James Madison: Why Some Succeed While Others Fail


This biography of James Madison was written by H.A. Lewis in his book, Hidden Treasures: Why Some Succeed While Others Fail (1887). "From his earliest years he was an intense scholar. His memory was singularly tenacious, and what he clearly understood was ever afterward retained. He thus laid up that great store of learning which, in the conventions of 1787-8 especially proved so effective, and later made him president."
James Madison: Why Some Succeed While Others Fail

The subject of this narrative, James Madison, was born at King George, Virginia, March 16th, 1751. His father was a planter, descended from John Madison, an Englishman who settled in Virginia about the year 1656. The maiden name of his mother was Eleanor Conway. He was the eldest of seven children. He received a fairly good education but better still, he applied himself very closely at college, so much so as to make him noted in this respect; the result was seen in after years.

In 1772 he returned to Virginia and commenced a course of legal study. He particularly studied up on public affairs, and in the spring of 1776 he was elected a member of the Virginia convention from the county of Orange, and procured the passage of the substance of an amendment to the declaration of rights, by George Mason, which struck out the old term 'toleration' and inserted a broader exposition of religious rights. In the same year he was a member of the general assembly, but lost his election in 1777, from his refusal to treat the voters, and the general want of confidence in his powers of oratory. Thus, it is seen, that as James Madison's natural abilities could not have been very marked, his success was the natural result of great exertion.

The legislature, however, on meeting in November of the same year, elected him a member of the council of the State; and in the winter of 1779 he was chosen by the assembly a delegate to congress. He took his seat in March, 1780, and remained in that body for three[183] years. He strongly opposed the issue of paper money by the States, and was in favor of a formal recommendation on the part of congress against the continuance of the system. As chairman of the committee to prepare instructions to the ministers at Versailles and Madrid, in support of the claims of the confederacy to western territory and the free navigation of the Mississippi, he drew an elaborate and able paper which was unanimously adopted by congress. He zealously advocated in 1783 the measure proposed to establish a system of general revenue to pay the expenses of the war, and as chairman of the committee to which the matter was referred, prepared an able address to the State in support of the plan, which was adopted by congress and received the warm approval of Washington.

The people of Virginia now began to realize the value of his services; a striking proof of which is exhibited by the fact that the law rendering him inelligible after three years' service in Congress was repealed, in order that he might sit during the fourth. On his return to Virginia he was elected to the Legislature, and took his seat during 1784. In this body he inaugurated the measures relating to a thorough revision of the old statutes, and supported the bills introduced by the revisors, Jefferson, Wyth, and Pendleton, on the subject of entails, primogeniture (exclusive heirship belonging to the first born) and religious freedom.

He aided in the separation of Kentucky from Virginia, and the formation of the new State, opposed the further issue of paper money, and favored the payment of debts due British creditors. His greatest service at this time was his preparation, after the close of the assembly, of a "Memorial and Remonstrance" against[184] the project of a general assessment for the support of religion, which caused the utter defeat of the measure, against which it was directed. In January, 1786, he obtained the passage of a bill by the General Assembly inviting the other States to appoint commissioners to meet at Annapolis and devise a new system of commercial regulations. He was chosen one of the commissioners, and attended at Annapolis in September of the same year. Five States only were represented, and the commissioners recommended a convention of delegates from all the States to meet at Philadelphia, in May, 1787. The recommendation was generally adopted and, of course, Madison was chosen one of the delegates from Virginia.

The convention assembled and the result was the abrogation of the old articles and the formation of the Constitution of the United States. Madison was prominent in advocating the Constitution and took a leading part in the debates, of which he kept private notes, since published by order of congress. His views of a federal government are set forth at length in a paper still extant in the hand-writing of Washington, which contains the substance of a letter written to Washington by Madison before the meeting of the convention, proposing a scheme of thorough centralization. The writer declares that he is equally opposed to 'the individual independence of the States,' and to 'the consolidation of the whole into one simple republic.'

He is nevertheless in favor to invest in congress the power to exercise 'a negative in all cases whatever on the legislative acts of the States, as heretofore exercised by the kingly prerogative.' He says further 'that the right of coercion should be expressly declared; but the[185] difficulty and awkwardness of operating by force on the collective will of a State, render it particularly desirable that the necessity of it should be precluded.' From these extreme views Madison conscientiously departed, but in the convention he supported them with zeal and vigor.

