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James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

4.7 11
by Lynne Cheney

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A major new biography of the fourth U.S. president, from New York Times–bestselling author Lynne Cheney

James Madison was a true genius of the early republic, the leader who did more than any other to create the nation we know today. This majestic new biography tells his story.

Outwardly reserved, Madison was the intellectual driving force


A major new biography of the fourth U.S. president, from New York Times–bestselling author Lynne Cheney

James Madison was a true genius of the early republic, the leader who did more than any other to create the nation we know today. This majestic new biography tells his story.

Outwardly reserved, Madison was the intellectual driving force behind the Constitution. His visionary political philosophy—eloquently presented in the Federalist Papers—was a crucial factor behind the Constitution’s ratification, and his political savvy was of major importance in getting the new government underway. As secretary of state under Thomas Jefferson, he managed the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States. As president, Madison led the country in its first war under the Constitution, the War of 1812. Without precedent to guide him, he would demonstrate that a republic could defend its honor and independence while remaining true to its young constitution.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

“With this compelling, elegant, original biography, Lynne Cheney brings the great, elusive James Madison back to life, reminding us of how powerfully this brilliant founder’s political and intellectual leadership has shaped the course of American history. In this era in which Madison is too often eclipsed by more histrionic founders, Cheney shows us his crucial, fascinating relationships with Dolley, Thomas Jefferson and an all-star cast, and lets us witness the growth of a world-changing political philosopher. Her book demonstrates why Madison deserves to stand near the center of our early American firmament.”  
—Michael Beschloss, author of The Conquerors and Presidential Courage
“Lucidly written . . . this is probably the best single-volume bio of Madison that we now have.”
—Gordon Wood, New York Times Book Review
“The book is a lovingly researched tribute to an often-underestimated man. It does not explicitly refer to modern controversies. But present-day politics intrudes.”
The Economist
“[A] meticulously researched, richly detailed look at the life and times of Madison. Former Second Lady Cheney fleshes out the achievements and struggles of this American founding father. . . . [A]uthoritative, conversational, certainly confident in its analysis.” 
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“James Madison did as much to put his stamp on the nation as any of the founders, yet too rarely is he given his due in the pantheon of America’s statesman. In this stunning, brilliant work, Lynne Cheney rectifies this glaring oversight, and brings Madison to life as never before. Written with subtlety and grace, the book is as groundbreaking as it is fresh, as enthralling as it is compulsively readable. It is nothing short of a masterpiece that deserves to be in the bookshelf of every history buff!”
—Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval
“A nuanced study on its own and a thoughtful presentation by one of today’s prominent public intellectuals.”
Library Journal
 “Cheney might have written a book that made Madison a prop in today’s political battles. She did not, which is greatly to her credit and true to the life of the man.”
Washington Post
“After more than twenty-five years working on the Madison Papers, it’s not often that I read something about him that is fresh and engaging, and discovers new aspects of his life and character.  Cheney’s exploration of Madison’s health issues, not only as a young man, but throughout his career, is imaginative and groundbreaking. Her writing is both fluid and polished; the tone is measured and judicious; there isn’t a strident note in the whole book. And, an added plus, her treatment of Madison as a political actor is informed by a sophisticated knowledge of politics, without in any way being presentist.” 
—David B. Mattern, Research Professor and Senior Associate Editor, Papers of James Madison, University of Virginia
“On the whole [Cheney] offers a lucid, well-paced, wonderfully written, and authoritative history. Very well worth your time.”
 —National Review
“This is the James Madison we always should have known about. Thanks to Lynne Cheney’s well-researched book, it’s the James Madison we will now always know.”
The Washington Times
“The Constitution remains Madison’s greatest legacy. Cheney’s detailed biography helps renew appreciation for the man behind it.”
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
“Lynne Cheney has written what may be the most authoritative and comprehensive book ever on the life of Founding Father and President James Madison. It offers a fascinating perspective into how brilliant Madison truly was.”
Intellectual Conservative

The New York Times Book Review - Gordon S. Wood
…Cheney's biography is lucidly written (her description of the Madisons' actions during the burning of the buildings in the capital in 1814 is especially dramatic), and she clearly brings to life the character and personality of Madison. Apart from Ralph Louis Ketcham's 1971 life, this is probably the best single-volume biography of Madison that we now have.
Publishers Weekly
★ 03/17/2014
In a meticulously researched, richly detailed look at the life and times of Madison, former Second Lady Cheney (We the People) fleshes out the achievements and struggles of this American Founding Father. As much a biography of the statesman, intellectual, and politician who rose to become President as a history of the country’s tumultuous post-Revolutionary War growth, the work covers a lot of ground. Authoritative, conversational, certainly confident in its analysis, the book paints Madison as a man of great accomplishments; one who struggled against setbacks, political opponents, and health problems. Cheney does veer uncomfortably close to hero worship: “Madison’s time of extraordinary achievement came after years of intense focus, deep concentration, and nearly obsessive effort, behavior that describes most lives of genius, from Sir Isaac Newton’s to Mozart’s to Einstein’s.” However, she does show his impressive influence in helping to forge a nation out of chaos through constant debate and begrudging compromise. Cheney conclusively demonstrates through the historical record that Madison, in word and deed, was a primary figure in shaping early American development and successfully establishes “a deeper understanding of the man who did more than any other to conceive and establish the nation we know.” Agent: Robert Barnett, Williams & Connolly. (May)
Lynne Cheney
Praise for James Madison: A Life Reconsidered
by Lynne Cheney

“With this compelling, elegant, original biography, Lynne Cheney brings the great, elusive James Madison back to life. . . .”
Michael Beschloss, author of The Conquerors and Presidential Courage

“Lucidly written . . . this is probably the best single volume bio of Madison that we now have.”
 —Gordon Wood, New York Times Book Review

“Graceful and balanced . . . Cheney makes clear that Madison was a practical politician . . . principled but pragmatic, sincere but complex. His world was complicated. So is ours, and it [could] use more people like him.”
 —H. W. Brands, The Washington Post
“A lovingly researched tribute to an often underestimated man. It does not explicitly refer to modern controversies. But present-day politics intrudes.”
The Economist

“[In this] meticulously researched, richly detailed look at the life and times of Madison, former Second Lady Cheney fleshes out the achievements and struggles of this American founding father. . . . Authoritative, conversational, certainly confident in its analysis.”
Publishers Weekly
“Written with subtlety and grace, [James Madison] is as groundbreaking as it is fresh, as enthralling as it is compulsively readable. It is nothing short of a masterpiece. . . .”
Jay Wink, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

“A nuanced study on its own and a thoughtful presentation by one of today’s prominent public intellectuals.”
Library Journal
“[Lynne Cheney’s] writing is both fluid and polished; the tone is measured and judicious. Her treatment of Madison . . . is informed by a sophisticated knowledge of politics, without in any way being presentist.”
David B. Mattern, senior associate editor, Papers of James Madison, University of Virginia

“[Cheney] offers a lucid, well-paced, wonderfully written, and authoritative history. Very well worth your time.”
 —National Review
“This is the James Madison we always should have known about. Thanks to Lynne Cheney’s well-researched book, it’s the James Madison we will now always know.”
The Washington Times
“The Constitution remains Madison's greatest legacy. Cheney's detailed biography helps renew appreciation for the man behind it.”
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

“Lynne Cheney has written what may be the most authoritative and comprehensive book ever on the life of Founding Father and President James Madison. It offers a fascinating perspective into how brilliant Madison truly was.”
Intellectual Conservative

Library Journal
Cheney (We the People: The Story of Our Constitution), an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow and former second lady of the United States, looks anew at a foundational figure of the early American republic in an analysis of James Madison's life, beliefs, character, and influences. Although notable biographies of Madison (1751–1836) appeared in 2013 (Kevin R.C. Gutzman's James Madison and the Making of America; Jeff Broadwater's James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation), Cheney, in a primary-sourced, sprightly, and innovative study, emphasizes how this theorist and practical politician successfully utilized what might have been impediments in other statesmen. Madison's relative reserve allowed him to work with varying personality types; his occasional indispositions, identified here as consistent with epilepsy, fostered his understanding of others. Despite his ideological rivalry with Alexander Hamilton regarding the proper role of federal government, the nonconfrontational Madison was deftly able to advise George Washington, who often supported Hamilton's positions. While he has a reputation as the Constitution's primary author, Madison helped to establish the party system, an entity not described in the founding documents. In this balanced account, Cheney portrays the man's interaction with his advisor and wife, Dolley, as well as with other political actors. VERDICT A nuanced study on its own and a thoughtful presentation by one of today's prominent public intellectuals. This title is useful and accessible on many levels, for its biographical revelations, particularly regarding Madison's health and the basis of his temperament, and as a cerebral encounter with a Founder with a lasting legacy.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Lib. of Congress, Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews
A Founding Father gets a respectful reappraisal. Author and former second lady Cheney (We the People: The Story of Our Constitution, 2008, etc.) puts another feather in her patriotic hat with this life of James Madison (1751-1836), fourth president, forger of the Constitution and friend of Thomas Jefferson. While he never studied the law or pursued the military, mostly due to his ill health, which was perceived then as epilepsy, Madison was a doer, translating his passionate defense of the Baptists' right to worship in Virginia into activism in the patriotic cause of the Virginia Convention. Working with Jefferson in fashioning the Virginia constitution, Madison was drafting the blueprint that would become the U.S. Constitution, including the important early tenet for religious liberty. A diligent member of the Continental Congress, he, along with Alexander Hamilton, proposed a states' revenue to pay the new country's debts and promoted Jefferson as peace negotiator in Paris. Drawing from his deep readings in Enlightenment philosophers, Madison was taking notes during every moment in the Philadelphia debates concerning the overhaul of the Articles of the Confederation, as the delegates wrangled over every aspect of the legislative, executive and judiciary branches. He suspected that the approved Constitution failed to rein in the "unwise and wicked proceedings" of the states. The threat of New York's failure to ratify prompted Madison, Hamilton and John Jay to anonymously pen the Federalist Papers. Madison's most famous was Federalist 10, which warned of "factions" in causing government failure. Beating James Monroe for representative to the First Congress from Virginia, Madison helped George Washington revise his inaugural address, and he shaped the Bill of Rights. As president, he weathered the British storm of 1812 and kept the union intact. Cheney duly covers her subject's life in a thorough yet somewhat bland narrative. A proficiently argued account for Madison's greatness, but it lacks the political thrusts of Garry Wills, Richard Brookhiser and other historians.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
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5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.40(d)
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18 Years

Read an Excerpt



He hurried along Market Street, his high-crowned hat offering scant protection against the rain. Had he passed this way earlier in the day, shoppers would have slowed his pace, drawn by the covered market that stretched for blocks down the center of the street. Now, with the afternoon wearing on and a thunderstorm over the city, only a few bargain hunters remained. Farmers who had brought produce in from the Pennsylvania countryside were scrambling into their wagons for what promised to be a muddy trek home.1

Visitors to Philadelphia found the market a wonder, but the residents of Market Street were not fond of it. They repeatedly—and futilely—tried to halt its expansion, arguing that the crowds did real estate values no good. Better to have the more peaceful setting enjoyed by residents farther west, the direction that the hurrying figure was headed. He crossed Fifth Street, its wet cobblestones glistening underfoot, then with springing step went up the stairs and entered the door of the ample brick building on the corner. It was the comfortable residence of Mary House, an elderly widow who lived there with her son, Samuel, her daughter, Eliza Trist, and Mrs. Trist’s son, Hore Browse. It was also one of Philadelphia’s most highly regarded boardinghouses, a home away from home for many of America’s political notables.2

Thirty-six-year-old James Madison, shaking off rain inside the front door, was one of Mrs. House’s regulars. He had begun staying with her in 1780, when he first became a member of the Continental Congress, and now, after a day-and-a-half ride by stagecoach from New York, he was at her lodgings again, this time to attend a convention scheduled for the second Monday in May. Over the past seven years, Madison had spent more time at Mrs. House’s than at his Virginia home, and he had come to regard her family as his family. He was particularly fond of Mrs. Trist, a woman of spirit and wit. In 1784 she had traveled by flatboat down the Mississippi to Louisiana to be with her husband, Nicholas, a former British officer. She recorded flora and fauna along the way for Thomas Jefferson, another Virginian who stayed at the Market Street lodgings, unaware as she was taking notes that she had become a widow. Between the last letter she received from Nicholas and the beginning of her trip downriver, he had died. Jefferson and Madison, learning of Nicholas’s fate, wrote to each other of their concern for Mrs. Trist. With the Spanish having closed the Mississippi to American navigation, how would she get back to Philadelphia? But she found a way, sailing first to Jamaica and from there back home.3

At no more than five feet six inches tall, Madison was not physically imposing in the way Jefferson was, or the great Washington, whom Mrs. Trist and her mother were expecting to arrive in little over a week. But he was fit and well proportioned, and as he gazed out at the world from deep-set light blue eyes, he had a presence about him, “a habit of self-possession,” Jefferson called it, “which placed at ready command the rich resources of his luminous and discriminating mind.”4

Madison did not leap forward to meet strangers or try to dominate in conversation. He was naturally reserved and perhaps also influenced by a lesson of his youth. From the Spectator, a London periodical that he favored in his early years, he had learned that modesty becomes a man. Famed Spectator author Joseph Addison described it as “a guard to virtue” and noted that it “sets off every great talent which a man can be possessed of.”5

By now Madison also understood that reticence had its political uses. It was wise to avoid strong statements while circumstances were still unfolding. It was often advantageous to put forth proposals anonymously and thus avoid alienating allies who might not agree. If in avoiding center stage Madison missed some of the praise, he also avoided some of the criticism, thus saving his reputation for a future day.

