James Madison (1751–1836) was born near Port Conway, Virginia, into the planter class. He received an excellent education from private tutors and then studied at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He served in the Continental Congress and the Virginia House of Delegates, where, with Thomas Jefferson, he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He represented Virginia at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and his Virginia Plan, with three branches of government and a system of checks and balances, was largely adopted. For his role he is recognized as “The Father of the Constitution.” Madison then, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, penned the Federalist Papers, a series of influential essays that helped build support for the ratification of the new U.S. Constitution. When the new government went into operation in 1789, Madison was immediately elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he sponsored the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. Opposed to Hamilton’s economic program and efforts to strengthen the power of the central government, Madison aligned with Thomas Jefferson to form the Democratic-Republican Party. After Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, he appointed Madison secretary of state.
As secretary, Madison cooperated closely with President Jefferson. He helped organize negotiations with France that led to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, doubling the size of the United States. Madison also supported Jefferson’s decision to launch a naval war against the Barbary States of North Africa to protect American shipping from state-sponsored piracy. The most critical foreign policy issue of Madison’s term, however, was the continuing war between Great Britain and France. Although as early as 1793 the United States, under President George Washington, had proclaimed neutrality and an intention to trade freely with both warring counties, each side continued to attack U.S. commercial ships. When diplomatic talks broke down, Madison and Jefferson adopted the Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited trade with all countries, and the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which prohibited trade with just Britain and France. But the prohibitions backfired, harming the U.S. economy, especially after European powers reciprocated with their own trade limitations.
Madison became president in 1809, and his two terms were dominated by the continuing war between Great Britain and France. In 1812 he led the United States into war against Great Britain, not only because of continuing trade violations and attacks but especially because of the British practice of impressment—seizing American sailors off American vessels and forcing them to serve in the British Navy. In 1814 the British invaded the Chesapeake Bay, marched on Washington, and burned government buildings in the city. But already a peace commission was meeting in Ghent, Belgium, and a peace treaty was signed at the very end of the year.
Madison was determined to rebuild the capital in the City of Washington, and the White House, which had nearly been destroyed by fire, was almost completed when his term ended. He retired to his Virginia mansion, Montpelier.
Paris Nast Porcelain Plate from President James Madison's Service