An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Fourth President – James Madison

Sep 13, 2012 by

The Fourth President- James Madison

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Professor Elder, thank you for agreeing to do this series of interviews to let students all across the United States know a bit more about the men who have led this country for more than 200 years. We are ready for the fourth president, James Madison. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events ?)

James Madison was, like his presidential predecessors, born before Great Britain adopted the Gregorian Calendar. He was thus born on March 5, 1751 according to the old Julian Calendar, but we recognize his birthday in today’s day and age as March 16, 1751. His mother had wanted to be near her family when she gave birth, and thus james Madison was born near Port Conway, Virginia. After his birth, he and his mother returned to the Madison family plantation in Orange County, Virginia. Madison received his education from tutors until he reached the age of 18, when he entered college. Unlike most prominent Virginians, Madison did not attend the College of William and Mary. Instead, he went to college at what is now known as Princeton University.

After graduating at the age of 21, Madison returned to his family’s plantation. There he read law, but it appears that he never planned to actually become a lawyer. The Revolutionary War definitely changed the course of Madison’s life, as after the war began he was elected to the new Virginia legislature. After proving himself there, he was sent by Virginia to represent the state in the Continental Congress. After the war ended, Madison returned to Virginia, where he was once again elected to the Virginia legislature.

When the Congress created by the Articles of Confederation sent out a call for a convention to be held to amend the governmental blueprint, Madison was one of the delegates sent by Virginia. There he was largely responsible for the document that came out of that convention: the Constitution. Madison proved to be a forceful advocate of the new document, becoming one of the authors of a series of pamphlets known as The Federalist Papers. Once the Constitution went into effect, Madison was elected to the new House of Representatives.

When Thomas Jefferson became president, he appointed Madison as his Secretary of State. After Jefferson chose to leave the White House after two terms, Madison was elected president in 1808. He would serve two terms.

2)      What was he MOST known for?

Madison will always be known for his leading role in the creation of the Constitution, but as president he was largely consumed with foreign affairs. He was president during the War of 1812, and helped keep the nation together through the turmoil of that conflict.

3)      What would you say were his strengths?

Madison was an incredibly intelligent individual, and worked tirelessly on projects that he was committed to. In fact, he probably ruined his health by working such long hours.

4)      What were his relative weaknesses- politically perhaps, personally?

Madison had some definite political liabilities. He never recognized how duplicitous Napoleon really was, for example, and he remained too loyal to cabinet members who were proven to be unequal to the tasks associated with their office during the War of 1812.

5)      What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Madison impacted our nation, and the world, through challenging the British over their violations of our rights as a neutral nation. Although we came perilously close to losing the war, it was an important step forward in forcing the world to take us seriously as a nation.

6)      In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

Madison is usually assigned to the middle when historians rank presidents. He made serious missteps as president, but did hold the nation together through some dark days.

7)      What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Writing the Constitution will always be his greatest accomplishment, but I also give him praise for guiding us through the War of 1812.

8)      Could you provide a summary statement about Madison?

A man who had a vision for an independent United States of America, and provided us with a framework that we still use today.

Series:
An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Legacy of George Washington
An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America
An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States of America – Our Third President – Thomas Jefferson

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