The scheme known as the 'Virginia Plan' was adopted instead, and the convention adjourned. The subsequent adoption of the Constitution was in a large measure due to a series of essays, now familiar in their collected form as "The Federalist." They were commenced in a New York newspaper soon after the adjournment of the Convention, and continued to appear until June, 1788. The public journals everywhere republished them, and it was soon known that they were the work of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. The volume remains the forcible exposition upon the side which it espoused. The whole ground is surveyed, generally and in detail; the various points at issue are discussed with the utmost acuteness, and the advantages of the adoption of the instrument urged with logical force and eloquence which place "The Federalist" beside the most famous political writings of the old English worthies.

The Virginia convention, of which Madison was a member, assembled in June. He had completely overcome his natural diffidence and, although deficient as an orator, exerted a powerful influence over his associates, contributing as much to the final triumph of the constitution as any one in the body. The instrument was adopted by a vote of eighty-nine to seventy-nine and the convention closed. The part which he had taken in its deliberations very greatly increased Madison's reputation; and he was brought forward as a candidate for United States Senator but was defeated. He was, however,[186] chosen a member of congress and took his seat in that body in 1789.

Alexander Hamilton was at the head of the treasury department and Madison was obliged either to support the great series of financial measures initiated by the secretary, or distinctly abandon his former associate and range himself on the side of the republican opposition. He adopted the latter course. Although he had warmly espoused the adoption of the constitution, he was now convinced of the necessity of a strict construction of the powers which it conferred upon the general government. He accordingly opposed the funding bill, the national bank, and Hamilton's system of finance generally.

His affection for Washington, and long friendship for Hamilton, rendered such a step peculiarly disagreeable to a man of Madison's amiable and kindly disposition, but the tone of his opposition did not alienate his friends. Occupying, as he did, the middle ground between the violent partisans on both sides he labored to reconcile the antagonism of the two parties, and always retained the same cordial regard for Washington.

On Jefferson's return from France, Madison was solicited to accept the mission and it was kept open for twelve months awaiting his decision. He declined the place, as he afterwards did the position of Secretary of State on the retirement of Jefferson, from a firm conviction that the radical antagonism of views between himself and a majority of the members of the cabinet would render his acceptance of either office fruitful in misunderstandings and collisions.

He remained in congress, becoming thoroughly identified with the Republicans, and soon became the avowed leader in congress. In 1794 he gave his full support to[187] its foreign policy by moving a series of resolutions, based upon the report of Jefferson, advocating a retaliatory policy toward Great Britain, and commercial discriminations in favor of France. These resolutions he supported in a speech of great ability. In March, 1797, his term expired, and he returned to Virginia.

The insulting treatment of the American envoys to France and the war message of President Adams were about to be followed by the passage of the alien and sedition laws. The Republicans vainly tried to stem the popular current in favor of the measures of the administration. The passing of the alien and sedition laws in July, 1798, gave them the first opportunity to make a stand. Opposition to even these violent measures was however ineffectual in the Federal legislature; and the Republican leaders determined to resort to the State arenas for the decisive struggle.

It commenced in Kentucky, and resulted there in the adoption of a series of resolutions, which were followed, in December, 1798, by similar resolves of the Virginia Assembly. The latter, now known as "the resolutions of 1798-'9," were drawn up by James Madison, not then a member. They declared the determination of the Assembly to defend the Constitution of the United States, but to resist all attempts to enlarge the authority of the federal compact by forced constructions of general clauses, as tending to consolidation, the destruction of the liberties of the States, and finally to a monarchy.

In case of a "deliberate, palpable, and dangerous" exercise of powers not clearly granted to the General Government, the States had a right to interpose; and as the passing of the alien and sedition laws was such an infraction of right, the assembly protested against those[188] laws. The seventh resolution called upon the other States to join with the State of Virginia 'in declaring, as it does hereby declare, that the acts aforesaid are unconstitutional, and that the necessary and proper measures will be taken by each for co-operating with this State in maintaining unimpaired the authorities, rights and liberties reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.'

