James Madison was born on March 16, 1751 in Port Conway, Virginia. Madison was born at the home of his maternal grandmother. The son and namesake of a leading Orange county landowner and squire, he maintained his lifelong home in Virginia at Montpelier, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 1769 he rode horseback to the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), selected for its hostility to episcopacy. He completed the four-year course in two years, finding time also to demonstrate against England and to lampoon members of a rival literary society in ribald verse. Overwork produced several years of epileptoid hysteria and premonitions of early death, which thwarted military training but did not prevent home study of public law, mixed with early advocacy of independence (1774) and furious denunciation of the imprisonment of nearby dissenters from the established Anglican Church. Madison never became a church member, but in maturity he expressed a preference for Unitarianism.
As a young man during the American Revolutionary War, Madison served in the Virginia state legislature (1776–79), where he became known as a protégé of the delegate Thomas Jefferson. He had earlier witnessed the persecution of Baptist preachers in Virginia, who were arrested for preaching without a license from the established Anglican Church. He worked with the Baptist preacher Elijah Craig on constitutional guarantees for religious liberty in Virginia. Working on such cases helped form his ideas about religious freedom, which he applied to the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Madison attained prominence in Virginia politics, working with Jefferson to draft the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was finally passed in 1786. It disestablished the Church of England and disclaimed any power of state compulsion in religious matters. He excluded Patrick Henry's plan to compel citizens to pay taxes that would go to a congregation of their choice.
In 1777 Madison's cousin, the Right Reverend James Madison (1749–1812), became president of The College of William & Mary. Working closely with Madison and Jefferson, Bishop Madison helped lead the College through the changes involving separation from both Great Britain and the Church of England. He also led college and state actions that resulted in the formation of the new Episcopal Diocese of Virginia after the Revolution.
As the youngest delegate to the Continental Congress (1780–83), Madison was considered a legislative workhorse and a master of parliamentary coalition building. He persuaded Virginia to give up its claims to northwestern territories—consisting of most of modern-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota—to the Continental Congress. It created the Northwest Territory in 1783, as a federally supervised territory from which new states would be developed and admitted to the union. Virginia's land claims had partially overlapped with those by Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and possibly others. All of these states ceded their westernmost lands to national authority, with the understanding that new states could be formed from the land.
The Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the new territory north of the Ohio River, but did not end it for those slaves held by settlers already in the territory. Madison was elected a second time to the Virginia House of Delegates, serving from 1784 to 1786 in the new years of independence. During these final years in the House of Delegates, Madison grew increasingly frustrated with what he saw as excessive democracy. He criticized the tendency for delegates to cater to the particular interests of their constituents, even if such interests were destructive to the state at large. In particular, he was troubled by a law that denied diplomatic immunity to ambassadors from other countries, and a law that legalized paper money. He thought legislators should be "disinterested" and act in the interests of their state at large, even if this contradicted the wishes of constituents. This "excessive democracy," Madison grew to believe, was the cause of a larger social decay which he and others (such as Washington) believed had resumed after the revolution and was nearing a tipping point. They were alarmed by Shays' Rebellion
As President Jefferson's Secretary of State, Madison protested to warring France and Britain that their seizure of American ships was contrary to international law. The protests, John Randolph acidly commented, had the effect of "a shilling pamphlet hurled against eight hundred ships of war." Despite the unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which did not make the belligerent nations change their ways but did cause a depression in the United States, Madison was elected President in 1808. Before he took office the Embargo Act was repealed.
During the first year of Madison's Administration, the United States prohibited trade with both Britain and France; then in May, 1810, Congress authorized trade with both, directing the President, if either would accept America's view of neutral rights, to forbid trade with the other nation. Napoleon pretended to comply. Late in 1810, Madison proclaimed non-intercourse with Great Britain. In Congress a young group including Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, the "War Hawks," pressed the President for a more militant policy.
The British impressment of American seamen and the seizure of cargoes impelled Madison to give in to the pressure. On June 1, 1812, he asked Congress to declare war. The young Nation was not prepared to fight; its forces took a severe trouncing. The British entered Washington and set fire to the White House and the Capitol.
But a few notable naval and military victories, climaxed by Gen. Andrew Jackson's triumph at New Orleans, convinced Americans that the War of 1812 had been gloriously successful. An upsurge of nationalism resulted. The New England Federalists who had opposed the war--and who had even talked secession--were so thoroughly repudiated that Federalism disappeared as a national party.
In retirement at Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Virginia, Madison spoke out against the disruptive states' rights influences that by the 1830's threatened to shatter the Federal Union. In a note opened after his death in 1836, he stated, "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated."