James Madison was born into planter aristocracy at Port Conway, Virginia on March 16, 1751, the oldest of ten children. He received his early education from his mother, tutors, and a private school. In 1771 he graduated from the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton) where he demonstrated special interest in government and the law. He stayed for a year of postgraduate study in theology, considering the ministry.
Undecided on a profession, Madison returned to his family's estate of Montpelier and embraced the patriot cause, and state and local politics became his primary interest. In 1775 he served on the Orange County committee of safety; the next year at the Virginia convention which, besides advocating various Revolutionary steps, framed the Virginia constitution; in 1776-77 in the House of Delegates; and in 1778-80 in the Council of State. His ill health precluded any military service.
In 1780 Madison was chosen to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress (1780-83 and 1786-88). Although originally the youngest delegate, he played a major role in the deliberations of that body. Meantime, in the years 1784-86, he had again sat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Madison was clearly the preeminent figure at the convention. Some of the delegates favored an authoritarian central government; others, retention of state sovereignty; and most occupied positions in the middle of two extremes. Madison, who was rarely absent and whose Virginia Plan was in large part the basis of the Constitution, advocated a strong government, though many of his proposals were rejected. Despite his poor speaking abilities, he took the floor over 150 times. His journal of the convention is the best record of the event and he played a key part in guiding the Constitution through the Continental Congress.
In the U.S. House of Representatives (1789-97), Madison helped write and ensure the passage of the Bill of Rights. He also assisted in organizing the executive department and creating a system of federal taxation. As leaders of the opposition to Hamilton's polices, he and Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican party. In 1794 Madison married a widow 16 years his junior, Dolly Payne Todd, who had a son: they, however, had no children of their own. Madison spent the 1797-1801 in semiretirement, but in 1798 he wrote the Virginia Resolution, which attacked the Alien and Sedition Acts. While he served as Secretary of State (1801-9), his wife often served as Jefferson's hostess.
In 1809, James Madison succeeded Jefferson as President of the United States. Like the first three Presidents, Madison was immersed in the ramifications of European wars, which soon led to the War of 1812. The war, for which the United States was ill-prepared, concluded in 1814 when the inconclusive Treaty of Ghent, which merely restored prewar conditions, was signed. Thanks to Andrew Jackson's spectacular victory at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, most Americans believed they had won, creating a spike in nationalism during Madison's last years in office.
In retirement after his second term, Madison managed Montpelier but continued to be active in public affairs. He devoted long hours to editing his journal of the Constitutional Convention, which the government published four years after his death. He served as co-chairman of the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829-80 and as rector of the University of Virginia during the period 1826-36. Writing newspaper articles defending the administration of his successor President Monroe, he also acted as his foreign policy adviser. Madison spoke out in support of mildly protective tarries, the National Bank, and, most importantly, the power of the union against nullification. Madison's health slowly declined, forcing him more and more to be a silent observer. He died June 28, 1836, the last survivor of the founders of the American Republic.