Madison dressed plainly, as befitted a man who did not want to be conspicuous. Eventually, he would wear only black. His public speaking was as unadorned as his dress. His words and ideas came forth with coolness and clarity, unobscured by drama. Although no one thought of him as an orator for the ages, those who paid attention understood that when he spoke he was enormously effective. “If [eloquence] includes persuasion by convincing,” his fellow Virginian John Marshall wrote, “Mr. Madison was the most eloquent man I ever heard.”6

Thomas Jefferson believed that Madison’s reserve had held him back when he first began his public career, and another friend, Samuel Stanhope Smith, told him that his early achievements had come “in spite of all your modesty.” But the reputation that Madison had acquired by the time he arrived in Philadelphia in May 1787 suggests that his manner had been little hindrance. “Every person seems to acknowledge his greatness,” commented William Pierce, who, like Madison, was a delegate to the Philadelphia convention. Indeed, now that Madison’s intellect and political skill were so widely recognized, his demeanor seemed to burnish his reputation. Despite all his renown, he remained, in Pierce’s words, “a gentleman of great modesty, with a remarkable sweet temper.”7

•   •   •

ALTHOUGH SHE WAS the same age as Congressman Madison, Eliza Trist sometimes assumed a motherly attitude toward him. She knew from Jefferson that much as he had accomplished, he was likely to achieve still more, and she worried about the “torrent of abuse” he would have to bear as he rose higher. “He has a soul replete with gentleness, humanity, and every social virtue,” she wrote to Jefferson, “and yet I am certain that some wretch or other will write against him. . . . It will hurt his feelings and injure his health, take my word.” Mrs. Trist almost certainly knew that in addition to the common ailments of the day—dysentery, fevers, influenza—Madison suffered from “sudden attacks” that he described as “somewhat resembling epilepsy, and suspending the intellectual functions.” Historians of a later time would dismiss these attacks. “Epileptoid hysteria,” his most influential biographer would call them.8 But Madison’s description fits today’s understanding of epilepsy. His sudden attacks might well have been complex partial seizures, which leave the affected person conscious but with his or her comprehension and ability to communicate impaired—the “intellectual functions” suspended, one might reasonably say. In Madison’s day such attacks were not generally regarded as epileptic, which may account for the qualifiers in his description. “Epilepsy” was a term reserved for convulsive seizures. But Madison saw a relationship between his attacks and those in which people fell to the ground and convulsed, an understanding that put him in advance of his time.

•   •   •

MADISON DID NOT MAKE a show of himself, but neither did he lack vanity. His jacket and breeches were finely made, his stockings usually silk. He powdered his hair and combed it forward to a point in order to cover a receding hairline.9 And unassuming though he might seem, he did not hesitate to take on enormous projects. Standing in Mrs. House’s parlor, his clothes still damp from the rain, he had a scheme in mind about as grand as could be imagined. He intended to use the upcoming convention to create a nation out of the thirteen individual states that four years before had thrown off the rule of Great Britain—and not just any nation, but one such as never had been seen before.

He envisioned a vast republic where the people were sovereign and their fundamental rights respected as nowhere else on earth. Such a republic had been judged impossible by influential thinkers of the age. Without monarchical power at the center, they believed, a country of great size would come apart, riven by different interests and ambitions. Only in a small republic, where citizens held views and virtues in common, could there be stability. Madison perceived that this idea was based on a fiction. No society, not even the smallest, was truly homogeneous. Factions, or interest groups, were endemic to the human race, and the challenge was making sure that majority rule, which was at the heart of republican government, did not become an instrument for one faction to suppress others. The way to do this was to make the republic large enough so that no single interest dominated. “Extend the sphere,” Madison would soon explain, “and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.”10

This insight—brilliant and prophetic—not only provided a rationale for the union of states that would be created by the Constitution; it would transform political thought, taking self-government from an impossible realm, in which all citizens virtuously suppressed their self-interest in the name of the common good, and moving it into reality, where interests competed with and checked one another.11 A republic was no longer a distant ideal but something to which people around the world could aspire. Bringing the idea of the extended republic to bear at a time when a great nation was to be built was Madison’s first grand act of creative genius—but by no means his last. Over the next five years, he, more than any other individual, would be responsible for creating the United States of America in the form we know it today.

Madison’s time of extraordinary accomplishment came after years of intense focus, deep concentration, and nearly obsessive effort, behavior that describes most lives of genius, from Sir Isaac Newton’s to Mozart’s to Einstein’s.12 Some who have achieved greatly have had families that encouraged their passions, and Madison was among these fortunate. His father had sent him to fine schools. He had for years freed him from the necessity of earning a living, thus giving him time to study and practice the art of politics. Madison was also lucky to live in an era that demanded the skills he honed while at the same time inspiring the intensity with which he honed them. For a young man drawn to the subject of power and the possibilities of nation building, it is hard to imagine a more thrilling time to come of age than in the years leading up to the American Revolution.

He brought to the cause a fervent commitment to religious freedom, perhaps because he had experienced the misery of being told what he had to believe. In the eighteenth century, people suffering from epilepsy—or sudden attacks resembling it—had a double burden, the disorder itself and the religious view, widely held and fiercely defended, that sufferers were unclean, sinful, even possessed by demons. In his young manhood, when the attacks began, Madison had gone through a period of deep despondency, certain that he would die and worried about his soul. He eventually emerged from the gloom, and when he did, he was on fire with the idea that no one should have to accept ideas that seemed wrong to him. A man’s conscience was his own, not the property of church or state.

He acted on this commitment when he was just twenty-two and saw Anglicans in his native Virginia misusing the authority of the state to persecute Baptists. He not only championed the Baptists’ cause with a passion that broke through his usual reserve; he also began to explore how society could be organized to protect rights of conscience. More than a year before the Revolutionary War, he was, astonishingly, inquiring into ways “the constitution of [a] country” could foster freedom of belief.13 Even in his maiden venture into politics, he had a significant contribution to make, insisting that the new state of Virginia not merely tolerate religious differences but view each individual’s conviction as a fundamental right.

Madison plunged into politics again and again. While serving in the Continental Congress, he became so immersed that he did not return home for nearly four years. Most recently he had been a member of the Virginia legislature, where he had seen to the passage of a law that Thomas Jefferson had written, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The enacting clauses of this legislation, he exulted to Jefferson, had “extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” He had also been delving deep into history, poring over hundreds of volumes that Jefferson sent him from Paris, a “literary cargo” concerning laws and constitutions.14 He was determined to find out how past unions of states had fared and, combining history with his own experience, to understand why the United States, under its current governing document, the Articles of Confederation, was failing to live up to its abundant promise.

By the time of the Philadelphia convention, Madison was the political equivalent of Mozart in the late 1770s, who after years of writing music was about to create his greatest works. He was Einstein, who after years of studying with “holy zeal” was on the verge of his annus mirabilis, the miracle year of 1905, in which he would establish the basis of the theory of relativity and quantum physics. As Madison climbed the narrow stairs in Mrs. House’s boardinghouse and headed for his room, he was more knowledgeable and better practiced in the theories and realities of representative government than anyone in the country or even the world. And he was about to do what geniuses do: change forever the way people think.15

•   •   •

AT HIS DESK in the waning light of that rainy afternoon, Madison wrote a hurried letter to William Irvine, a Pennsylvanian who was one of his allies, and then he almost certainly turned his thoughts to the upcoming gathering. He had spent months working to ensure the convention’s success: penning legislation to throw Virginia’s support behind it, persuading Washington to attend, taking steps to see that the Confederation Congress didn’t hinder its proceedings. Now he worked on the convention’s agenda, not because anyone had asked him to, but because he understood that the surest path to the governmental framework he envisioned lay in providing the program that would guide discussion. He also knew that having others of influence lined up behind his plan would give it greater force. One of his chief reasons for arriving early in Philadelphia—he was the first out-of-state delegate there—was the chance it gave him to meet with others as they arrived and convince them of the benefits of his proposal.

At the convention, he would be one of the chief participants in debate while at the same time keeping notes that would create a historical record of immeasurable worth. The Constitution that the delegates finally agreed upon would not be everything he had wanted, but he quickly concluded it was more than anyone could have hoped, and with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton he defended it in The Federalist, a series of essays that has become a classic of political thought. Madison would be crucial to securing the ratification of the Constitution in Virginia, the biggest and most powerful state, and he would face down Patrick Henry, the most famed orator of the day, in order to do so.

Madison would have a greater hand than anyone at setting the government based on the Constitution in motion, including drafting a bill of rights and getting the necessary amendments through Congress. He would lead in the founding of the first political party, once again upending conventional wisdom. So frowned upon was the idea of partisanship that Jefferson once declared, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” But Madison defended parties as “natural to most political societies.”16 They were a legitimate vehicle for free people to use to advance their views and interests.

Madison’s genius would ripen into a wisdom that served him well for the eight years he was Jefferson’s secretary of state and for his two terms as president. Through the perilous losses and thrilling victories of the War of 1812, he was as steady a commander in chief as the United States has known. Even after the British burned the nation’s capital, he remained calm, resolute, and devoted to founding principles, refusing to heed calls to silence Americans opposed to the war. His contemporaries, while acknowledging that the course of the war with Great Britain was not always smooth, praised his success. “Notwithstand[ing] a thousand faults and blunders,” John Adams wrote, Madison’s administration had “acquired more glory and established more union than all his three predecessors, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, put together.”17 Without precedent to guide him, James Madison would demonstrate that a republic could defend its honor and independence—and remain a republic still.

•   •   •

PRAISE WOULD FOLLOW MADISON to the grave and beyond. Nine years after his death, Charles Jared Ingersoll would say that “no mind has stamped more of its impressions on American institutions than Madison’s.” But eventually his fine reputation would suffer, and he is popularly regarded today—when remembered at all—less as a bold thinker and superb politician than as a shy and sickly scholar, someone hardly suited for the demands of daily life, much less the rough-and-tumble world of politicking.18 The reasons for this transformed image are many, including Henry Adams’s late-nineteenth-century history of Madison’s administration, in which the fourth president is presented much as his worst enemies liked to describe him. Misunderstandings about Madison’s health enter in—as does our twenty-first-century inability to conceive of modesty and reserve as having any compatibility with politics.

•   •   •

IT IS A PROMISING TIME to clear away misconceptions about Madison, brush off cobwebs that have accumulated around his achievements, and seek a deeper understanding of the man who did more than any other to conceive and establish the nation we know. His home at Montpelier, long burdened with massive twentieth-century additions, has now been beautifully restored. One can visit the dramatic red drawing room where the Madisons relaxed with guests; the dining room where they entertained, its walls decorated with historic prints; the library, the center of Madison’s intellectual life, where he kept some of his four thousand pamphlets and books.

Pathfinding authors, particularly biographers Irving Brant and Ralph Ketcham, have charted the way for researchers into Madison’s life, as Catherine Allgor has done for Mrs. Madison’s. J. C. A. Stagg and his team at the University of Virginia—particularly senior associate editor David B. Mattern, as well as Mary Hackett and Angela Kreider—have drawn together thirty-five volumes of Madison’s papers in beautifully edited and annotated form and made them available online, providing an ease of access that past researchers could only have dreamed of.19 Holly C. Shulman, also at the University of Virginia, has led the project to get Dolley Madison’s papers edited and online, together with groundbreaking essays that provide invaluable context.

The thirty-five volumes of James Madison’s papers alone run to more than twenty thousand pages, and writing about him requires exploring much more, including the voluminous papers of the leaders with whom his life intersected, figures such as George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Reconsidering James Madison’s life has been for me a project of many years, but what amazing company I have kept. I particularly treasure the time spent with that determined man in the high-crowned hat, rushing through the rain. He was on his way to creating a nation—and changing the world.

Chapter 1


JAMES MADISON, one of the great lawgivers of the world, descended from generations of people who drew their living from the land. His great-great-grandfather John Madison had departed England in the middle of the seventeenth century with the rich soil of Virginia in mind. He sailed between Cape Charles and Cape Henry, entering the Chesapeake Bay with eleven men whose passages he had paid so that he might get “headrights”—grants of fifty acres—for each of them, as well as one for himself. The six hundred acres that the royal governor of Virginia granted him were in Gloucester County along the Mattaponi River, a tributary of the York, which is one of four great rivers flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.1

The men whose passages Madison paid had agreed to indenture themselves for four or more years, hoping when they finished their terms to buy land and become tobacco planters themselves. Meanwhile, they labored in Madison’s fields, and in decades to come, he would import scores more servants, claiming headrights for each one. By the time of his death, he held grants to several thousand acres, most of them along the north side of the Mattaponi.2

John Madison’s son, also named John, followed a similar course, first acquiring land near his father’s, then moving farther inland, expanding his holdings as tobacco planters had to do if they wanted to survive. Tobacco quickly exhausted the soil, so every three years or so fields had to be abandoned and new land put under cultivation. This second John Madison is listed in a deed book as a “ship carpenter,” an occupation he might have taken up to supplement his income. Being a tobacco planter allowed one to live independently, but crops and prices were at the mercy of the weather, the inclinations of Parliament, and the outbreak of foreign wars. Having a sideline, such as building the sloops, shallops, and flatboats that plied the rivers flowing into the Chesapeake, was insurance against contingencies. In 1707, John the ship carpenter also began to assume the responsibilities expected of Virginia’s gentry planters, becoming first a justice of the peace, charged with everything from recording cattle brands to deciding criminal cases, then a sheriff, responsible not only for enforcing the law but also for collecting quitrents and levies.3

