Lessons from the Life of James Madison, the Father of the U.S. Constitution


229 years, one of the most important documents in world history was enacted. While the Declaration of Independence is what gave birth to this nation, it is the United States Constitution that provided the foundation which enabled this fledgling nation to grow into the world power that we enjoy today.

The Declaration of Independence espoused the principles of freedom and liberty, it did not provide the ability for this nation to govern itself. Eight days after the second Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence, Congress started drafting the Articles of Confederation. It was not until late in 1777 that the Articles were approved and sent to the states for ratification. Ratification occurred in 1781.

No sooner did the Articles of Confederation pass then it was clear that there was a need for some serious amendments. One of the great political minds who immediately understood the weaknesses of the Articles was none other than a young James Madison. However, by November of 1783, just months after the colonists finally won their independence from Great Britain, Madison had already served a there-year term in the Continental Congress and had proven himself to be a national leader, even though he was only 32-years old.

Under the Articles of Confederation, a Congressman could only serve for three years. Madison had served his three years working to pass laws that would enable the confederation to properly pay its debts. Madison’s coalition was starting to come together when he was term-limited out of office. Madison watched with horror as all the hard work fell apart as the politicians from large states and small states fought over the proper way to fund the Confederation.

While Great Britain may have just lost the war, they understood the weak form of government that the colonists were operating under. They understood that it would only be a matter of time before the financial problems of the colonies would drive them back into the arms of the mother country.

It was shortly after being termed out of office that Madison started devising his plan for a new form of government. Madison was not your normal 32-year old. Madison was known throughout the country as the nation’s expert in foreign governments. It did not matter if it was a current government or one that had existed 1,000-years ago, if there was a book about it, Madison had not only read it, he has taken detailed notes. Madison knew what the strengths and weaknesses were of each form of government.

By 1786, Madison’s coalition had built enough steam that a convention was held in Annapolis, Maryland. The purpose of the convention was to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation. Madison’s first attempt to amend the Confederation was a complete failure, only five states appeared. However, Madison was not going to give up that easily. The Annapolis convention proposed that another convention be held in Philadelphia the following year.

Madison was extremely disappointed, but he did not go home and sulk. Madison learned from his mistake and he put together a plan that would create the United States of America.

First, Madison drafted a new proposed Constitution. However, Madison understood that while he was known as being a brilliant mind, he gave his plan to someone who had a lot more political clout and persuaded them to propose the plan for a new Constitution. Madison gave his plan to the governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph. Madison understood the principle that one can accomplish a lot more if you do not care who receives the credit.

Second, Madison understood that the states would be more willing to send delegates to Philadelphia and to stay and work out their differences if George Washington was attending the convention. Between the Annapolis and Philadelphia conventions, Madison did everything in his power to educate and persuade George Washington to spend a summer in Philadelphia. By the time Madison left to go to Philadelphia, he still did not know if Washington was going to come. Madison was ecstatic when he heard that George Washington had arrived in Philadelphia.

Third, Madison knew that as the debate progressed, there would be arguments about what was agreed to and what compromises had been made. Madison volunteered to be the secretary of the convention taking the meetings notes. By being willing to take the meeting notes, a job that would mean he would have to stay up late each night transcribing his shorthand, Madison ensured that the debates would stay on topic and not fall apart arguing about things that had already been agreed to.

Fourth, Madison created a team to help argue the principles of a strong Federal government. Madison took the time to share his ideas with other delegates from other states. By creating a team of voices who argued for the United States, Madison’s voice was amplified.

Fifth, even after the Philadelphia convention was over, Madison understood that there was still the ratification process. Madison needed to create national support for his idea for the United States among the voters in the 13 colonies. Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton started writing articles for The Independence Journal. Madison knew that The Independence Journal was a very powerful paper. Many Federalist journalists around the country would republish what The Independence Journal published. As such, Madison’s message of the importance of the United States would quickly reach the people and start a movement towards ratification.

Madison was an extremely influential statesman because he saw a problem and he was not going to rest until it was fixed. The lessons from Madison’s life are ones that each of us can utilize in our own careers. Today, as we celebrate the 229 birthday of the United States Constitution, take a minute to think how you can better your community by following the example of James Madison, the father of the Constitution.


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