James Madison was born on March 16, 1751 in Virginia to a family of prosperous farmers. For most of his life he suffered from poor health and so he did not attend the College of William and Mary like most college-bound Virginians. The lowland climate was prone to mosquitoes and infectious diseases, which his immune system would not have been able to fight off had he contracted one. He lived on a large plantation mansion called Montpelier. Like most large plantation owners in Virginia, Madison owned slaves and he also supported the Three-Fifths Compromise during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Madison did marry, but he never had children of his own.
Madison was a very well educated man – because his parents were wealthy landowners, they could offered to send him to Donald Robertson’s school when he was 12. There he studied arithmetic, geography, algebra, and geometry. He learned Latin and Greek and acquired a reading knowledge of French. Madison attended the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton. He studied Hebrew and Ethics and earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1771. The College of New Jersey was where Madison became well versed in Enlightenment thinking, including the works of John Locke, who was a heavy influence on Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance.” Madison tried to fit two years of coursework into one, over working himself and becoming ill. He returned home once again and began to study law.
Madison was also tutored by Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon in theology. Witherspoon was a leader of the Great Awakening and served as president of the College of New Jersey, which was a Presbyterian college at the time. Witherspoon was also the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Influenced by Witherspoon, Madison became passionate about religious freedom for dissenters such as Presbyterians. In fact, he worked extensively for the freedom of preachers who had been jailed for dissenting from the established church. Madison even briefly considered entering ministry. He wrote a letter to a college friend in 1773 claiming that the rising stars of his generation had renounced their secular prospects and “publically…declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ.” However, two months later Madison renounced his prospects in ministry and began to study law.
Although Madison was raised Episcopalian and attended St. John’s Episcopal Church while he served as President of the United States, there is not much evidence leading to his personal religious beliefs. In fact, scholars tend to disagree about Madison’s religion based on their own religious beliefs. For example, William C. Rives was Madison’s nineteenth-century biographer and was also a pillar of the church in Virginia. He asserted that on Christianity’s “doctrinal points” Madison was a model of “orthodoxy and penetration.” Madison’s twentieth-century biographer Irving Brant had no affiliation with the church and bluntly pronounced Madison a deist. In 1966 James Smylie, who was a Presbyterian minister and a scholar, claimed that Madison was nothing less than “a lay theologian.”
Madison was heavily involved in politics both at the state and federal level, even at a young age. He served as a delegate to the Virginia Convention in 1776 where they passed the Virginia Declaration of Rights declaring that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” Madison was responsible for this wording – he proposed a small but profound change in George Mason’s wording of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Rather than guaranteeing mere religious “toleration,” Madison successfully argued that the Virginia Declaration of Rights should be amended to express the right to “free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” This subtle change recognized that the freedom of conscience was a right that belonged to all citizens, not a privilege that the government could choose to tolerate.
In 1778 Madison was elected to the Virginia Council of State, which was the governmental body that directed state affairs in Virginia during the Revolutionary War. Madison returned to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1784, where he convinced the General Assembly to postpone a decision on Patrick Henry’s assessment bill and began to construct “Memorial and Remonstrance.” Madison served as a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and proposed the Virginia Plan, which essentially served as the blueprint for the Constitution. It is because of this contribution that Madison is traditionally regarded as the “Father of the Constitution”. The Virginia Plan detailed a bicameral national legislature with the lower house directly elected by the people, an executive chosen by the legislature, and an independent judiciary including the Supreme Court.
Having essentially written the document, Madison was one of the largest advocates for the Constitution’s ratification. Along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, Madison wrote the Federalist Papers, which promoted ratification and argued for a strong central government with extensive check and balances. Madison’s Federalist No. 10 cautions against the power of a majority, which is echoed in “Memorial and Remonstrance”.