The ship carpenter’s son Ambrose Madison married well. His wife, Frances, was the daughter of James Taylor, one of the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe, a group that Governor Alexander Spotswood had led on an expedition into the Shenandoah Valley. Before they crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains, the knights had explored the rolling hills of the Virginia Piedmont, land that glistened green from rain and sun. Spotswood gave each of his fellow explorers a small golden horseshoe to commemorate their trip, but the enduring gift was the knowledge they gathered of uncultivated lands that promised abundant tobacco crops. James Taylor patented vast stretches of the Piedmont, paying a little over a penny an acre, and in 1723, two years after Ambrose Madison had married his daughter, Taylor arranged a transfer of 4,675 acres to him and Thomas Chew, another of his sons-in-law.4

Ambrose Madison shipped tobacco to London, ordered goods from there, and supplemented his family’s income as a merchant. Like his father, he served as a county official and expanded his landholdings. He and Chew worked on improving their jointly held acreage, but they did not rely on indentured servants to fell the trees or put up buildings. Economic conditions had improved in England, while at the same time Virginia tobacco land had grown so scarce that a man who bound himself into servitude had little hope of becoming a planter. With fewer and fewer willing to indenture themselves, planters turned to another source of labor, the men and women whom they could buy from the slave ships that were an increasingly familiar sight in Chesapeake waters. Ambrose’s first known purchase was in July 1721, when he paid the captain of the Ann and Sarah fifty pounds for “two Negro women.”5

In the spring of 1732, Ambrose, in his thirties, took his wife and three young children to the plantation cut from the wilderness by people he had purchased, and not long after the family arrived, Ambrose Madison became very ill. When he died in late summer, three slaves, arrested for “suspicion of poisoning,” were put on trial for conspiring to kill him. Pompey, the property of another landowner, was found guilty and hanged. Turk and Dido, Madison slaves, were judged to have been “concerned” in the crime “but not in such a degree as to be punished by death.” They were sentenced to twenty-nine lashes each.6

Although Ambrose’s was the first known instance, it was hardly the last in which slaves in the area were tried for poisoning masters. Another concerned Eve, accused of poisoning Peter Montague. In 1746 she was convicted and condemned to burn at the stake. Her sentence was carried out under the authority of the sheriff of Orange County—Thomas Chew, Ambrose Madison’s brother-in-law.7

Ambrose’s descendants, who almost certainly knew that a slave had been hanged for murdering him, left no record of how he died. A family history told of relatives who had been killed by Indians but mentioned not a word about Ambrose’s untimely demise. The silence no doubt reflected a belief that to talk about slave resistance was to encourage it. Any hint that Ambrose was murdered also gave the lie to a benign version of slavery in which his descendants, like many slave owners, tried to believe. In this version, the slave was referred to as a servant or even part of the family. In 1777, James Madison, the future president, would advise his father, “The family have been pretty well since you left us except Anthony,” who was an enslaved man with a high fever and a swollen arm.8

Frances Madison, widowed with three small children on the Virginia frontier, buried her husband next to their small house and turned to the enormous challenges facing her, not least of which was her husband’s will. In his final agony, Ambrose had overlooked a crucial detail—dividing the patent he held jointly with Chew.9 Thus, upon Ambrose’s death, the land on which his wife and children were living passed into Chew’s hands and would descend to his heirs.

Unwilling to accept the fate that she had been handed, Frances reached an agreement with Chew. On May 26, 1737, in return for 2,850 acres of the patent, she paid him two hundred pounds, a significant amount, as much as a small planter might accumulate in a lifetime. It was a price per acre above the average of other properties sold in Orange County that month, but Chew doubtless pointed out that the land had been improved, with “houses, buildings, barns, dove houses, yards, orchards, gardens,” as the deed specified. He seems to have given little ground to his widowed sister-in-law, but it might well have been that in that time and place neither she nor any of her family expected him to, and in the end the bargain was hers. She gained the acreage and its improvements for her “use and behoof . . . for and during the term of her natural life” and preserved the family estate not only for her son but also for the grandson who would become America’s fourth president.10

As the person running the plantation, Frances Madison would have been familiar with every step in the growing, harvesting, and marketing of tobacco, a plant that, as one contemporary observed, required “a great deal of skill and trouble in the right management of it.” The seeds, so small that ten thousand would fit in a teaspoon, had to be started not long after Christmas, preferably in a wooded site rich with mold. The seedlings were replanted in fields in the spring—but only after a rain shower, or “season,” when the ground was wet. Within about a month, the plants had to be “topped” to encourage the growth of large leaves, then repeatedly “suckered,” which involved cutting shoots, and “wormed,” which meant removing grubs and hornworms. When the leaves began to spot and thicken, the tobacco was cut, and after wilting in the field, it was taken to tobacco houses and hung to cure. About the time that the tobacco was ready to be packed in hogsheads and transported to market, slaves were sowing seed for the next crop.11

Frances put her mark (“FM”) on hogsheads leaving the Madison plantation and ordered goods from the London merchants to whom the tobacco was shipped, including ten narrow axes, a hydrometer, a quilted coat, and a pair of boots. Frances was a planter, a fact that made her an exception among her sex, but as she did the work of a man on the Virginia frontier, she also upheld the era’s standards of womanhood, ordering fabric for dresses and, from John Maynard & Son in London, two “good stays,” or corsets, size small. She also added to the modest collection of books that Ambrose had owned at his death. She ordered a Bible commentary, two volumes of the British newspaper the Guardian, and, her biggest extravagance, eight volumes of the Spectator, a periodical known for its wit and commonsense humanity.12

•   •   •

THE MADISONS OWNED thousands of acres and dozens of slaves and worked their land year-round, but income from farming remained unreliable. Frances’s son, known to history as James senior, to distinguish him from his famous son, found a multitude of ways to enhance the plantation’s earnings. He sold his neighbors everything from gunpowder and silk purses to brandy from his still. He sawed planks, built hogsheads, and rented out his enslaved carpenters, Peter and George, usually for long-term projects, but once to fight a fire. He oversaw the construction of buildings, including a tobacco house for John Norton and a privy for Erasmus Taylor. Eventually, he established an ironworks where he gained a reputation for quality goods and shrewd dealing.13

But he also became knowledgeable about the plantation’s mainstay and early on would have accompanied his family’s hogsheads down rolling roads to the Rappahannock. The few days’ journey was a price the Madisons paid for growing tobacco in the Piedmont, which was above navigable waters, but taking the yearly crop to Fredericksburg, a port village where British ships arrived, was also a chance to socialize. After leaving the Madison hogsheads at Royston’s warehouse, James senior could ferry across the Rappahannock and ride another day downriver to where one of his best friends, Francis Conway, lived. Their families had long been close. Francis’s father had been one of the executors of Ambrose’s will and died himself only a year later. Francis had a younger sister named Nelly, and in 1749, when she was seventeen, she and twenty-six-year-old James Madison Sr. were married.14

Nelly “was not a beautiful woman,” according to Gaillard Hunt, an early Madison biographer, but Hunt was probably relying on a portrait painted by Charles Peale Polk in 1799, when Nelly was sixty-eight. Something in her youth attracted James senior, perhaps her piety, since that was her reputation in old age, but James senior’s cousin and close friend, the genial Joseph Chew, suggested the attraction was more than spiritual. Two weeks prior to James and Nelly’s wedding, Chew wrote to James, “I hope before this Miss Nelly has made you happy.” After their wedding, Chew complained of not hearing from Madison. “Never since I left Virginia have I had one scrape of a pen,” he wrote. “I make every allowance in your favor I can. The marrying a young agre[eable] wife will certainly make moments slide away pleasantly, and that you should be happy no one desires or wishes more truly than myself but in that a few hours is due to your friend.”15

Two years later, while James senior and Nelly were visiting her mother at Port Conway, their first child, a son, was born. The date of his birth according to the Gregorian calendar, adopted the year after his birth, was March 16, 1751. Named James after his father, the baby was called Jemmy by his parents, and they prepared for his homecoming by having a woodworker, William Crittenden, make a cradle. Later the plantation overseer, Robert Martin, made Jemmy two small banyans, or tiny robes open in the front.16

When the baby was taken to the Madison family seat in the Piedmont, it was not to the house that dominates the site today but to Mount Pleasant, the simple frame home with a footprint of 416 square feet that Frances, Ambrose, and their three children had moved into nearly twenty years before.17 Now the house had four occupants: Frances, James senior, Nelly, and the baby. In 1753, when Nelly gave birth to a second son, Francis, there were five in the house, as there had been in Ambrose’s time. After a third son, Ambrose, named for his grandfather, arrived in 1755, Mount Pleasant might have seemed crowded, but when Catlett, a fourth son, was born in 1758 and died soon thereafter, the house, like Nelly’s heart, must have seemed to have a great and empty space in it.

Life was precarious in colonial Virginia. Newcomers had to survive the “seasoning,” the first year of sickness that killed many, and everyone faced a mortality rate much higher than in New England.18 Although the Piedmont was healthier than the Tidewater, which provided a near-perfect breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes, sickness still abounded, and the death of children was heartbreakingly common. Of the twelve children Nelly would eventually bear, only seven would survive to adulthood.

Learned physicians under the influence of the Enlightenment were struggling to find scientific explanations of illness, but in everyday life the theories of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen still prevailed. They regarded illness as an imbalance among the four humors—air (blood), earth (black bile), fire (yellow bile), and water (phlegm)—and associated the excess of a humor with certain diseases. Black bile, for example, was associated with epilepsy.19 Bleeding and purging could rid the body, so the theory went, of an excess of one humor or another and bring back a healthful balance. Herbs were prescribed for purging and healing, but the ideas of the medieval physician Paracelsus were also influential. On the theory that sickness was the result of poisons attacking the body from outside, he had recommended counteracting them with internal doses of metals and medicines from the laboratory, such as arsenic, antimony, and mercury.

Almost every plantation had a manual that advanced some mixture of theory and remedy. In the Madison household, it was Quincy’s Dispensatory, which Frances Madison added to the family library. In 1753, during Jemmy’s second year, she ordered medicines “for an epilepsy,” likely relying on Quincy’s to do so. She ordered several items—gentian root, cochineal, saffron, and camphor—that were in Quincy’s terminology “diaphoretics,” believed good for breaking a fever. For epilepsy, as for most ailments, purging was thought helpful, and on Frances’s list were two laxatives, Anderson’s Pills and pulvis basilicus, or Royal Powder, a mixture containing antimony and mercury. Frances also ordered cardamom seeds, which, according to Quincy, eased the irritation caused by cathartics. Another item was lavender, good for all diseases of the head, according to Quincy, as was the sal volatile oleosum that Frances ordered. It had a strong ammoniac odor and could be used as a smelling salt or ingested. She also ordered sal armoniac, from which sal volatile oleosum could be made. Sublimated from sea salt, urine, and animal excrement, sal armoniac could be used in “pocket smelling bottles,” Quincy said. In combination with tartar, he recommended it for “epilepsies, palsies, and all nervous cases, because such fiery irritating volatiles stimulate and shake the fibers.”20

Hard as it is for a twenty-first-century mind to contemplate Royal Powder and sal armoniac being administered to a toddler, James Madison—Jemmy, at this point—was the only member of his family for whom there is any indication of epilepsy and thus the most likely patient. Assuming that the seizures he suffered were fever related, as the medicines Frances Madison ordered seem to indicate, doctors today would likely diagnose febrile seizures, convulsions that can occur when a small child has a fever. A grandmother in colonial Virginia might be forgiven, however, for thinking the child had epilepsy. When Thomas Jefferson’s two-year-old grandson, Francis Eppes, suffered “dreadful fits” in 1804, his aunt wrote, “I cannot help fearing them to be epileptic.”21

Although children with febrile seizures are not considered to have epilepsy today, a history of them in early childhood, especially if they are prolonged, is common in the syndrome of temporal lobe epilepsy. The evidence available suggests that this was the pattern of Madison’s ailment: fever-related episodes when he was a toddler, then “sudden attacks” later in his life.22

•   •   •

MADISON GREW UP to love the outdoors and probably spent much of his boyhood riding and playing in the fields and forests with his brothers and the slave children on the plantation, but he was also bookish, reading the Spectator at an early age. His grandmother Frances likely encouraged him and was surely pleased to have him appreciate the lessons it taught. Early on he would have come across this: “Nothing can atone for the want of modesty, without which beauty is ungraceful and wit detestable.” Later he would have read about Prince Eugene of Savoy, who, said the Spectator (the eponymous author of the series), exemplified “the highest instance of a noble mind,” bearing “great qualities” without displaying “any consciousness that he is superior to the rest of the world.” James also encountered immodesty in the person of Simon Honeycomb, who claimed that women had forced him to abandon his modest ways. Because they liked rogues, he had been forced to become one, wenching, drinking, and keeping “company with those who lived most at large.” Characters such as Honeycomb were comic touches that would have appealed to a boy, and Madison would long remember the Spectator as “peculiarly adapted to inculcate in youthful minds, just sentiments, an appetite for knowledge, and a taste for the improvement of the mind and manners.”23

In the pages of the Spectator, Madison followed friends who gathered at Will’s Coffee House, attended the theater in Drury Lane, and in general took advantage of urban pleasures. This world must have seemed wonderfully exotic to a boy in colonial Virginia, where there were no cities. The geography of the colony, with the Chesapeake Bay, the great rivers flowing into it, and the multitude of navigable tributaries flowing into the rivers, undermined the commercial need for cities. “Every person . . . can ship his tobacco at his own door and live independent,” wrote one mid-eighteenth-century visitor.24 Towns developed—Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Alexandria—but Virginia, the largest and most populous of the colonies, had no Boston or Philadelphia within its borders.

