Name: James Madison, Jr.
Lifespan: March 16, 1751 – June 28, 1836
Home State: Virginia
Served as President: 1809-1817
Vice President: George Clinton (1809-1812); none (1812-1813); Elbridge Gerry (1813-1814); none (1814-1817)
Spouse: Dolley Madison
Historian Rank: 13
Why you may LOVE him…
James Madison is rightfully considered “The Father of the Constitution.” No single man deserves more credit for the painstakingly thorough compromise, dealing and negotiation that led to the United States Constitution. Long before the idea of even a Constitutional Convention was a foregone conclusion, Madison stood at the forefront on a mission to save his country from a mess. After completing the classic document, he exuded qualities of a statesman, teaming up with his philosophical foes John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, penning political classics in The Federalist. In a modern age where compromise and across-the-aisle divulgence is a dirty word, Madison frequently made strange bedfellows, simultaneously representing a staunch federal view while being seen as a champion for state’s rights. After forming the modern United States government, he served as Secretary of State during the grand Louisiana Purchase and rode his popularity to the Presidency himself. As president, he overcame the bitter snickering of “Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War,” by standing firm in the War of 1812 while fairly or unfairly riding the war’s end to a windfall of popularity. When he died in 1836, Madison rightfully looked back at a thriving University of Virginia which he ushered into greatness ten years after the death of his mentor Thomas Jefferson. He also saw a solid economy he had a hand in forming for early 19th century America. Always the public figure, one can hardly go a mile in southern Virginia without seeing a testament to this American great.
Why you may HATE him…
Madison is either naive, a hypocrite or both. Not because he owned slaves while he extolled the virtues of equality. Not because he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase that conflicted with his constitutional views. Not even because he fancied himself a pragmatist despite the British a few miles away and burning DC to the ground. Madison did more to create his own oblivion than any other founder with the exception of Jefferson. An exhaustive list is unnecessary but a few examples can inspire hatred. When his nation almost went to war in 1798, he and Jefferson did not rally around the flag. Through the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions the two men went against their government, advocating the infant theory of nullification and secession. “We didn’t mean that!” they may have argued. It is hardly plausible that two educated men could have believed otherwise. The result was decades of southern hostility to the Federal government especially at times of war and ironically no more present than in the War of 1812. In fact, the Resolutions were used as a precedent for the Northern Secession movement before a general named Andrew Jackson bailed him out. During that war he has the awful distinction of being the only President to helplessly flee DC as a foreign foe burned the White House to the ground. An inept tactician, the War of 1812 was mismanaged from the start and mercifully ended two years later as barely a stalemate. His private life also exposed his seemingly endless inconsistencies. Once again, the unfortunate reality of slavery rears its ugly head. In a world where historians struggle to find Madison consistent, he appears more and more opportunist as scholars dig deeper. One could argue that he was a man of his times and we shouldn’t hold him to an impossible moral standard. Yet, Madison lived long enough to experience the rise of abolition. In fact, Madison held onto the mistaken notion of the relocation American Colonization Society even when it was dated and antiquated as an idea. Madison, like his other slaveholding brethren, loved to appear to be against slavery, yet actively sought to expand and increase his slave holdings throughout his life. While Jefferson spent eight years hiding the presence of slaves around the White House, Madison and his wife Dolley brought them out into the open, holding lavish parties all with slave labor. He was exposed to ideas about the freedom of slaves, considered the resolutions during the Convention, and wrote extensively on the subject. However, this “Father” made a decision. His slaves were not 3/5ths as his infamous compromise suggested. They were always his property.
Final Verdict in Five Words: A father important and inconsistent