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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 501

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This is the grave of James Madison.

Born in 1751 on a plantation near Port Conway, Virginia, Madison grew up as a member of the Virginia slaveholding elite. He was the oldest child and thus inherited his father’s large tobacco plantation upon the father’s death. A brilliant and studious child, he read and spoke several languages. He avoided William and Mary, the school of the colony’s elites, in part because the lowland climate seemed to risk the health of the slight boy, but also because it was a party school and Madison was very serious. So he went to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) instead. He graduated in 1771 but stuck around another year to learn Hebrew. He returned to his family house at Montpelier and threw himself into politics.

Madison was definitely not a fighting man when the American Revolution started. Barely five feet tall and less than 100 pounds, this was not a soldier. But he was highly committed to the Patriot cause. He strongly believed in the separation of church and state and believed Parliament had overstepped its authority in taxing the colonies. In 1774, he sat on the local Committee of Safety that oversaw the local militia. And even though he wasn’t a fighting man, because he was the son of a leading planter, he was commissioned as the colonel of the Orange County militia when war broke out, serving under his father. But he never saw battle. Instead, he was involved in creating Virginia’s revolutionary government and was then elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1779. Madison quickly saw the government under the Articles of Confederation as a disaster, especially since it couldn’t independently raise money and, you know, fight the war effectively. Madison proposed an amendment to allow this, but since all 13 states didn’t ratify it, it never went into effect, despite George Washington’s support. He served in the Congress until 1783 and then returned to Virginia.

Back home, he and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom. He also openly advocated for changing the Articles of Confederation. He believed it was an unworkable system. In addition to the problem of raising money, it also didn’t allow the new nation to have a functional foreign policy. So when the Constitutional Convention happened in 1787, Madison played a leading role in writing the new document. That included coming up with the Virginia Plan, which created most of the modern government, including the three independent branches and the bicameral Congress. His plan was heavily revised during the convention, but it became the outline of the Constitution. Madison then went on to defend the new document against its many detractors, writing 29 of the Federalist Papers, working with his then ally Alexander Hamilton after John Jay dropped out of the project. He initially did not want to be at the front of getting Virginia to ratify the document, but with it dead in the water if it did not and with a very strong opposition led by Patrick Henry, he agreed, working with George Washington to get Edmund Randolph and other moderates on board with the agreement that what became the Bill of Rights was to follow.

Madison ran for Congress when the Virginia Senate, controlled by Henry, elected to strong anti-Federalists. Madison, worried that his own political career was in jeopardy and that Virginia could still blow up the whole deal, got back involved. As such, he was deeply engaged in the breakup of the consensus there was among the original Federalists, starting to break with Hamilton over the debt payoff plan that helped northern bankers over southern states that had already paid off their debts. He saw the Bill of Rights through Congress personally. Madison believed that Hamilton’s Bank of the United States threatened the republican nature of the country. Madison began to believe that Hamilton’s entire belief system violated the Constitution they had worked so hard together to create. He became the de facto leader of the Democratic-Republicans when Jefferson left Washington’s Cabinet in 1793. His strong opposition to the Jay Treaty, which he believed sold out U.S. interests, ended his long friendship with George Washington. It was also during this period that Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, a widow with one son whose first husband had died in the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic.

Madison declined to run for reelection in 1796 and returned to Montpelier for the Adams administration. But he stayed involved in opposing the High Federalism of Hamilton and his cronies. That included writing the Virginia Resolution in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Now, Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution pushed nullification as the answer. But Madison rejected this. Rather, Madison urged Virginia and other states to pass resolutions declaring the law unconstitutional, but not to interfere with its enforcement. After all, nullification would make running the country impossible. Madison also worked hard for Jefferson’s election to replace Adams. Of course, that was successful and Madison became Secretary of State.

At State, Madison was aggressive in pushing America’s interests in the West, long a great interest of his. When Jefferson dithered over the Louisiana Purchase because he didn’t think he had constitutional authority to make it, Madison basically told him to knock it off and submit the purchase to Congress to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. He tried to buy Florida off Spain as well, but that nation, furious that Napoleon had sold Louisiana to an expansionist U.S. that would soon threaten its northern territories, refused to discuss the matter. But overall, Madison’s foreign policy was pretty half-baked. He believed the U.S. was way stronger and more important internationally than it was. This went back to this opposition to the Jay Treaty, as if the U.S. had a leg to stand on. This continued with him pushing Jefferson’s Embargo, probably the stupidest foreign policy decision in this nation’s long history of stupid foreign policy decisions. “We are a weak country getting bullied by the world’s two strongest powers who are at war with each other. Let’s show both of them by refusing to trade with anyone and torpedo our own economy!”

Despite a lot of anger at Jefferson and Madison over the Embargo, Madison managed to succeed Jefferson in 1809 as president. At best, he was OK. His bad foreign policy continued to plague the nation. The War of 1812 was incredibly irresponsible and could have led to the reconquest of it by the British. The U.S. is very lucky that this did not happen. This isn’t to hand wave away how the British had treated the U.S., especially over impressment, but this was a disastrous decision. The American invasion of Canada was a disaster and of course the British burned Washington, D.C. The nation did not have the money to fight the war and had to take out high-interest loans from New York bankers. Yes, the British suffered a catastrophic defeat at New Orleans, after the war was officially over since the British had no real reason to keep impressing American sailors after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but the U.S. was so very lucky here and the entire affair does not reflect well on Madison.

Madison left office in 1817, at the age of 65, and returned to Montpelier. Because the nation had won the war, he was very popular and he had moved slightly off his strict constructionism as well, approving the second Bank of the United States, which didn’t hurt. He mostly stayed out of public affairs after this, serving as a senior statesman. If you wanted Madison’s advice, you went to Montpelier, as Jackson did during the Nullification crisis to get assurance that Madison opposed John C. Calhoun and allies’ actions in South Carolina. The only time he took an active role in politics again was at the 1829 Virginia Constitutional Convention, when he actively tried but failed to create a compromise for equal representation of the western counties with those of the more established plantation east. The real issue was that the eastern counties demanded that slaves count for apportionment at the same time that suffrage was extended for all white men. This allowed the planters to continue dominate the state, a reflection of the broader issues in American governance which Madison himself was partially responsible for.

Oh yeah, and of course everything Madison did and accomplished happened because he had slaves laboring for him. He was born into a slave society that cared for his every need and he died being taken care of by slaves. When slaves disobeyed, he had them punished. When he needed to raise money, increasingly important due to Dolley’s loser son spending all their resources, he sold them, breaking up families. He was as awful as every other slaveholder, as visitors to Montpelier find out today when the take the award winning tours of the plantation that hide nothing about Madison’s rank and unforgivable hypocrisy.

Later in life, worried about both money and his legacy, Madison began trying to rewrite his history, deleting things from letters that did not reflect well upon him. He died in 1836 of congestive heart failure. He did not free a single slave in his will, nor had he ever freed a slave. He did give a bunch of money to the American Colonization Society to move freed slaves to Liberia, which was a disaster.

James Madison is buried at Montpelier, Orange County, Virginia. Dolley is next to him, but she is deserving of her own post, which will come later in the series.

This grave visit was paid for by LGM reader donations and for that I am extremely grateful. I wrote shortly after my visit of how Montpelier interprets slavery and that first-hand knowledge is going to be useful for my own teaching and writing into the future, so I double thank all of you who keep this series alive. If you would like this series to visit more presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Henry Harrison is in North Bend, Ohio and Andrew Johnson is in Greeneville, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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