Living on isolated farms and plantations, Virginians compensated by opening their doors and dining rooms to all respectable passersby. They entertained at oyster suppers and squirrel barbecues, turned court days into occasions for dinners and horse races, and called in dancing masters to teach their children the elaborate steps of the minuet. One popular dancing master, a Mr. Christian, whom James senior paid in 1756 and 1758, started with his pupils after breakfast and kept them dancing until after dark, not hesitating to deliver a sharp rebuke if they failed to show a respectful attitude.25

Virginians also looked to Sunday, when going to church was a chance to mend souls and socialize. The Madisons attended the Brick Church, a two- or three-hour ride to the east, where James Madison Sr. was a vestryman and Frances Madison had joined with other good women of the parish to purchase a silver Communion set. The family prayed at the Brick Church, heard official notices, and exchanged news of politics and tobacco prices. As young James wandered among the congregation after services, he would have encountered a plethora of relatives, many of them named Taylor. Frances Taylor Madison’s siblings were prolific—her brother George had fourteen sons—and many of Frances’s brothers, sisters, nieces, and great-nephews were within easy distance of the Brick Church. Young James would also have seen Chews, Taliaferros, Beales, and Willises, families related to the Madisons and one another by blood, marriage, and sometimes both, forming what historian Bernard Bailyn called the “great tangled cousinry” of Virginia’s gentry class.26 One can imagine a curious young boy on the ride home inquiring which of the Beale cousins were his aunt Elizabeth’s children and which belonged to his aunt Frances and asking how the Willises and Hites fit in.

•   •   •

ON A SAD DAY in December 1761, the Madison family gathered at the Brick Church for the funeral of Frances Madison, who had died at sixty-one. The minister, the Reverend James Marye Jr., comforted the mourners with words from Revelations: “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord . . . that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” That one of Frances’s most lasting works was encouraging her grandson’s love of learning seems likely from his father’s making educational arrangements for him within months of her death. About the time the tulip poplars bloomed in 1762, young James began attending a boarding school on the banks of the Mattaponi, where the Madison family had started in America. There Master Jamie, as he was now known, found an instructor to whom he would be grateful throughout his life, Donald Robertson, an immigrant from Scotland, “a man of extensive learning and a distinguished teacher,” in Madison’s words. Along with three dozen other boys, many of whom he knew, young James studied arithmetic, geography, algebra, and geometry. He also learned the languages essential for going to college, Latin and Greek, and studied French as well, though, as he later emphasized, he could only read it. He liked to recount how he had once tried to speak to a Frenchman, only to discover that the Scottish burr he had picked up from Robertson rendered him incomprehensible.27

At Robertson’s school, Madison found a library containing authors of antiquity, such as Thucydides, Virgil, and Cicero, and more recent thinkers, such as Locke and Montesquieu. In Robertson he found a teacher who knew how to make the connection of learning to life, even when teaching theoretical subjects. Notes that young James Madison made in a copybook show that Robertson began one lecture with the definition of a sign: “a thing that gives notice of something different from itself.” He next gave examples of natural signs, such as smiling, which indicates joy, and blushing, which speaks of shame. Then, after observing that such signs are universal, Robertson noted this exception: “Politicians and other cunning men of business, [who] by great and refined dissimulation, have in great measure confounded and stifled the natural indications of their inmost thoughts.”28

Madison’s copybook contains drawings that look like assignments in geometry and geography. One, a hexagonal fort surrounded by a twelve-sided moat inside a twenty-four-sided wall, was surely a more interesting exercise for a boy than a rendering of abstract shapes would have been. Another drawing, a standard rendering of planets in circular orbits around the sun, is made personal by the face on the sun, its nose and brows created by a single line and its rays so thickly drawn they appear to be a mane. The result is a solar system that appears to have a mildly friendly lion at its center.29

Madison spent part of 1762 studying the English curriculum at Robertson’s school, then moved into the Latin curriculum, or the college preparatory course, for four years before departing. He could have stayed longer, but there were now six children in the Madison family, four besides James of school age, and James senior, in whom a strain of frugality ran strong, seems to have decided to economize by hiring a live-in tutor for all of them. He had a candidate for the job, the new minister at the Brick Church, and room for the tutor in the house he had just built, a structure of some twelve rooms, located a third of a mile east of the old family home.30

Compared with the great plantations of the Tidewater, the new house was modest, but rising two stories and made of brick, it was the finest dwelling in Orange County. Young James, helping carry furniture from tiny Mount Pleasant to the family’s new home, was no doubt impressed by its roominess.31 The house was also splendidly situated, as the older house had not been, commanding a magnificent view, a thirty-mile vista over fields and forests to a long stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The tutor living with the Madison family, Thomas Martin, had recently graduated from Nassau Hall of the College of New Jersey, known as Princeton University today. Together with his brother Alexander, another Nassau graduate, Thomas made the case that James should attend the New Jersey college. No doubt the brothers mentioned the school’s new president, John Witherspoon, who was, like Donald Robertson, a product of the highly esteemed University of Edinburgh. Perhaps the Martins also talked about students at Princeton opposing British taxes. At the commencement in 1765, the year that Parliament had lit the fires of colonial outrage by imposing the Stamp Act, there had been a rousing oration on liberty, a valedictory address on patriotism, and a determination by the graduating class to wear only clothing made in America.32 James Madison Sr., a decided foe of British taxation, would have been favorably impressed by such an account.

Nassau Hall was also the least expensive university in the colonies, a fact that would not have escaped James senior’s notice. And while the College of William and Mary was the place where aspiring sons of the Virginia gentry traditionally went, there had been troubling reports from Williamsburg of rioting, drinking, and all-night card games. In later years, Madison mentioned another Williamsburg disadvantage: its Tidewater location. He had been sent to Nassau Hall, he wrote, “in preference to William and Mary, the climate of which was unhealthy for persons going from a mountainous region.”33

•   •   •

IN THE MIDDLE of a parched summer, James, eighteen years old, left the Virginia upcountry for Princeton, accompanied by the Martins and an enslaved man named Sawney, who was also eighteen. The men traveled down dusty tree-lined roads through enervating heat to Fredericksburg, where they crossed the Rappahannock. They next encountered the Potomac, where they used Hooe’s ferry to cross into Maryland. Assuming they followed the route of another traveler from about this time, they traveled a road that took them through Upper Marlboro and to the South River, where yet another ferry took them to Annapolis, a town of fewer than two hundred houses that commanded a splendid view of the Chesapeake. “The bay is twelve miles over,” one visitor noted, “and beyond it you may discern the eastern shore, so that the scene is diversified with fields, wood, and water.”34

From Annapolis, they sailed across the Chesapeake in a northeasterly direction, landing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and moving by land northward to New Castle, the colonial capital of Delaware, “a place of very little consideration,” according to one visitor, but it was followed by the “pretty village” of Wilmington.35 Soon the party was on a ferry across the Schuylkill, then a short ride later at Philadelphia, America’s largest city and a place full of wonder for a young man from the Virginia frontier. Mariners shouted to one another along crowded Water Street wharves. Splendid gentlemen on fine horses clattered through paved streets that were lit at night. There were coffeehouses, bookstores, a theater—establishments that made Philadelphia a New World version of the London Madison had read about in the Spectator. The city’s most impressive building, located between Fifth and Sixth streets on Chestnut, was a Georgian structure of red brick surmounted by a bell tower. For now it was known as the Pennsylvania State House, but Americans of a later time would call it Independence Hall.

A ferry across the Delaware and a day’s ride brought Madison and his party to their destination, the small village of Princeton, which had a single road and fewer than “eighty houses, all tolerably well built,” one observer noted, “but little attention is paid them.” Eyes were drawn instead to an immense stone edifice in the center of town, Nassau Hall, where James Madison would spend most of the next three years. The Martins left him there, and as James settled in to study for his entrance exams, he might have been homesick. In a letter to Thomas Martin, he referred to “the prospect before me of three years confinement,” hastily adding that the time would be well compensated “by the advantages I hope to derive from it.”36

In fact, the years at Princeton were some of the happiest of his life. He met young men from every part of the country and formed close friendships with a few: William Bradford, a thoughtful and well-read young man whose father was a printer in Philadelphia; Philip Freneau, the brilliant and perpetually discontented son of a Huguenot wine merchant; Hugh Brackenridge, born in Scotland, a farmer’s son, as smart as he was strong. Like the other hundred or so young men of Nassau Hall, Madison and his friends adhered to a rigid schedule. A bell rang at 5:00 a.m., and lest anyone fail to hear it, a servant followed, beating on every door. Students rushed to morning prayers, then returned to their rooms to study until breakfast at 8:00 a.m. Recitation came after breakfast and was followed by a time for study that lasted until a 1:00 p.m. dinner. From 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. was another study period, followed by evening prayer, supper, and another study period. After 9:00 p.m., students could go to bed, but, as one noted, “to go before is reproachful.”37

Tight as the schedule was, there was time for the discussions with other students that make college memorable. After his graduation Philip Freneau, who would play an important part in Madison’s life, would write to Madison about how he missed “conversation I delight in.” Madison remembered chats of “an hour or two” with Bradford that were “recreation and release from business and books.”38

Philip Fithian, whose time at Princeton overlapped Madison’s, fondly remembered the student hijinks of his college days: “Meeting and shoving in the dark entries; knocking at doors and going off without entering; strewing the entries in the night with greasy feathers; freezing the bell; ringing it at late hours of the night.” He also recalled “parading bad women, burning Curse-John [the privy], darting sunbeams upon the town-people . . . , and ogling women with the telescope.” In the case of Madison and his friends, at least some youthful energy was diverted into the American Whig Society, a debating club that John Witherspoon supported as part of his plan to encourage effective public speaking. No doubt there were many elevated orations as the Whigs took on their rivals in the Cliosophic Society, but what remains from their “paper wars” is spirited doggerel. In one bit of rhyme, Madison urges his fellow Whigs to be of good humor while the Clios manage their own doom:

Come, noble whigs, disdain these sons

Of screech owls, monkeys, and baboons

Keep up you[r] minds to humorous themes

And verdant meads and flowing streams

Until this tribe of dunces find

The baseness of their groveling mind

And skulk within their dens together

Where each one’s stench will kill his brother.39

The paper wars captured a side of James Madison that would be often commented upon but too seldom recorded, a fondness for sharing less-than-elevated wit with his male friends.

•   •   •

THE STUDYING, COMRADESHIP, and raillery of college life did not keep students at Nassau Hall from having a sharp interest in the events of the larger world. The British had repealed the Stamp Act in 1766, but colonists harbored resentment that Parliament, in which they were not represented, had felt authorized to levy a tax on everything from their newspapers to their playing cards. Great Britain had not only tried to use them as a purse but also violated their fundamental rights as Englishmen, taxing them without their consent. In 1767, when Parliament made another attempt to gather revenue with the Townshend duties, which taxed imports such as lead, paper, and tea, new anger toward Britain began to build on old, particularly in Boston, where opposition to what colonists saw as British tyranny was fierce—and grew fiercer as the British reinforced the Boston garrison with additional regiments of red-coated soldiers. Emotions were running high on the evening of March 5, 1770, when a rowdy crowd gathered outside the Custom House and began throwing rocks and snowballs at British soldiers standing sentry. Before the night was over, the outnumbered British fired into the crowd, killing five.

Parliament repealed the Townshend duties (except for the tax on tea) shortly after the bloody confrontation, but the Boston Massacre, as it came to be called, stood as a powerful symbol of British oppression. It also increased the fervor of those determined to pressure Great Britain by refusing to buy British products. In July, when a letter circulated at Nassau Hall that showed New York merchants trying to persuade Philadelphia businessmen to break their boycott of British goods, students donned their black gowns and, as the college bell tolled, marched to the front of the college. There, as one observer described it, they “burnt the letter by the hands of a hangman hired for the purpose, with hearty wishes that the names of all promoters of such a daring breach of faith may be blasted in the eyes of every lover of liberty and their names handed down to posterity as betrayers of their country.” Madison wrote to his father about the demonstration, noting that James senior was likely to hear of it in any case: “A distinct account . . . I suppose will be in the Virginia Gazette before this arrives.”40 He probably also thought that the letter burning was an extracurricular activity that James senior would approve.

President Witherspoon surely thought the demonstration justified. A bushy-browed, stocky Presbyterian minister, he’d gained a reputation for standing up to authority in his native Scotland—and not minding if controversy ensued. When the church there took what he perceived to be a liberal drift, he published a satire portraying members of the hierarchy as soft-minded relativists who believed there to be “no ill in the universe, nor any such thing as virtue absolutely considered.” A student of the Scottish Enlightenment, Witherspoon lectured Princeton students on unalienable rights, on society as a “voluntary compact,” and on human beings as creatures “originally and by nature equal and consequently free.” These ideas would be important to the graduates of Nassau Hall in the years ahead. One of Witherspoon’s students would become president; another, vice president; forty-nine would be members of the House of Representatives; twenty-eight, of the Senate; and three, Supreme Court justices.41

Within six years of Witherspoon’s 1768 arrival from Scotland, John Adams would judge him to be “an animated Son of Liberty.” Within eight years Witherspoon would be the only minister and one of the most colorful delegates in the Continental Congress deciding on American independence. When one delegate hesitated to break ties with Britain, declaring that America was not ripe for independence, Witherspoon responded that “in his judgment it was not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it.”42

In support of the Princeton ideal “of preparing youth for public service in church and state,” Witherspoon insisted that students practice public speaking and provided them with an oratorical model that his most distinguished pupil seems to have found inspiring: simple, commonsensical, unadorned with flourishes and gestures. A visitor coming across Witherspoon in his garden observed that he grew only vegetables. “Why, Doctor, I see no flowers in your garden,” to which Witherspoon replied, “No, nor in my discourses either.”43

Witherspoon encouraged study of the classics, as his predecessors had done, but he also brought a modern sensibility to the college, updating the library with hundreds of volumes he had shipped from Scotland and emphasizing “natural philosophy,” as science was called. He worked to bring scientific equipment to the college and brought off an early triumph when he persuaded clockmaker and astronomer David Rittenhouse to let Princeton buy his famed orrery, or planetarium, a device of enameled, silvered, and gilded brass that at the turn of a crank showed planets moving around the sun and moons around planets.44 It was a mechanical demonstration of all the parts of the universe being held in their paths by a delicate gravitational balance. Young James Madison may well have been impressed by how a gain in power in one part, if not countered in another, could throw the planets into disarray. The idea of the stability produced by equipoise would loom large in his thinking in the years to come.

