party animosities was a negative one: by their diversity and competition they would cancel each other out, making it difficult for dangerous majorities to form or to stay together if they did combine.

Madison changed such views when he himself became a partisan in the 1790s. Believing that Hamilton's financial, economic and diplomatic plans for the young republic were both bad policy and contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution, he organized an opposition in Congress that was called "Mr. Madison's party." This became the basis for the nation's first organized national political party, the Democratic Republicans, led by Madison and Jefferson in opposition to the policies of president John Adams. Their party efforts in the press and through local political clubs helped to bring about Jefferson's defeat of Adams in the presidential election of 1800.

Madison maintained that his partisan activity had not betrayed his earlier principles. Popular elections, as he had said in his Federalist essays, were a legitimate way of preventing bad government. A party that represented the true majority in the nation, he argued, was consistent with the ideals of representative government and republicanism, especially in opposition to those who sought to undermine such principles. Madison's critics, however, accused him of hypocrisy. He had drafted the Constitution with the object of shielding those in government from popular passions. As a party politician, his critics argued, Madison was now playing to such passions for his own ends.

It is doubtful that Madison realized in the 1790s that his partisan activities were laying the basis for a national party system in the United States. In his later years, however, he concluded that political parties had become unavoidable in America because "the Constitution itself must be an unfailing source of party distinctions." The growing sectionalism of party differences and the deep political divide over the issue of slavery, however, alarmed him. He hoped that for the sake of the Union Americans might overcome their partisan animosities and emulate the Framers' spirit of compromise.

  1. Do you agree with Madison's early definition of a faction? Why or why not? Is there a difference between a "faction" and a "party"? Explain your position.
  2. Was Madison consistent throughout his public career in his views and practice regarding political parties? Explain your position.
  3. Why did Madision become a party politician?
  4. Do the growing sectional differences of American parties in the early nineteenth century and their sharp divisions over such issues as slavery undermine Madison's belief that large-scale republics worked better than smaller ones? Why or why not?
  5. The two-party system was not envisioned by the Framers in their drafting of the Constitution. Had it been, would they have drafted a different document? Would they have changed their views about separated powers and checks and balances? Why or why not?
  6. Do you think a party system works better with a system of divided powers or with a parliamentary system of government? Explain your position.
  7. Do you agree with Madison that differing interpretations of the Constitution make political parties inevitable? What other factors help determine party differences today?

What was Madison's position on slavery?

Another issue on which Madison had difficulty living up to his ideals was the institution of slavery. Slavery remained a moral dilemma for him. He denounced the institution but lived off the fruits of slave labor all his life. Financial difficulties late in life led Madison to sell some slaves and he decided against freeing his slaves upon his death in order to provide for his wife's later years.

Nevertheless, Madison remained a consistent and persistent critic of the institution of slavery throughout his public career. The influence of Dolley Madison's Quaker background may have strengthened his anti-slavery sentiments. At the Philadelphia Convention Madison denounced slavery and was instrumental in keeping the words "slave" and "slavery" out of the Constitution in order that it not acknowledge expressly a "property in men."

Why did Madison find slavery a moral dilemma?

Madison believed that slavery harmed both slave and slaveholder. It violated the natural rights of the former and corrupted the civic virtue of the latter, undermining the slaveholder's moral integrity and instilling in him a contempt for honest labor. Madison also believed that slavery tainted the American experiment in self-government, which he regarded as an important turning point in the history of the world.

Madison hoped that the end of the foreign slave trade in 1808 would force planters to hire free labor and that westward expansion would disperse the slave population and diminish the economic value of slavery to the south. Pessimistic about the ability of freed blacks and whites to live together in one society, however, he actively supported colonization efforts that sent free blacks back to Africa. Madison also feared that a quick solution to the slavery problem threatened the Union. Even though he regarded the institution as "this dreadful calamity which has so long afflicted our country and filled so many with despair," Madison, like Lincoln a generation later, placed the survival of the Union first. In his last public statement, "Advice to My Country," Madison declared it to be "nearest my heart and deepest in my convictions" that "the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated."

Why did Madison decide to publish his notes of the Philadelphia Convention?

The wisdom of compromise, even with so difficult an issue as slavery, was one lesson Madison hoped his fellow citizens might learn from the work of the Philadelphia Convention. The last surviving Framer, Madison feared that with the passage of years the significance of that work was in danger of becoming a lost inheritance to future generations of Americans. He therefore arranged for his notes of the Convention to be published after his death. A public record of the Framers' deliberations, he hoped, would put their work in its proper historical context and help to secure its legacy for the future.

Reviewing and Using the Lesson

  1. Madison was both a philosopher and a politician. What were the strengths and weaknesses of each of these attributes? How successful do you believe Madison was in combining the two roles?
  2. A modern historian has described Madison's preparation for the Philadelphia Convention as "the most fruitful research project any American has ever undertaken." Would you agree or disagree with that statement? Explain your position.
  3. Why was Madison disappointed with the Great Compromise? Why did he consider equal representation of the states to be inconsistent with republican principles?
  4. What did Madison mean when he said that the new Constitution would provide a "republican remedy" for the "diseases most incident to republican government"?
  5. Why did Madison believe that a republican form of government had a better chance of working on a large rather than on a small scale?
  6. Do you agree with Madison that even a republican form of government must rely more on self-interest than civic virtue? Explain your position. How does Madison's understanding of republicanism differ from that of the ancients?
  7. Why did Madison believe that the system of checks and balances provided for in the new Constitution would allow individual self-interest to serve the common good? Do you agree with him? Does the Constitution realize that objective today?
  8. Why did Madison change his mind about the need for a bill of rights in the Constitution?
  9. Why did Madison believe that slavery harmed the slaveholder as well as the slave?
  10. To what extent do you believe the actions of particular individuals can shape the course of history? Explain your position using Madison's life as an example.

A Note to Teachers

The 250th anniversary of James Madison's birth in 1751 offered an appropriate opportunity to examine this Founder's contributions to American constitutionalism and politics. To this end, the Center for Civic Education collaborated with James Madison's Montpelier to produce this supplement to 
We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, to be read after students covered the material in Lessons 1 through 21. You should reference, in particular, discussions of Madison in Lessons 3 and 11–20.

For additional reading

Brant, Irving. The Life of James Madison (6 vols.; Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1941-61).

The Federalist
(available in several editions including Clinton Rossiter, ed., New York: New American Library, 1961; Gary Wills, ed., Toronto: Bantam Books, 1987; George W. Carey et al., Dubuque, IA: Kendell/Hunt, 1990).

Farrand, Max. The Framing of the Constitution of the United States (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1913; reprint Buffalo, NY: W.S. Hein, 2000).

Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1971; reprint Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990).

McCoy, Drew R. The Last of the Founders: James Madison and the Republican Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Madison, James. Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987).

_____. "Vices of the Political System of the United States," The Papers of James Madison, eds. William T. Hutchinson et al. (17 vols.; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962-1991), 9, 345-58.

_____. Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999).

Matthews, Richard K. If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

Mattern, David. James Madison's "Advice to My Country"(Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1997).

Meyers, Marvin, ed. The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1981).

Miller, William Lee. The Business of May Next: James Madison and the Founding (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1992).

Patrick, John J. James Madison and the Federalist Papers(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Social Studies, 1990).

Peterson, Merrill D., ed. James Madison: A Biography in His Own Words (New York: Newsweek, 1974).

Rakove, Jack N. James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic, ed. Oscar Handlin (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown, 1990).

Rutland, Robert A. James Madison: The Founding Father (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987).

_____, ed. James Madison and the American Nation, 1751-1836: An Encyclopedia (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).

For younger readers:

Fritz, Jean. The Magnificent Little Madison (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1989).

Pflueger, Lynda. Dolley Madison: Courageous First Lady(Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1999).


Homepage of the Center for Civic Education with information about its programs and publications.

Homepage of James Madison's Montpelier, with information about the history, archaeology, landscape, and activities associated with Montpelier.

Homepage of the Papers of James Madison Project, University of Virginia, with a sampling of original documents as well as biographical and bibliographical information.

Madison's Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, Federalist essays, and other writings are available on the Internet in various digital archives, including the Avalon Project of the Yale University Law School at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/.

This supplement commemorating the 250th anniversary of James Madison's birth was cosponsored by the Center for Civic Education and The Montpelier Foundation, in Orange, Virginia.

The Center for Civic Education is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational corporation dedicated to fostering the development of informed, responsible participation in civic life by citizens committed to the values and principles fundamental to American constitutional democracy. The Center specializes in civic/citizenship education, law-related education, and international education exchange programs for developing democracies.

For additional information on the Center's programs and curricula, contact the Center for Civic Education, 5115 Douglas Fir Road, Suite J, Calabasas, CA 91302; telephone: 818-591-9321; e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; website: www.civiced.org.

The Montpelier Foundation is a nonprofit organization established to administer and operate James Madison's Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site. It sponsors exhibits, special events, and educational programs, and is the administrative home of the We the People Programs in Virginia. For more information, contact James Madison's Montpelier, http://www.montpelier.org/.

We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution is directed by the Center for Civic Education. This lesson is funded by the U.S. Department of Education grant #R929A990001A.

Copyright Center for Civic Education. All rights reserved. Teachers may print, photocopy, and use this lesson for nonprofit, educational purposes. Copyright must be acknowledged on all copies. All other uses require the prior written permission of the Center for Civic Education.



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