The resolutions passed the House by a vote of 100 to 63, and were duly communicated to the several States of the Union. They met with little favor, especially in the Northern States. Massachusetts and New England generally remonstrated against them, and declared the obnoxious laws both constitutional and expedient. This drew forth, in the winter of 1799-1800, Madison's "Report" in defence of his resolutions. This elaborate paper subjected the resolves to an exhaustive analysis and defended them with masterly vigor. It is the most famous of his political writings and will rank with the greatest state papers written in America.

Although the resolutions met with an unfavorable reception throughout the States, they exerted a powerful influence on public opinion. Virginia had shown how deeply in earnest she was by directing the establishment of two arsenals, and an armory sufficiently large to store 10,000 muskets and other arms; but a wholesome change in the sentiment of the country happily restored good feeling and softened down all bitterness.

The alien and sedition laws found few supporters ultimately, and Madison's views were fully vindicated. The revulsion against the Federal party and in favor of the Republicans, terminated in the election of Jefferson, who entered upon the presidency in 1801. Madison was[189] Secretary of State during Jefferson's entire administration, and his opinions on public affairs closely agreed with those of the President.

He became still more popular with, and acceptable to, his party and toward the close of Jefferson's second term was generally spoken of as his successor. A caucus of the majority of the Republican members of Congress was finally held, and Madison was nominated. This met with bitter opposition from a wing of the party, headed by John Randolph, who were friendly to the nomination of Monroe. They published a caustic 'Protest' against the action of the caucus and denounced Madison for his 'want of energy,' his connection with the 'Federalist,' and his report upon the Yazoo claims.

His friends defended him against all charges and retorted so strongly upon the authors of the "Protest" that they were silenced. The action of the caucus was generally approved by the party, and Madison was elected by a vote of 123 out of 175, and took his seat as president, March 4, 1809.

President Madison entered upon his duties at a crisis in public affairs which required the utmost foresight, resolution and prudence. Great Britain and the United States were on the verge of war. In 1807 the long series of wrongs inflicted by England upon the commerce of America, and the rights of her seaman, had been consummated by the affair of the Leopard and Chesapeake. This wanton insult had thrown the country into violent commotion, and occasioned the embargo act, which had been succeeded by the non-intercourse act, prohibiting all commerce with France and England, until the decrees of the French emperor and the British orders in council[190] in relation to the seizure of neutrals and the impressment of seamen were repealed.

The first of the British cabinet did not encourage peace. Mr. Erskine, the English minister, in promising reparation for the affair of the Chesapeake, and a repeal of the obnoxious orders in council, on condition of a renewal of intercourse on the part of the United States, was declared to have exceeded his authority, and was recalled. He was succeeded by Mr. Jackson who was authorized to enter into a commercial treaty, but speedily became embroiled with the Secretary of State. The president directed the secretary to have no further communication with him, and soon afterward requested his recall. This was complied with, but no censure was visited upon the envoy, and no other was sent in his place.

In May, 1810, congress approved the course of the executive, declared the official communications of Mr. Jackson highly indecorous and insolent, and passed a new act of non-intercourse. This provided that if either France or England repealed her hostile decree, and the other did not within three months do likewise, then intercourse should be resumed with the one, while with the other non-intercourse should be persisted in.

In August the French minister for Foreign Affairs gave notice to the American minister that the Berlin and Milan decrees had been revoked by the Emperor; and in November Madison issued a proclamation declaring the fact, and announcing that the act of non-intercourse would be revived as to Great Britain unless her orders in council should be revoked within three months from the date of the proclamation.

The British government resisted this demand, on the ground that there was no official evidence of[191] the repeal of the French decrees, and the act of non-intercourse was accordingly declared in full force against Great Britain. In March, 1811, the Emperor Napoleon disavowed the statement of the Duke of Cadore, and declared that "the decrees of Berlin and Milan were the fundamental laws of the empire." American vessels had been seized and held by France even after the president's proclamation, and every overture on the part of the American minister at Paris toward the re-establishment of friendly relations between the two countries was viewed with indifference and utterly failed. The country was slowly but surely drifting toward a war, which no exertions on the part of the administration seemed adequate to prevent.

Madison pushed his pacific views to an extent that proved displeasing to many of the most prominent men of the Republican party. Bills were passed for augmenting the army, repairing and equipping ships of war, organizing and arming the militia, and placing the country in an attitude to resist an enemy; for all which congress appropriated $1,000,000.