Rittenhouse’s hero, Isaac Newton, had demonstrated the laws underlying the planetary orbits, and to exemplify how far man’s mind had penetrated the secrets of the heavens, Rittenhouse put a dial at the top of the orrery that allowed observers to predict the position of the planets for the next four thousand years.45 That man’s mind could plumb depths never before understood was another idea that Madison took away from Princeton.

One might think that the man who brought the orrery to Nassau Hall had deist sympathies, so perfectly did the device seem to represent God as a clockmaker who set the universe in motion and then stood back as it proceeded on its course. But Witherspoon regarded the deists as his theological adversaries, calling them “pretended friends to revealed religion, who are worse if possible than infidels.” He believed in revelation as well as reason and in the historic truth of the Bible, including the miracles of the Old and New Testaments. And generous of spirit though he was, he did not welcome opposition to these convictions. He made sure that college trustees invested him “with the sole direction as to the methods of education to be pursued” and during his first year as president saw to the removal of a number of tutors who advanced ideas incompatible with his own.46

Witherspoon nonetheless wanted his students to know about man’s progress in understanding material nature, what he called “the noble and eminent improvements in natural philosophy . . . made since the end of the last century,” and he saw the orrery as a way to advance that goal. An appreciation of the new knowledge of science, in his view, offered a further challenge. “Why should [progress] not be the same with moral philosophy,” Witherspoon asked his students, “which is indeed nothing else but the knowledge of human nature?”47

It was an exhilarating time to be at Nassau Hall, particularly for a young man from the Virginia upcountry who had proved the substantial power of his own mind in a little over a year and a half. Madison had performed well enough in Latin and Greek on his entrance exams to be able to skip his freshman year. Working his way through sophomore studies, he had looked ahead to his junior and senior years and decided he could do both at once, a course that his father, as well as a realization of his own intellectual prowess, might have encouraged. James senior, who had suffered a substantial setback with the drought of 1769, repeatedly warned about the need to cut down on expenses. Student Madison repeatedly explained to his father about how costly things were. “Your caution of frugality on consideration of the dry weather shall be carefully observed; but I am under a necessity of spending much more than I was apprehensive, for the purchasing of every small trifle which I have occasion for consumes a much greater sum than one wou[ld] suppose.”48 In the end, Madison might have decided that not only was he smart enough to shorten his time at Princeton but doing so was a way to save his father money.

After receiving a promise from the faculty that if he did all the work of two years in one, he could graduate early, he began, as he described it, “an indiscreet experiment of the minimum of sleep and the maximum of application which the constitution would bear.” He managed to earn his degree, but with devastating effect on his health. A letter carried to Virginia by Dr. Witherspoon that told James senior of the health crisis is missing, but it is reasonable to suppose that it described the first of Madison’s “sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy.” The crisis, which came after sleep deprivation, a classic trigger for seizures, seems to have made young Madison wary of participating in his own graduation and convinced him, although he was not bound to a sickbed, that he should wait several months before attempting the long trip home.49

During the extra term he stayed at Nassau Hall, Madison did some reading in law and studied Hebrew with Witherspoon. Samuel Stanhope Smith, who was studying under Witherspoon to be a minister, recalled in later years that Madison was drawn to discussions of the topics that occupied philosophers and divines. Prominent among them, thanks to the Scottish philosopher David Hume, were the miracles of the Bible. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume had argued powerfully that miracles could not be assented to because they were incompatible with reason. As Witherspoon and other orthodox defenders saw it, this was an assault on a central tenet of Christianity. Hume had joined the deists in attacking “principal and direct evidences for the truth of the Christian religion,” in Witherspoon’s words, and there could be no backing off, no giving an inch in this dispute. If the miraculous events described in the Bible seemed different from what a person judged reasonable, it was only because that person failed to understand, in Witherspoon’s words, “that revelation immediately from [God] is evidently necessary.”50

Every member of the Princeton faculty, particularly after Witherspoon’s purge, would have said the same, and it is hard to imagine twenty-year-old James Madison registering objection, even in the case of the boy with epilepsy. In the King James translation of Matthew 17:14–18, he is called a lunatic:

And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is lunatic, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to me. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour.

In Mark 9:17–26, the boy is described as possessed by “a dumb spirit” that “teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth.” Jesus charges the spirit to come out, “and the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him.” In Luke 9:42, as the boy approached Jesus, “The devil threw him down and tare him, and Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the child, and delivered him again to his father.”

The idea of epilepsy arising from supernatural sources went back to antiquity. Aristotle (or one of his followers) observed that “men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry, or the arts are melancholic, and some to such an extent that they are infected by the diseases arising from black bile, as the story of Heracles among the heroes tells.” This, says the writer, had led the ancients to call “the disease of epilepsy the ‘sacred disease’ after him.” One of the Hippocratic writings, on the other hand, disputed the idea, declaring the notion that epilepsy came from the gods absurd and suggesting that it had been started by charlatans.51

In the Christian era the idea of a supernatural origin arose again, almost entirely because of the story of the epileptic boy. An early church father, Origen, after analyzing the passage in Matthew, concluded that epilepsy “is obviously brought about by an unclean dumb and deaf spirit.” The association of epilepsy and possession persisted through the Middle Ages and into the Enlightenment, with theologians declaring madmen, demoniacs, and those with epilepsy ineligible for ordination. Even physicians of the Enlightenment who were trying to move away from supernatural explanations found themselves carving out an exception for epilepsy. In a book published in 1729, the respected physician Jonathan Harle wrote, “That there were some actually possessed by the devil is a truth as plain as words can make it: ’Tis true in one place a person is said to have a devil and be mad, and another to be a demoniac, and yet is called a lunatic, or one troubled with the falling sickness. If we take in both texts, we have the full meaning, which is, that the madness and epilepsy these people labored under were caused by the devil.”52

For someone experiencing “sudden attacks, somewhat resembling epilepsy,” such interpretations had to be extraordinarily disheartening. The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, often ill and seeming to suspect that he had epilepsy, wrote in 1802, “If the Evangelists had . . . merely called the demoniacs diseased men or insane men ‘whose diseases are believed by the people to proceed from demons’ . . . there would have been, I conceive, no physical hypothesis implied, and yet the Gospel . . . confirmed by its authority a belief so wild.”53 It would also have been helpful if eighteenth-century church leaders had admitted such a possibility, but the assault by Enlightenment thinkers seems to have made them wary of giving up any ground.

If, as seems likely, Madison suffered the first of his sudden attacks at Princeton and turned to books, as he did for most of his life, for understanding, he would have found nothing to lift his spirits. In President Witherspoon’s personal collection, there were two books the president specifically recommended to students, Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius’s De veritate religionis Christianae and French divine Jacques Abbadie’s Traité de la vérité de la religion chrétienne, both of which firmly asserted the truth of biblical miracles. The president also had the eminent divine Samuel Clarke’s paraphrase of the four evangelists, in which Clarke explicitly labeled the possessed boy’s ailment “the falling sickness,” the popular name for epilepsy. Nor were the misconceptions of classical writers in the Princeton library any more reassuring. Pliny the Elder indicated that epilepsy was contagious. “We spit on epileptics in a fit; that is, we throw back infection,” he wrote in Natural History, a book in which he also reported on fantastical cures, including elephant liver, crocodile intestine, and “food taken from the flesh of a wild beast killed by the same iron weapon that has killed a human being.”54

It might have been during the extra time he spent at Princeton that Madison took notes in a commonplace book that survives today. It shows him interested in secrets, which would be natural at a period in his life when he probably wanted as few people as possible to know what had happened to him. Reading the Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz, he stopped to copy this passage: “Secrecy is not so rare among persons used to great affairs as is believed.” He added his own thought, “Secrets that are discovered make a noise, but these that are kept are silent.” De Retz’s Machiavellian insights interested him (“To lessen envy is the greatest of all secrets”), as did de Retz’s description of a rising churchman who did not reveal much of himself, Cardinal Fabio Chigi, who, wrote de Retz, “was not very communicative, but in the little conversation he had he showed himself more reserved and wise (savio col silentio) than any man I ever knew.” Reflecting on the sentence, Madison offered his own, more pointed version: “He showed his wisdom by saying nothing.”55

The most striking entry in the commonplace book paraphrases part of a letter sent to John Locke, the seventeenth-century philosopher, when he was suffering one of his frequent illnesses. Dr. Thomas Molyneux wrote to Locke deploring “the great losses the intellectual world in all ages has suffered by the strongest and soundest minds possessing the most infirm and sickly bodies.” Molyneux went on to speculate that “there must be some very powerful cause for this in nature or else we could not have so many instances where the knife cuts the sheath, as the French materially express it.” Scraping his quill across a page, Madison recorded what seemed to him the essence: “The strongest and soundest minds often possess the weakest and most sickly bodies. The knife cuts the sheath as the French express it.”56

The association of illness and powerful intellect probably brought comfort to a young man recently stricken and impressed Locke’s personal story on his memory. Years later Madison likely had Locke in mind when he gave his Piedmont home and the land around it the name of the town in southern France where the great English philosopher repaired for his health. Madison’s Montpelier, like Locke’s Montpellier (which was actually the spelling Madison preferred), would be a place where one could, when the knife had cut the sheath, breathe deeply, hike green hills, and find renewal.

Chapter 2


MADISON RETURNED HOME from Princeton in a state of deep despondency. In 1772, as the oaks and maples shed the last of their leaves, he took up his pen to warn his friend William Bradford not to count on too much from the world: “I hope you are sufficiently guarded against the allurements and vanities that beset us on our first entrance on the theater of life. Yet however nice and cautious we may be in detecting the follies of mankind and framing our economy according to the precepts of wisdom and religion, I fancy there will commonly remain with us some latent expectation of obtaining more than ordinary happiness and prosperity till we feel the convincing argument of actual disappointment.” He himself was no longer burdened with optimism, the twenty-one-year-old Madison told his seventeen-year-old friend, because he was convinced that he had no future to be optimistic about. “As to myself I am too dull and infirm now to look out for any extraordinary things in this world for I think my sensations for many months past have intimated to me not to expect a long or healthy life.”1

Madison had learned from Bradford of the death of Joe Ross, a classmate from Princeton, who had joined him in crowding two years of study into one. He had also been to Berkeley Warm Springs, and the mineral waters had done him little good. In addition, he was reading a book from his father’s library that would have contributed to his gloom. William Burkitt’s Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament emphasized the literal truth of the Bible, particularly the miracles. In Burkitt’s commentary on the story of Christ’s curing the boy who “falleth into the fire, and oft into the water,” there was no hedging. Satan was the aggravating force of the boy’s sickness, as Burkitt explained it, and Christ’s casting him out was the cure.2

Madison took notes on Burkitt’s weighty tome, and from the pages that have survived, we know that he paused over passages about miracles. He noted Burkitt’s observation that the miracles wrought by the apostles in curing diseases and casting out devils were so extraordinary that they exceeded Christ’s miracles. He took notes on Burkitt’s observation that biblical narratives about possession were unique to the New Testament, writing, “Evil spirits none were that we read of in the Old Testament bodily possessed of, and many in the New.” The reason for this, Burkitt explained, was so “that the power of Christ might more signally appear in their ejection and casting out.”3

Madison’s interest in how the world works had not been extinguished. He wrote down Burkitt’s observation on Acts 18 that “rulers and great men are like looking glasses” in the model they provide for others. Proverbs 11:13 caught his attention with its caution about talking too much: “A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.” And he paused over Proverbs 12:23: “A prudent man concealeth knowledge; but the heart of fools proclaimeth foolishness.” But he also had a concern about sin and damnation and how easy it was to slide into both. He paraphrased Burkitt on Matthew 3: “Sins of omission as damnable as sins of commission . . . neglects of duty as damnable as acts of sin.”4

Fall passed into winter with no word coming back from Bradford. After Christmas, slaves spread manure in plant beds, sowed tobacco seed, and covered the beds with branches to protect against frost, while indoors Madison instructed his sisters Nelly and Sarah, twelve and eight, and his brother William, who was ten, in “some of the first rudiments of literature.” He read law and looked into other “miscellaneous subjects,” perhaps exploring further in his father’s small library. Many of the books on James senior’s shelves were medical. Some provided practical information on matters from midwifery to dentistry that a Virginia planter, who oversaw the care of his family and slaves, needed.5 Others must have struck Madison as evidence of how little was really known of the many ailments, including his own, that flesh was heir to.

One of the books in his father’s library took up a most curious medical controversy. It began when Mary Toft of Godalming, England, said that after being startled by a rabbit, she had given birth to seventeen bunnies. Some of the most prominent medical men of the day believed her, were even fooled into thinking they had witnessed the births (she had voluminous skirts), causing the physician James Blondel to launch an assault on the underlying idea that allowed them to be so easily gulled: the notion that a mother’s prenatal influence was so great it could turn her unborn child into a monster. In The Power of the Mother’s Imagination over the Foetus Examin’d, a slender book that James senior owned, Blondel called the idea of assigning blame to the mother “mischievous and cruel,” and he ridiculed the old anecdotes used to support the notion, such as the story of a mother startled by a cat who produced a baby with a catlike head and the tale of a pregnant woman who gazed too long at a picture of John the Baptist wearing a hair shirt and produced a hairy child. If Madison found these stories diverting—and how could a former member of the Whig Society have not?—there was another to which he would have paid serious attention, one about “a young and lusty woman” who, frightened at seeing someone suffer an epileptic seizure, bore a child with epilepsy.6

The idea that epilepsy could be caused by a pregnant woman witnessing a seizure was widespread. Even the famed Herman Boerhaave, perhaps the most eminent European physician of the first half of the eighteenth century, wrote that epilepsy could derive “from the imagination of the mother when she was pregnant being shocked at the sight of a person in an epileptic fit.”7 Blondel’s refutation of such a notion would have been of interest to a young man trying to understand his sudden attacks.

