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James Madison Jr. entered the world at midnight of the night of April 16– 17, 1751. By chance, he was an American prince.
James Madison Sr., the master of Montpelier in Piedmont Virginia’s semifrontier Orange County, was the wealthiest man in the county. His lands were extensive, his slaveholdings were notable, and his family connections were impressive. In a society that privileged the wealthy to a notable degree, James Jr.’s world was his oyster.
Piedmont Virginia lay west of the Tidewater region that had been dominated by Virginia planters for well over a century. Life was cruder there, and tradition less powerful. Social status figured very strongly in a young man’s life, but not to the degree that it did in the coastal counties. If ever a common Virginian doffed his hat as young Madison passed, Madison was not quite so snobbish as a Byrd, Carter, or Harrison. Still, like them, Madison knew his place.
As the scion of a prominent planter family, Madison—unlike most Virginia boys—received an enviable education. First, he attended a small school for sons of the elite in King and Queen County run by Donald Robertson. Next, from 1767 to 1769, his father hired an Episcopal priest tutor to live at Montpelier as Madison’s, and possibly his siblings’, teacher. Finally, at age eighteen, Madison went on to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Along the way, Madison read widely in Greek and Latin. He imbibed strong republican sentiments as well as a skeptical attitude toward office-holders.
Opting for Princeton was uncommon among Virginia bluebloods. Madison went there to avoid reputedly unhealthy Williamsburg. More commonly, boys of his class went to England’s Inns of Court or Scotland’s University of Edinborough for advanced professional training in law or medicine, or, like Thomas Jefferson, they spent a few years at the colonial college, William and Mary. At William and Mary, nominally Episcopalian, the students were not notably studious and the curriculum was far from rigorous.
Princeton, on the other hand, had a president unlike any in Virginia. The Reverend John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian, a recent immigrant from Scotland.4 As a matter of course, his attitudes about the relationship between church and state, government and religion, the conscience and society were different from those to which Madison would have been exposed at William and Mary. Witherspoon contributed substantially to the course of American philosophy through his devotion to the Scottish Enlightenment, then in full flower, and transmission of Scottish commonsense philosophy to America.
From JAMES MADISON AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA by Kevin R. C. Gutzman, copyright © 2012 by the author, and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
In the first new biography of James Madison in more than a decade, historian Kevin Gutzman looks beyond Madison’s traditional moniker, “The Father of the Constitution.” He finds a more complex and realistic portrait of this influential Founding Father, who became our fourth president and an enduring icon to supporters of limited government.
Gutzman summarizes Madison’s early years as the son of a prosperous Virginia planter, showing how his decision to attend the faraway College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) made possible his intellectual flowering. The young Madison’s admiration for Pennsylvania’s religious liberty accompanied his growing passion for American independence, though his ill health prevented him from fighting in the Continental Army.
A delegate to the Virginia Convention, Madison worked on his home state’s constitution and Declaration of Rights. His greatest legacy may have been the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In turn, his work on the Virginia documents would inform the United States Constitution. His time in the House of Delegates began his longstanding friendship, and alliance, with Thomas Jefferson.
Though Madison was long-lived, he was chronically sickly. His political views and actions display similar contradictions. His fame rests on his participation in the writing of The Federalist Papers and his role in drafting the Bill of Rights and Constitution. Yet he considered the Bill of Rights unnecessary, and he feared that the Constitution would likely fail. Though he helped to create the first American political party, he did so only after arguing that political parties, in general, were harmful.
Madison’s persuasive advocacy of states’ rights in 1797-98 was a major component of the Jeffersonian stream in American politics and reverberates today in the Tea Party movement, yet the Nullification Controversy caused Madison to doubt whether the Constitution granted the federal government sufficient power in relation to the states.
Serving as secretary of state and, then, as president from 1801 through the era of the War of 1812, Madison implemented a foreign policy that arguably resulted in the British burning down the Capitol and the White House.
A recurring theme of James Madison and the Making of America is that Madison’s apparent inconsistencies stem from his evolving perspective and experience, as he applied his principles to changing times. He was at once a statesman, a realist and a practical politician whose belief in the possibility of human improvement contrasted with his willingness to participate in partisan warfare to win elections. Instead of an idealized portrait, the groundbreaking account allows readers to assess for themselves Madison’s character and ideas.
Hardcover Book : 432 pages
Publisher: St. Martins Press, LLC ( February 14, 2012 )
Item #: 13-444162
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 1.08inches
Product Weight: 21.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)