Madison acquiesced in this policy with extreme reluctance, but on June 1, 1812, transmitted a special message to congress in which he reviewed the whole controversy, and spoke in strong terms of the aggressions of Great Britain upon commercial rights. The act declaring war between Great Britain and America speedily followed. The president gave it his approval on June 18, and promptly issued his proclamation calling upon the people to prepare for the struggle, and to support the government.

A short delay would probably have defeated the policy of the war party, and re-opened the old negotiations.[192] A decree of the French emperor had been exhibited to the United States minister to France, dated April 28, 1811, which declared the definite revocation of the Berlin and Milan decrees, from and after November 1, 1810. In consequence of this, Great Britain, on June 23, within five days after the declaration of war, repealed the obnoxious orders in council in relation to the rights of neutrals, and thus removed one of the main grounds of complaint on the part of the American government.

On June 26, before the course of the British Cabinet was known in America, Mr. Monroe, Secretary of State, wrote to Mr. Russell proposing the terms of armistice. These were a repeal of the orders in council, with no illegal blockades substituted, and a discontinuance of the impressment of seamen. In the latter part of August, Mr. Russell, our representative at London, received from the English Government a definite refusal to accede to these propositions, as 'on various grounds absolutely inadmissible,' he therefore returned to the United States.

In September Admiral Warren arrived at Halifax. In addition to his naval command, he was invested with powers to negotiate a provisional accommodation with the United States. A correspondence on the subject ensued between himself and Mr. Monroe, as the representatives of the two countries. The admiral proposed an immediate cessation of hostilities, with a view to the peaceful arrangement of the points at issue.

Monroe replied that his government was willing to accede to this proposition, provided Warren was authorized and disposed to negotiate terms for suspending in the future the impressment of American seamen. The British Government refused to relinquish the claim to this right and nothing remained but war.[193]

On March 4, 1813, Madison entered upon his second term of service. He had received 128 electoral votes; his opponent DeWitt Clinton, 89 votes. The congressional elections had resulted in a large majority in favor of the administration, and the war policy seemed to be acceptable to a large majority of the people, though a strong party was opposed to it, and endeavored to obstruct the measures necessary to the vigorous prosecution of hostilities. The war commenced in earnest with the appearance, in 1813, of a British fleet in Chesapeake Bay, and in March the whole coast of the United States, with the exception of Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, was declared in a state of blockade. The long series of engagements on land and water during the war which followed, find their proper place in the general history of our country.

In March, 1813, soon after the commencement of hostilities, the Russian minister to the United States communicated to the American government a proposal from the Emperor Alexander to mediate between the belligerents. The proposition was accepted, and the president appointed commissioners to go to St. Petersburg to negotiate under the mediation of the emperor. Great Britain declined the Russian mediation in September; but in November the American government was informed that that power was prepared to negotiate the terms of a treaty of peace.

Steps were at once taken to meet this proposal. Mr. Clay and Mr. Russell were added to the commission previously appointed, and in January, 1814, joined their associates in Europe. In August of the same year the country was deeply aroused by the attack on the capitol. A British force of 5,000 men ascended the Chesapeake,[194] landed on the shores of the Patuxent, and marched on Washington. The few troops hastily collected were wholly unable to offer any effective resistance and retired before the enemy, who proceeded to the city, burned the capitol, the president's house, and other public buildings, and returned without loss to their ships. The president and several members of his cabinet were in the American camp, but were compelled to abandon the city in order to avoid capture.

The enemy gained little by their movement, and the wanton outrage only increased the bitterness of the people. Among the public occurrences of the year 1814, the meeting of the Hartford convention, in opposition to the continuance of the war, occupies a prominent place. The victory at New Orleans, however, and the intelligence of the conclusion of the treaty of peace, terminated the popular indignation. A treaty of peace had been signed by the United States commissioners at Ghent, on December 4, 1814, and being communicated by the president to the senate, was ratified by that body in February, 1815.