While Madison was reading away the winter months in the Piedmont, his friend Bradford was traveling, eventually settling back at Princeton. It was March before he wrote to Madison, apologizing for the delay and taken aback by his friend’s gloomy report: “You alarm me by what you tell me about your health. I believe you hurt your constitution while here by too close an application to study; but I hope ’tis not so bad with you as you seem to imagine. Persons of the weakest constitutions by taking a proper care of themselves often outlive those of the strongest.”8

•   •   •

BY THE TIME Madison wrote back in April 1773, his health had improved, “owing I believe to more activity and less study recommended by the phy[si]cians.” Perhaps Madison was simply lucky in encountering doctors who subscribed to the idea that patients could be helped by leading measured lives, but he and his family might very well have sought out such physicians, inspired to do so by another of James senior’s books, John Wesley’s widely popular Primitive Physic. Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was unusual in that he left his theology behind when he wrote about health. Prayer was important, he said, but he conveyed no sense of illness being sin. Primitive Physic presented exercise as a “grand preventative of pain and sickness of various kinds.” Its power “to preserve and restore health is greater than can well be conceived, especially in those who add temperance thereto.” Studious persons, Wesley wrote, “ought to have stated times for exercise, at least two or three hours a day.”9

For good health, a person also needed to be in control of his emotions, Wesley said: “All violent and sudden passion disposes to, or actually throws people into, acute diseases.” Blondel, too, wrote about the effects of “violent passions,” saying that they “will cause convulsions, shortness of breath, fevers, epilepsy, apoplexy, and even death itself.” It was common for physicians who recommended exercise also to recommend emotional control, and the doctors who suggested “more activity” for Madison might also have offered advice about being calm and measured.10

Certainly there was a change of mood in his letters to Bradford. The melancholy outpourings ended, and Madison spoke of himself as “sedate and philosophic”—which did not mean being always somber. He joined Bradford in joking about Nassau alumni such as “poor Brian,” who after “long intoxicating his brain with idleness and dissipation” acknowledged his marriage to Miss Amelia Horner, who had already borne his child.11

Madison was, however, deeply serious when Bradford requested career advice. The younger man wrote that he had rejected the idea of becoming a minister and was thinking of law. Madison supported his decision but urged that there was still an important religious role he could play: “I have sometimes thought there could not be a stronger testimony in favor of religion or against temporal enjoyments even the most rational and manly than for men who occupy the most honorable and gainful departments and are rising in reputation and wealth, publically to declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ, and I wish you may give in your evidence in this way. Such instances have seldom occurred; therefore, they would be more striking and would be instead of a ‘cloud of witnesses.[’]”12 The sentiments in this letter are particularly noteworthy because nothing like them would ever come from Madison’s pen again.

During the winter of 1773–1774, Madison’s thinking underwent a sea change. The young man who embraced traditional views at the beginning became a person who no longer affirmed the religious doctrines with which he had grown up. It has sometimes been suggested that he was swayed from his early acceptance of church orthodoxy by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, both critics of revealed religion, but the break in Madison’s thinking happened before he knew either man. The more likely explanation is that having taken his health in hand by walking and riding over the Virginia hills, he decided now to take his soul in hand, casting aside the notion that his sudden attacks were somehow connected with Satan, demons, or sin.

Virginia’s official church, the Church of England, was supported and enforced by the state, and at the same time that Madison was moving away from traditional religious ideas, the government of Virginia was punishing Baptist preachers trying to expand their ministry into the colony. Sheriffs and magistrates, sometimes accompanied by Anglican clergymen, arrested and jailed the Baptists, charging them with disturbing the peace or preaching without a license. When one of the most famous of those jailed, James Ireland, preached to people through the grate in his cell, men on horseback rode through the crowd, driving some of those gathered to the ground, threatening others with clubs, and stripping and lashing the slaves who were listening.13

The jailing of five or six Baptists in neighboring Culpeper County brought Madison to a fury early in 1774. Losing all efforts he had been making to control his passions, he lambasted those responsible, including Anglican clergymen. “That diabolical hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some,” he wrote to his friend Bradford, “and to their eternal infamy the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business.” He had little sympathy for what he later called the Baptists’ “enthusiasm, which contributed to render them obnoxious to sober opinion,” but he took up their cause with a vehemence, suggesting that he saw in their plight a symbol of his own. They were in jail, which was clearly unjust, but so was any constraint that restricted the intellect to narrow and dispiriting dogma. “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect,” Madison told Bradford, writing with the authority of a man who knew firsthand the price of being bound to a received viewpoint—and the liberation of breaking free.

Madison was frustrated in his early efforts to aid the Baptists. He wrote to Bradford, “I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed so long about it [to so lit]tle purpose that I am without common patience. So I [leave you] to pity me and pray for liberty of conscience [to revive among us].” But this was hardly the end of it. When a basic principle was involved, Madison could be a man of utterly dogged determination—stubbornness, some would call it. He had already decided to study law, not because he intended to be a lawyer, but because, he told Bradford, “the principles and modes of government are too important to be disregarded by an inquisitive mind and I think are well worthy [of] a critical examination by all students that have health and leisure.” In eerily prescient language, he asked Bradford for information on “the constitution of your country,” meaning Pennsylvania. He wanted to know “its origin and fundamental principles of legislation,” and he made particular inquiry about “the extent of your religious toleration.” If freedom of conscience couldn’t be achieved in Virginia as it was currently organized, then twenty-two-year-old James Madison wanted to think about reorganizing it—and doing away with an official church. “Is an ecclesiastical establishment absolutely necessary to support civil society in a supreme government?” he asked Bradford. “And how far it is hurtful to a dependant state?”14

Madison was also developing another idea: that the absence of clashing ideas and competing interests leads to overreaching and corruption. He wrote to Bradford, “If the Church of England had been the established and general religion in all the northern colonies as it has been among us here, and uninterrupted tranquility had prevailed throughout the continent, it is clear to me that slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us. Union of religious sentiments begets a surprising confidence and ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects.”15 A decade and more hence, when he was contemplating how a republic of vast expanse could succeed, he would call upon the positive side of this idea: that diversity sustains freedom. Upending the conventional wisdom of his time, he would argue that a large republic had a better chance than a small one of succeeding because there are more interests to compete and less chance for any one of them to become tyrannical.

Madison did not make an issue about his departure from the orthodox religious views of his time. To question miracles or the Trinity in one’s study or in private conversation was one thing. To do so publicly was more than unacceptable. Heresy, including the denial of the divinity of the Scriptures, could keep a person from holding office and even, technically at least, lead to imprisonment. With his family, Madison was almost certainly discreet. His father was a vestryman at the Brick Church, and his mother a woman of noted piety who was confirmed in the church as an adult. Her son James chose not to be confirmed, but the loving regard he habitually displayed for his parents almost certainly meant that he did not air his differences with church doctrine at home. Bishop William Meade, a friend of the Madison family, wrote, “Whatever may have been the private sentiments of Mr. Madison on the subject of religion, he was never known to declare any hostility to it. He always treated it with respect, attended public worship in his neighborhood, invited ministers of religion to his house, had family prayers on such occasions—though he did not kneel himself at prayers.” Nevertheless, he gained a reputation as an unbeliever. As the Reverend Dr. Balmaine, who was well acquainted with him, described it, “His political associations with those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet subjected him to the general suspicion of it. This was confirmed in the minds of some by the active part he took in opposition to everything like the support of churches by the legislature.” Meade reported a private conversation with him that, in Meade’s words, “took such a turn—though not designed on my part—as to call forth some expressions and arguments which left the impression on my mind that his creed was not strictly regulated by the Bible.”16

Madison has often been called a deist, and rejection of supernatural parts of the Bible was common to deist thought, but so, too, was the idea that through reason one could prove the existence of God, and to Madison that smacked of hubris. He posited limits on reason, making him sound very much like David Hume, the Scottish philosopher whom John Witherspoon had classed among “infidel writers,” though that is a description Hume would have rejected. Both Madison and Hume agreed that human understanding can take us only so far and beyond is what Madison described as “mystery,” arising from “the dimness of the human sight.” As Hume put it, “The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery.”17

Hume also argued that a person cannot wrestle with existential problems forever, cannot remain “environed with the deepest darkness.” Life summons, inviting participation: “The blood flows with a new tide; the heart is elevated; and the whole man acquires a vigor which he cannot command in his solitary and calm moments.” For Madison, the call came from the events of the day, not only the persecution of Baptists in Virginia, but also the dramatic escalation of the conflict with the king and Parliament. After a few years of relative calm, the British had provoked American ire once more, this time with an effort to save the East India Company. Parliament granted the company exclusive rights to the American tea market, a decision that together with the tax on tea imposed by the Townshend Acts infuriated colonists up and down the seaboard. Once more they saw themselves placed in humiliating subservience, used this time by the ministry in Britain not only to fill up royal coffers but to prop up a failing company. In Philadelphia threats of violence persuaded the captain of the Polly to turn back to London rather than attempt to enter the harbor with his cargo of tea. In Boston anger and crowds grew until on a cold December night in 1773 thousands of Bostonians swarmed Griffin’s Wharf to watch 130 men, many disguised as Indians, board the Dartmouth, the Eleanor, and the Beaver and dump ten thousand pounds of tea into Boston Harbor.18

At first Madison preferred Philadelphia’s more temperate approach. “I congratulate you on your heroic proceedings . . . with regard to the tea,” he wrote to Bradford, whose father’s print shop had published a handbill warning the captain of the Polly that tar and feathers were in store for him if he landed. “I wish Boston may conduct matters with as much discretion as they seem to do with boldness.” Madison understood that Boston had been singled out for “frequent assaults” and that the conflict was providing colonists with valuable “exercise and practice . . . in the art of defending liberty and property.” Still, he admired the judiciousness of Philadelphians and longed to visit their city. Soon he had an excuse. His father wanted to enroll his brother William in a boarding school to the north.19

The Madison brothers, accompanied by James’s Princeton friend George Luckey, started their journey in May and were likely in Philadelphia when they heard the stunning news that in retaliation for the destruction of tea the British Parliament was closing Boston’s port and altering Massachusetts’s charter to bring the colony under greater royal control. Not long after came action and reaction from Virginia. The House of Burgesses called for prayer and fasting on June 1, 1774, the day the port of Boston was to be closed, which led the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, to dissolve the assembly. As Madison enrolled his brother in preparatory school—the family decided on one in Princeton—events at home were taking on momentous dimensions. Members of the dismissed House of Burgesses, acting with the aplomb of men well practiced in governance, reconvened in Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern. There, in the long, wainscoted Apollo Room, scene of many a ball and banquet, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and their colleagues reaffirmed their support for Boston, declaring “that an attack made on one of our sister colonies . . . is an attack made on all British America.” They called for the colonies to meet “in general congress . . . to deliberate on those general measures which the united interests of America may from time to time require.”20

As the crisis grew, Madison’s attitude, like that of many colonists, hardened. In light of the harsh British measures, Pennsylvania’s cautious ways seemed inadequate, and when its legislature chose delegates for the general congress that Virginia had proposed, Madison told Bradford that the instructions they had been given were much too timid. Instead of waiting to see if the British would make concessions, the colonies ought to undertake immediate military preparations, he maintained: “Delay on our part emboldens our adversaries and improves their schemes whilst it abates the ardor of the Americans inspired with recent injuries.” From his Piedmont home, Madison also wrote to Bradford that he “heartily repent[ed]” having already made his journey to Philadelphia. The years of his young manhood had been marked by repeated British violations of American rights, from the Stamp Act to the Tea Act to the Intolerable Acts, as Americans were calling the measures taken against Boston. The gathering of the Continental Congress offered hope of concerted action by the American colonies in defense of their rights. Madison yearned to observe the great event, but Bradford assured him that even if he were in Philadelphia, he could not witness the proceedings. They were “a profound secret and the doors open to no one.” Bradford had to admit, however, that a city where delegates were convening from such far-flung places as Georgia and Massachusetts provided great spectacle. Philadelphia was “another Cairo,” he wrote, swarming not with merchants but “with politicians and statesmen.”21

Bradford also sent information he knew would fascinate the book-loving Madison: “The Congress sits in the Carpenter’s Hall in one room of which the city library is kept and of which the librarian tells me the gentlemen make great and constant use.” The delegates were especially interested in works of political theory, Bradford wrote, perhaps inspiring Madison to begin a reading project of his own. He sent to England for Joseph Priestley’s Essay on the First Principles of Government and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty, a work advocating natural rights, limited government, and religious freedom. He asked Bradford to send him a copy of Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society, which emphasized the need for constitutional checks and balances. Ferguson also asserted liberty to be a right, not a favor granted by the state, a formulation that Madison might have kept in mind as he read pamphlets on religious toleration that he asked another friend to send him.22 Since freedom of conscience was also a right, why should it be regarded as within the power of the state to grant?

