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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

U.S. History

The James Madison Papers, 1723-1836 document the life of James Madison, fourth president of the United States, through correspondence, personal notes, drafts of letters and legislation, a brief autobiography, and miscellaneous manuscripts. The collection includes extensive notes on the Articles of Confederation, and documents that reveal his pivotal role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, later earning him the title "Father of the Constitution." Also in the collection are letters and public papers from his tenure in the House of Representatives, his service as President Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State, his two terms as president, and his retirement to Montpelier, the family home in Orange County, Virginia. This online collection comprises more than 12,000 items, a number of his letters to and from Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Edmund Randolph, and James Armstrong, Secretary of War during the critical years of the War of 1812.

The vast collection of The James Madison Papers provides deeper insight into significant events in U.S. history and reveals the political genius of one of the great founders of the nation. Madison's letters to his contemporaries open new avenues for exploring major issues involved in the political developments that led to the creation of the Constitution and subsequent pivotal events in the history of the early republic. The collection includes letters and public papers relating to such pivotal events during his time in the public service as the Jay Treaty, Whisky Rebellion, Louisiana Purchase, and the War of 1812. Madison wrote extensively on subsequent issues including slavery, the Missouri Compromise, and the Nullification Crisis.

Several special features provide context for examining documents in the collection. These features include an essay by John C.A. Stagg entitled "An Introduction to the Life and Papers of James Madison," a timeline covering the life of Madison from 1751 to 1836, and short readings on codes used in correspondence on sensitive subjects and his role at the Federal Convention of 1787 that includes some background on his notes on the convention, published after his death.

The collection can be browsed in three ways—by title; by contributor (the person by or to whom a document was written); and by subject. The documents in the online collection are organized into six series by type of document. The collection can be searched by keyword, but users should be aware that only those documents available in transcription can be searched in full text. For other documents, the descriptive (bibliographic) information can be searched.


The Revolutionary Era

James Madison's involvement in Revolutionary Era politics began in Virginia after his studies at Princeton in the early 1770s. By 1774, Madison was appointed to the Committee of Safety for Orange County, Virginia. These committees, set up throughout the colonies, supervised local militias and stood ready to act as provisional governments should the colonies declare independence.

On May 9, 1775, the Orange County Committee of Safety sent a defiant message of support to Patrick Henry and other members of the militia in Hanover County.

  • What happened in Hanover County to cause Henry and his men to take action?
  • What Massachusetts event does the committee refer to as a "hostile attack"?
  • Note that the transcribed version of the document shows that both James Madison and James Madison, Jr. signed the document. Which is the future president? What does this tell you about Madison's family?

What is the general tone of the document with respect to relations with Great Britain? Is this the tone you would expect to find in a colonial document from this time? Why or why not?

In 1776, Madison was elected to the convention drafting a constitution for the state of Virginia. In May, that convention resolved unanimously "that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress, be instructed to propose to that respectable body, to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved of all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain." Madison was appointed to a committee to write a declaration of rights and plan of government, where he made a major contribution to an area of constitutional law that would remain a passion throughout his life—freedom of religion. In Madison's brief autobiography, he described his role in the convention, being one of its younger members, as relatively small. Madison indicated that George Mason, author of the Declaration of Rights, "inadvertently" used the term "toleration" in the article on religious freedom. Madison suggested an alternative phrasing that "declared the freedom of conscience to be a natural and absolute right."

  • What was the significance of the change in wording regarding religious liberty? How important do you think this change was? Explain your answer.
  • Do you think Madison underestimated his role in the convention and specifically in the rewriting of the article on religious freedom? How might you test your hypothesis?