It was silent on the paramount question of impressment, and left the commercial regulations between the two countries for subsequent negotiation. But the country was tired of the war, and the treaty was hailed with acclamation. In this general joy no one person joined more heartily than did Madison. He had acquiesced reluctantly to the commencement of hostilities, and had longed for peace since the beginning. The country came out of a war, which cost her 30,000 lives and $1,000,000, stronger and more honored than before; thoroughly convinced of her own power and resources,[195] and regarded with increased respect by all the nations of the world.

In 1815 a commercial treaty was concluded with Great Britain based upon a policy of perfect reciprocity. The subjects of impressment and blockades were not embraced in it. The return of peace disbanded the organized opposition to the administration, and the remainder of Madison's term was undisturbed by exciting events.

In April, 1816, congress incorporated a national bank with a capital of $35,000,000, to continue for twenty years. The president had vetoed a similar bill in January of the preceding year, but now approved of it, from a conviction that the derangement of the currency made it necessary. It encountered strong opposition, but was supported by Henry Clay and other friends of the president, and passed both houses.

In December, 1816, Madison sent in his last annual message to congress. Its recommendations were considered judicious and liberal, and secured the general approbation of the country.

On March 4, 1817, his long official relations with the country terminated, and he retired to his farm at Montpelier, Virginia. In this pleasant retreat he passed the remainder of his days in agricultural pursuits. Like most of our famous men, his matrimonial connection was a source of great advantage to him. During his later years, in spite of his ill-health, Madison still busied himself in service to his neighbors.

While at school, for months together, he had slept but three hours out of the twenty-four. He was not an orator naturally; many others of his schoolmates, it is stated, were far superior to him in natural abilities.[196] Why, then, did he succeed, while so many others failed? The strong feature whereby he won success was, like that of many others, his capacity for hard work.

As to Madison's principles, it will be remembered that he was defeated in 1777, because he refused to treat the people to liquor. In 1829 he sat in the Virginia Convention to reform the old constitution. When he rose to utter a few words the members left their seats and crowded around the venerable figure dressed in black, with his thin gray hair powdered as in former times, to catch the low whisper of his voice. This was his last appearance in public.

If not endowed with the very first order of ability, Madison had trained his mind until it was symmetrical and vigorous. An unfailing accuracy and precision marked the operation of his faculties. He was naturally deficient in powers of oratory, and yet made himself one of the most effective speakers of his time, although the epoch was illustrated by such men in his own State as Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, George Mason and Edmund Pendleton, to say nothing of Jefferson and Monroe.

Jefferson's testimony on this point is strong: He says: "Mr. Madison came into the house in 1776, a new member, and young; which circumstances, concurring with his extreme modesty, prevented his venturing himself in debate before his removal to the council of state in November, 1777. Thence he went to Congress, then consisting of but few members. Trained in these successive schools, he acquired a habit of self-possession which placed at ready command the rich resources of his luminous mind, and of his extensive information, acquired by intense application, which rendered him[197] eventually the first of every assembly of which he afterward became a member."

"Never wandering from his subject into vain declamation, but pursuing it closely, in language pure, classical, and copious, always soothing the feelings of his adversaries by civilities and softness of expression. He steadily rose to the high station which he held in the great national convention of 1787. In that of Virginia which followed, he sustained the new constitution in all its parts, bearing off the palm against the logic of George Mason, and the burning eloquence of Mr. Henry. With these consummate powers was united a pure and spotless virtue which no calumny has ever attempted to sully."

From his earliest years he was an intense scholar. His memory was singularly tenacious, and what he clearly understood was ever afterward retained. He thus laid up that great store of learning which, in the conventions of 1787-8 especially proved so effective, and later made him president. After Washington, no public man of his time was more widely known or more highly loved and respected.

The public confidence in, and respect for his honesty and singleness of aim toward the good of the country ripened into an affectionate attachment. His bearing and address were characterized by simplicity and modesty. He resembled a quiet student, rather than the head of a great nation. He was a perfect gentleman.

At another time Jefferson said of him: "From three and thirty years' trial I can say conscientiously that I do not know in the whole world a man of purer integrity, more dispassionate, disinterested, and devoted to true republicanism; nor could I in the whole scope of America and Europe point out an abler head." What more[198] could be said? O that we could have such a monument left to mark our memory.

You may also enjoy Lewis' story about Benjamin Franklin. Learn about other interesting Americans and their writings that helped shape the country in American History.


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