Word leaked out of the Continental Congress that Virginia’s delegates were the most aggressive in their proposals for dealing with Great Britain. “Your province seems to take the lead at present,” Bradford wrote. Madison proudly reported that in Virginia “a spirit of liberty and patriotism animates all degrees and denominations of men. Many publically declare themselves ready to join the Bostonians as soon as violence is offered them or resistance thought expedient.” During the winter months of 1774–1775, militias began to train. “There will by the spring, I expect, be some thousands of well-trained high spirited men ready to meet danger whenever it appears,” Madison wrote.23

Madison was a member of the Orange County Committee of Safety, which his father headed, a group responsible for enforcing the Continental Association, a measure passed by the Continental Congress to boycott British goods. Committee members also encouraged local military preparations for what Madison called “extreme events,” efforts that seemed entirely prudent when news arrived that in the dawn hours of April 20, 1775, British marines under the orders of Governor Dunmore had seized gunpowder from the magazine at Williamsburg. Some six hundred armed and mounted men assembled at Fredericksburg “with a view to proceed to Williamsburg [to] recover the powder and revenge the insult,” as Madison described it. They were talked out of their plans by a letter from the portly, fifty-three-year-old Peyton Randolph, who had been in the House of Burgesses for nearly thirty years and presided over the Continental Congress, as well as by advice from three of Randolph’s colleagues: Edmund Pendleton, Richard Henry Lee, and George Washington. But Patrick Henry, another Virginia delegate, wasn’t about to let the event pass. Since the time of the Stamp Act, he had been excoriating the British for their actions. Just the month before, he had stirred his fellow Virginians with a call to arms that would become legendary: “Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me . . . give me liberty or give me death!”24

In Hanover County, Henry called for volunteers, and as they assembled, reports from Massachusetts began arriving. Shots had been fired and Americans killed when a British attempt to seize a cache of arms near Concord, Massachusetts, had provoked a confrontation at North Bridge. Henry told the men gathered in Newcastle on the Pamunkey River that it was hardly a coincidence that the British had also seized Virginia munitions. They had a plan to deprive colonists up and down the land of their means of defense, he said, rousing the assembled volunteers with images of comrades fallen, their blood “gloriously shed in the general cause.” He led his motley army toward Williamsburg, and as their march progressed, an alarmed Governor Dunmore sent a message offering reparations. Henry accepted the governor’s bill of exchange, wrote a receipt for 330 pounds, and declared himself satisfied.25

In Orange County, where indignation was also running high, a group of volunteers, including James Madison, was organizing its own march when its members learned of Henry’s success. A letter from the Committee of Safety, probably drafted by Madison, thanked Henry for his “zeal for the honor and interest of your country,” and Madison was among those who delivered it as Henry passed triumphantly through Port Royal, Virginia, on his way to Philadelphia and the Second Continental Congress. The twenty-four-year-old from Orange County probably tried hard not to stare at the tall, gaunt, thirty-eight-year-old Henry, a man who would be his adversary in the years ahead but for whom he presently had the highest regard, particularly, he told Bradford, when he compared Henry’s upcountry boldness with the “pusillanimity” of the “gentlemen below,” meaning the large plantation owners of the Tidewater, “whose property will be exposed . . . should [the government] be provoked to make reprisals.”26

In mid-June, Madison sent sad news to Bradford. Dysentery, widespread in Orange County, had carried off two of his siblings, “a little sister about seven and a brother about four years of age.” Nelly Madison, grieving over the deaths of Elizabeth and Reuben, the fourth and fifth of her children to die, had also fallen ill, but she would later recover.27

•   •   •

AFTER THE KILLINGS at Lexington and Concord, further armed conflict with Britain seemed inevitable, and Boston, under British occupation, was the most likely place for it. When the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May 1775, delegates quickly created a Continental army, authorizing militia companies from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to march to Boston to reinforce the ragtag assemblage of New Englanders trying to drive the British from the city. Congress then turned to one of its own to lead the army. Colonel George Washington of Virginia, a man of commanding stature, few words, and a reputation for great courage in battling the French and the Indians, accepted the appointment, modestly calling it “a trust too great for my capacity.”28

Even as Washington was preparing to take up his command, there was further bloodshed. British forces attacked New England militiamen who had taken up fortified positions on Breed’s Hill, which overlooked Boston. After fierce fighting, patriot forces retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill, from which the battle would take its name, but they had exacted a terrible price from the British, killing or wounding more than a thousand redcoats.29 As colonists increasingly realized that they were going to have to wage war for their rights, the Battle of Bunker Hill lifted their spirits, encouraging them to think that in a general conflagration their militias would fare quite well.

As happens in great crises, rumors started to fly. In Virginia, Madison heard that Benjamin Franklin, who had been in London for more than ten years, had sold out to the British and that a Virginia delegate had turned traitor and fled from Philadelphia. Neither claim was accurate, but Madison, showing his youth, gave quick credit to both reports. He was also an eager participant in efforts to expose and humiliate those who did not support the American cause. The Committee of Safety on which Madison and his father served required county inhabitants to sign a pledge upholding the Continental Association and demanded that the rector of the Brick Church hand over certain pamphlets in his possession printed by James Rivington of New York, a publisher notorious for his Loyalist sympathies. Declaring the pamphlets full of “the most impudent falsehoods and malicious artifices,” the committee ordered them burned. Not long after, mobs in New York destroyed Rivington’s press, making the publisher’s subsequent career—as a paid spy for George Washington—all the more amazing.30

In a letter to Bradford, Madison approvingly described the firing of a parson in Culpeper County who had refused to observe a day of fasting and prayer for the patriot cause: “When called on he pleaded conscience, alleging that it was his duty to pay no regard to any such appointments made by unconstitutional authority. The committee it seems have their consciences, too. They have ordered his church doors to be shut and his salary to be stopped. . . . I question should his insolence not abate if he does not get ducked in a coat of tar and surplice of feathers and then he may go in his new canonicals and act under the lawful authority of General Gage.”31 Full of zeal—and youthful braggadocio—Madison saw no contradiction between championing freedom of thought and endorsing tar and feathers, rationalizing, perhaps, that to create a society in which people could express themselves freely, it was necessary first to make sure British oppression failed. And however humiliating—and painful—a tarring and feathering, Madison probably judged it mild in the context of British actions. General Gage, to whom Madison wanted to send the Culpeper parson, had ordered the fateful raid on the arsenal at Concord and authorized the bloody assault on Breed’s Hill.

No British figure ranked lower in Madison’s estimation than Governor Dunmore. The fury following his seizure of gunpowder from the Williamsburg magazine had only begun to abate when Dunmore set a shotgun trap on the magazine’s doors that subsequently wounded two men. With outrage mounting, Williamsburg began to fill with upcountry riflemen, known as “shirtmen” from the hunting clothes they wore, and, fearing for his safety, Dunmore fled the capital with his family in the early morning hours of June 8, 1775. The last royal governor of Virginia, his pregnant wife, and his eight children took refuge aboard HMS Fowey, a British frigate off Yorktown. “We defy his power as much as we detest his villainy,” Madison wrote in his report of these events to Bradford.32

Madison had worried for months that if a rupture occurred, the British would encourage a slave insurrection as part of their effort to defeat rebellious colonists, and when enslaved people hoping for freedom began making their way to where Dunmore’s ship was anchored, he suspected the governor was at work—and cleverly so. “To say the truth,” Madison wrote to Bradford, “that is the only part in which this colony is vulnerable; and if we should be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one that knows that secret.” A slaveholder himself, Dunmore understood the potential weakness of a colony in which 40 percent of the population was enslaved, and on November 14, 1775, he declared “all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his majesty’s troops as soon as may be.” The emancipation did not encompass the fifty-seven human beings Dunmore owned, or slaves owned by Loyalists, or any women and children, but it sent fear and dread through white Virginia, as did evidence turned up by patriot forces of Dunmore’s intent to enlist Indians from the Ohio country in the British cause. In December 1775, George Washington wrote of Dunmore: “[If] that man is not crushed before spring, he will become the most formidable enemy America has; his strength will increase as a snowball, by rolling.”33

Dunmore was crushed by summer, his strategy of freeing and arming slaves driving even the most cautious Virginia leaders into the patriot cause. He commanded an attack across a causeway at Great Bridge, south of Norfolk, that led to the decimation of British regulars under his command. He bombarded American troops parading in Norfolk and sent landing parties to destroy buildings along the dock area, thereby giving patriot troops, who regarded Norfolk as a Tory stronghold, all the excuse they needed to begin pillaging and burning. Although the destruction of Norfolk had been helped along by the Americans, it became one more item in the litany of British depredations.

Dunmore’s troops subsequently sickened with smallpox and hundreds died, including many of the former slaves who had sought freedom with him, but when he abandoned Virginia, others who had seen him as the leader who could bring them liberty sailed aboard his fleet, including a man who had formerly been enslaved by George Washington and another who had been the property of Patrick Henry.34 There had been no idealism in Dunmore’s freeing of slaves owned by patriots, but he nonetheless made it possible for some of them to know freedom.

•   •   •

AMONG THOSE TRAINING to be a Piedmont rifleman was twenty-four-year-old James Madison, likely quite a fit young man by now. It had been two years since he had begun following doctors’ recommendations to leave off constant study in order to exercise regularly. He had made at least one long journey and was eager to take more. Judging by his confidence in his marksmanship, he might also have spent time hunting. Although emphasizing that he was “far from being among the best,” he reported to Bradford that he counted on hitting “the bigness of a man’s face at the distance of 100 yards.”35 That is the rough equivalent of hitting an eight-inch target at one end of a football field when firing from the other—a respectable shot with an eighteenth-century weapon.

But exercise, though seeming to help, turned out not to be a cure, and his military career came to an abrupt end when he was struck by one of his sudden attacks. If he experienced a complex partial seizure, he might have entered a “dreamy state” and engaged in automatic movements, such as plucking at clothes. He might have walked without awareness of where he was going or heard people speak without understanding what they said. Complex partial seizures typically last a minute or two, and the aftermath is brief. “After the seizure,” writes Dr. Orrin Devinsky, a foremost expert on epilepsy, “lethargy and confusion are common, but usually last less than fifteen minutes.”36

But Madison was occasionally affected for days by his sudden attacks. At times they were described as “slight” and at others “severe,” suggesting that partial seizures might have sometimes generalized (as they do in more than 30 percent of patients with partial epilepsy). The excessive electrical activity that causes a partial seizure when localized in one area of the brain can spread to both sides, causing the affected person to lose consciousness, fall to the ground, and convulse. If partial seizures did sometimes generalize in Madison’s case, it would help explain why he, in advance of his time, understood a connection between attacks “suspending the intellectual functions” and epilepsy. If an experience that sometimes passed quickly also on occasion led to convulsive seizures, a logical mind would posit a relationship.37

In the end Madison would decide to avoid the freighted word “epilepsy” altogether, revising his autobiography to refer instead to an “experience” during military training that brought his constitutional weakness home to him. But a congressman whom he knew well would use the term, writing not long after Madison’s death that “he was subject to sudden attacks, a mitigated form of epilepsy. And though they attended him through life, this fortunately did not as usual become worse with years and never in the smallest degree dimmed the brightness of his intellect.”38

It’s impossible to know exactly what happened during Madison’s sudden attacks, but we can conclude that he was most fortunate, particularly in a time when there was no effective treatment, that they were not more severe. Although the attacks sometimes stopped him in his course, he was able by the time of his military training to cease dwelling upon them and instead focus on the compelling news of the day: the king’s troops had fired upon and killed Americans, occupied Boston, and razed Norfolk; the British ministry was intent on spreading further death and destruction by inciting Indians and slaves, an action that even so ardent a foe of slavery as Thomas Paine condemned as “cruelty” with “a double guilt; it is dealing brutally by us and treacherously by them.”39

Back at his Piedmont home, Madison watched a new year unfold, a fateful year that would be forwarded in its course by Paine, an immigrant from England, who boldly declared what had until recently been unthinkable: that America must not merely resist Britain but break with it. “Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation,” he wrote in Common Sense, a pamphlet that electrified the colonies in the early months of 1776. “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’tis time to part.”40

Paine pictured what could follow—a freedom unknown on earth, with consequences that would roll down the generations. “’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age, posterity are virtually involved in the contest and will be more or less affected until the end of time,” he wrote.41 Twenty-four-year-old James Madison must have thrilled at these words. It was a time of great change and possibility, and he was a gifted and well-prepared young man.

Chapter 3


ALTHOUGH BY FAR THE YOUNGEST member of the Orange County Committee of Safety, Madison, along with his uncle William Moore, another committee member, was elected in 1776 to attend the Virginia Convention, the provisional government of the commonwealth since 1774.1 That Madison’s father was head of the Committee of Safety and a well-regarded planter might have entered into the freeholders’ choosing young Madison for what was sure to be a momentous gathering, but in the small, albeit spread-out, community of Orange County they would also have known that he, like most of them, was no longer inclined to temporize with the British. The record of abuse, long and now bloody, seemed proof that if Virginians were to be free men, reconciliation was impossible. The time had come to seek independence.

It had been a wet spring in Virginia, and on the way to Williamsburg, Madison and Moore had to contend with muddy roads, swollen rivers, and creeks overrunning their beds. By the time they arrived, the convention was under way, and they entered the crowded capitol at the end of Duke of Gloucester Street to find that fifty-four-year-old Edmund Pendleton had been elected to preside. He was an impressive figure, six feet tall, “the handsomest man in the colony,” some said, with a serene and elegant manner that belied a modest background. His father had died the year he was born, leaving the family impoverished and young Edmund with few choices. Apprenticed at age fourteen to the clerk of the Caroline County Court, he educated himself and succeeded in becoming licensed as a lawyer and earning a handsome income, though never entering the ranks of the wealthy because of substantial sums he spent raising up other members of his family. His long and successful career in politics had begun in 1752, when, at age thirty, he had been elected to the House of Burgesses, and he had served either in that body or in every Virginia Convention since.2

Madison was acquainted with Pendleton, whose mother was his grandmother Frances Madison’s sister, but aside from him and William Moore he knew few of the delegates. Most were older, and many had been powerful in Virginia while Madison was still a child. He soon fell into conversation, probably on a back bench, with a delegate about his age, Edmund Randolph. Tall and outgoing, with dark eyes and soft features, Edmund carried the highest hopes of the Randolph dynasty. He would become Virginia’s first attorney general and its governor, and he would hold high national office, but his life was not without its troubles, and for now his problem was his father. John Randolph, known to history as Randolph the Tory, had chosen to sail to England with Governor Dunmore rather than stay in rebellious Virginia. In part to remove the shadow that his Loyalist father had cast on his reputation, Edmund had successfully sought a position as an aide-de-camp to General George Washington, and after serving with the general for two and a half months in Massachusetts, Randolph no doubt had much to relate about the challenges Washington faced, including scarce supplies, short-term enlistees, and the confounding strangeness of New Englanders. As Randolph remembered it, he also learned much from the delegate from Orange, whose broad knowledge and good judgment were apparent almost as soon as one spoke with him. Wrote Randolph, “He who had once partaken of the rich banquet of [Madison’s] remarks did not fail to wish daily to sit within the reach of his conversation.”3

Madison and Randolph took note as Patrick Henry rose to speak. Henry was neither handsome nor graceful and from his childhood had lacked discipline, preferring to run wild in the Virginia forests and play his fiddle rather than attend to schoolwork. But he had passion, and after failing at farming and shopkeeping, he discovered a gift for inspiring others that had made him, next to George Washington, the most popular man in Virginia. He had enemies, to be sure, people who thought he was lazy and crude, but he won over the crowds with his oratory. “Compared with any of his more refined contemporaries and rivals, he by his imagination . . . painted to the soul [and] eclipsed the sparklings of art,” observed Randolph. Madison, too, “thrilled with the ecstasies of Henry’s eloquence and extolled his skill in commanding the audience,” but he also observed privately that Henry’s reasoning was sometimes faulty.4

Henry had earlier been among the most forward leaning on the matter of separating from Great Britain, and Pendleton one of the most cautious, but as the moment of decision neared, their positions reversed. Henry, for all his passion, thought independence a decision to be delayed until it could be taken by all the colonies at once in the Continental Congress, while Pendleton proposed that the Virginia Convention immediately declare union with Great Britain at an end. Pendleton crafted a compromise that fulfilled Henry’s wish with a resolution “that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in the general congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to or dependence upon the crown or parliament of Great Britain.” An accompanying resolution accomplished what Pendleton wanted by setting Virginia on a new course immediately. A committee would “be appointed to prepare a declaration of rights and such a plan of government as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this colony and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.”5

Now Henry became “a pillar of fire,” Randolph reported. He threw the full force of his oratory behind the resolutions, and the delegates voted unanimously in favor of both. Remembering the eloquent case that Common Sense had made for American independence, Randolph concluded that “the principles of Paine’s pamphlet now stalked in triumph under the sanction of the most extensive, richest, and most commanding colony in America.”6

The crowd outside the convention thrilled to the new era by pulling down the British flag from atop the capitol and hoisting the red-striped Grand Union flag that George Washington’s army was using. As Thomas Nelson, a delegate to both the Virginia Convention and the Continental Congress, set out for Philadelphia with the resolution recommending independence, Williamsburg prepared for celebration. The next day in Waller’s Grove, the resolutions passed by the convention were read to the army. Troops paraded and partook of refreshment. Toasts were offered, each followed by cannon salute and the cheers of the crowd. That night, as the Virginia Gazette described it, there were “illuminations and other demonstrations of joy.”7

Several days after the vote, another of Virginia’s great men arrived at the convention, George Mason of Gunston Hall, one of the wealthiest planters in the colony. Swarthy, with eyes so dark they looked black, he had been delayed by “a smart fit of the gout,” as he put it. This painful ailment plagued him much of his life and might have contributed to his sometimes acerbic tongue, but he was also a man who carried a heavy weight of grief. His beloved wife, Ann, mother of his many offspring, had died in 1773 after bearing twins, who also died. Mason was left with nine children, to whom he was devoted. Pressed to serve in the Continental Congress in 1775, he had refused on account of his children, explaining with great emotion that such service would not be compatible with their needs.8

Although Mason had little formal schooling, he was a voracious reader and had acquired a vast knowledge of the letter and philosophy of the law. He was a natural appointment to the committee charged with creating a declaration of rights and a constitution for Virginia. Named its thirty-first member, Mason had no illusions about how it would work. He wrote to Richard Henry Lee, one of Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress and a man whom Mason desperately wanted to have join him in Williamsburg: “The committee appointed to prepare a plan is, according to custom, overcharged with useless members. . . . We shall in all probability have a thousand ridiculous and impracticable proposals and, of course, a plan formed of heterogeneous, jarring, and unintelligible ingredients. This can be prevented only by a few men of integrity and abilities . . . undertaking this business and defending it ably through every stage of opposition.”9

Mason, who immediately took charge of the committee, might well have regarded James Madison as part of its deadwood. It would have been hard to expect much from one so young and inexperienced, but when Mason’s draft of a declaration of rights emerged, Madison had a key suggestion. The section on religious freedom declared that “religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore . . . all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate.” These sentiments represented Enlightenment thought, particularly as drawn from John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration.10 After centuries in which magistrates had seen it as their duty to burn, behead, drown, and hang people of other religions, Locke’s thinking had been a breakthrough, but eighty years and more had passed since his letter, and James Madison thought it was time to push further. Why should religious freedom be regarded as something that the state should tolerate? He had spent much of his young life thinking about the consequences of forcing a person to profess belief he knows is in error and had concluded that to imply that the state had any authority in such a matter was wrong.

Madison, well aware of his junior status, worked through others, including Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton, to bring his amendment before the delegates, and he managed to do so with tact sufficient to leave George Mason unperturbed. In the end Madison succeeded in replacing the words “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion” with “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.”11 It was a simple alteration that accomplished a mighty change: legal recognition that freedom of conscience, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is a natural right. It was also the first example of the double nature of Madison’s genius. He was capable not only of deeply creative thinking but of turning his thoughts into reality.

Madison had studied constitutions, but he took little active part when the convention moved on to create one for governing Virginia, as the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, had called on states to do, but he learned much as an observer, including a great deal about the temperament of a man he had not yet met and who was not even at the convention. Thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson was the most junior member of the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Although not much of an orator, he had already proved himself a gifted writer with a pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, in which he declared that Parliament had no authority over the American colonies and that King George III had acted illegally when he “sent among us large bodies of armed forces.”12 Jefferson had written A Summary View for the Virginia Convention of 1774, which he had been unable to attend, and might have learned from this experience how comfortable it was to give instruction from a distance. He did not like personal confrontation and could avoid it by opining without being present.

From Philadelphia, Jefferson sent word to convention delegates in Williamsburg that they had no authority to write a constitution for Virginia. Such a task was not within the purview of an ordinary legislative body and should be put off, he wrote to Edmund Randolph, “until the people should elect deputies for that special purpose.” Randolph carried Jefferson’s message to other members of the convention, Madison no doubt among them, and probably encountered many a dismayed reaction. As Randolph put it, asking delegates “to postpone formation of a constitution until a commission of greater latitude and one more specific should be given by the people was a task too hardy.”13

But Jefferson wasn’t through. As the convention neared the end of its work on a Virginia constitution, he sent its members another missive—a draft of a Virginia constitution that he had composed, one full of ideas sure to lead to heated debate, such as ending the importation of slaves and allowing women to inherit equally with their brothers. One imagines Edmund Pendleton privately throwing up his hands, but, ever the gentleman in public, he wrote to Jefferson explaining that because the constitution just agreed to in the committee of the whole “had been so long in hand, so disputed inch by inch, and the subject of so much altercation and debate,” delegates were reluctant to invite more contention. Moreover, they were worn out “and could not, from mere lassitude,” be “induced to open the instrument again.” The delegates did, however, adopt the preamble that Jefferson had written for his draft constitution. Since he was dissatisfied with the document that the delegates produced, Jefferson was less than grateful for their adoption of his words. He described the final result as having his preamble “tacked to the work of George Mason.”14 Meanwhile, he found his own use for the preamble, folding it into a writing assignment he had acquired in Philadelphia. With a few alterations, the preamble became part of the Declaration of Independence.

Even before he met him, Madison was learning how maddening Jefferson could be—and how brilliant. In trying to establish popular self-government, Americans were attempting something new under the sun, which required thinking anew, and even though Madison voted in favor of the Virginia constitution that Jefferson thought flawed, within a decade he was arguing Jefferson’s point: that the convention wasn’t the proper body for creating fundamental law. Elected to run the war and govern the colony, it lacked the status needed to establish a framework for governing. Without what Madison called “due power from people,” its actions were legislative, not fundamental, and therefore alterable by the next governing authority.15

Jefferson had proposed that Virginia’s constitution be ratified by the people “assembled in their respective counties.” This suggestion was also ignored, but Madison saw its inherent correctness. This was a further way to distinguish a fundamental document from a legislative act and thereby shelter it from constant change. In later years, when Madison drafted a constitution for the nation, he would provide for “an assembly or assemblies of representatives . . . expressly chosen by the people, to consider and decide thereon.”16

On June 29, 1776, delegates in Williamsburg adopted the constitution over which they had long labored, and as if to prove the point that they were a legislative body rather than an assembly for creating paramount law, they rolled themselves over into the lower house of Virginia’s legislative branch, scheduled to meet in the fall. The constitution also created a governorship, one weak enough so that there was no danger of the incumbent disregarding the legislature, as royal governors had sometimes done, and the delegates elected Patrick Henry to the post.

As the convention in Williamsburg neared adjournment, members of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia approved the proposal that the Virginia Convention had instructed its representatives to offer. On July 2, 1776, they affirmed “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Praise for James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

“With this compelling, elegant, original biography, Lynne Cheney brings the great, elusive James Madison back to life, reminding us of how powerfully this brilliant founder’s political and intellectual leadership has shaped the course of American history. In this era in which Madison is too often eclipsed by more histrionic founders, Cheney shows us his crucial, fascinating relationships with Dolley, Thomas Jefferson and an all-star cast, and lets us witness the growth of a world-changing political philosopher. Her book demonstrates why Madison deserves to stand near the center of our early American firmament.”  
—Michael Beschloss, author of The Conquerors and Presidential Courage
“Lucidly written . . . this is probably the best single-volume bio of Madison that we now have.”
—Gordon Wood, New York Times Book Review
“The book is a lovingly researched tribute to an often-underestimated man. It does not explicitly refer to modern controversies. But present-day politics intrudes.”
The Economist
“[A] meticulously researched, richly detailed look at the life and times of Madison. Former Second Lady Cheney fleshes out the achievements and struggles of this American founding father. . . . [A]uthoritative, conversational, certainly confident in its analysis.” 
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“James Madison did as much to put his stamp on the nation as any of the founders, yet too rarely is he given his due in the pantheon of America’s statesman. In this stunning, brilliant work, Lynne Cheney rectifies this glaring oversight, and brings Madison to life as never before. Written with subtlety and grace, the book is as groundbreaking as it is fresh, as enthralling as it is compulsively readable. It is nothing short of a masterpiece that deserves to be in the bookshelf of every history buff!”
—Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval
“A nuanced study on its own and a thoughtful presentation by one of today’s prominent public intellectuals.”
Library Journal
 “Cheney might have written a book that made Madison a prop in today’s political battles. She did not, which is greatly to her credit and true to the life of the man.”
Washington Post
“After more than twenty-five years working on the Madison Papers, it’s not often that I read something about him that is fresh and engaging, and discovers new aspects of his life and character.  Cheney’s exploration of Madison’s health issues, not only as a young man, but throughout his career, is imaginative and groundbreaking. Her writing is both fluid and polished; the tone is measured and judicious; there isn’t a strident note in the whole book. And, an added plus, her treatment of Madison as a political actor is informed by a sophisticated knowledge of politics, without in any way being presentist.” 
—David B. Mattern, Research Professor and Senior Associate Editor, Papers of James Madison, University of Virginia
“On the whole [Cheney] offers a lucid, well-paced, wonderfully written, and authoritative history. Very well worth your time.”
 —National Review
“This is the James Madison we always should have known about. Thanks to Lynne Cheney’s well-researched book, it’s the James Madison we will now always know.”
The Washington Times
“The Constitution remains Madison’s greatest legacy. Cheney’s detailed biography helps renew appreciation for the man behind it.”
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
“Lynne Cheney has written what may be the most authoritative and comprehensive book ever on the life of Founding Father and President James Madison. It offers a fascinating perspective into how brilliant Madison truly was.”
Intellectual Conservative

Meet the Author

LYNNE CHENEY is the author and coauthor of twelve books, including six bestsellers about American history for children. The wife of former vice president Dick Cheney, she lives in McLean, Virginia, and Wilson, Wyoming.

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James Madison: A Life Reconsidered 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lynne Cheney is a very gifted writer. I love her books. In her newest one, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered she provides a vivid look into the life of one of the Founding Fathers. Prior to reading this book, I had no idea of the extent of Madison’s accomplishments and contributions to the USA. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. Great book!
ManoloMV More than 1 year ago
Very succinct explanation of the events leading to the enactment of the Constitution and the compromises required to secure its approval and the role of Madison in the process.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read the first 267 pages and enjoyed reading them, then the "link" kicked in for the future chapters which were other historical accounts .Had I knowm this format, I would not have bought the book. I have lost interest and have not read further.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Had no idea of the wide ranging impact he had in establishing our Republic; FASINATING!!! It well written and well documented.
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CalabashJoe More than 1 year ago
A fantastic must read for all Americans who would like to be more than "low information voters." Cheney does a wonderful job of enabeling us to understand what our country was meant to and should be about and be like.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book as it fleshed out the details of the life and times of one of founders of our country. Wish we had a man like Madison in the government today.
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