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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

Collection Overview

The James Madison Papers, documents the activities of the fourth president of the United States, an architect of the Constitution. Included in Madison’s papers are materials documenting his activities as a member of the Continental Congress, his role in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, his tenure as Secretary of State during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and his two terms as President including materials on the War of 1812. Noted correspondents include George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Noah Webster and James Monroe. Also included in this collection are a copy of Madison’s autobiography and correspondence with his wife, Dolley.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be ll-encompassing.

  • The American Revolution, 1763-1783
  • The New Nation, 1780-1815

Related Collections and Exhibits

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Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Title, Contributor, or Subject.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


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?

Government Under the Articles of Confederation

After serving in the Continental Congress from 1779 to 1782, Madison returned to Montpelier and served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 to 1786. He continued his work on behalf of religious liberty, blocking efforts to provide state support for churches. Madison also served in the Continental Congress in 1787 and 1788, keeping detailed notes on the debates. His notes from February 19 to April 26, 1787 begin with a report on the deliberation regarding the efficacy of enlisting troops to help Massachusetts suppress Shays' Rebellion, an uprising of small farmers angered by mounting debts and high taxes.

  • Why was there opposition to the enlistment of troops to put down the Rebellion?
  • What problems of the new nation's government could be inferred from Shays' Rebellion and Congress' views on it?

The Constitutional Convention and Ratification

In April 1787, Madison wrote a short pamphlet entitled "Vices of the Political System of the United States" explaining the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

In a letter to George Washington, written before the opening of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Madison proposed a plan that would increase the power of the central government and allow it to act as "a negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States."

Anticipating opposition, he recommended a mode of ratification that would bypass state legislatures, empowered by the Confederation, and go directly to the people. Madison's letter provided the essentials of the Virginia Plan proposed before the Convention in May 1787 by Edmund Randolph.

  • What problems in the government under the Articles of Confederation had Madison identified prior to the Constitutional Convention?
  • Based on those problems, why did Madison believe it was important for the central government to have a "negative in all cases whatsoever on the legislative acts of the States"?
  • List the important ideas for the new constitution that Madison explained in his letter to Washington. For each, list a problem with the government under the Articles of Confederation that it addressed. How well did Madison address those problems in his new plan? Explain your answer.


The collection includes Madison's "Original Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention" in two parts, the first presenting an introduction and notes through July 25, the second beginning July 26, 1787.

On September 30, 1787, shortly after the close of the Federal Convention, Madison wrote a letter to Washington, explaining that some in Congress claimed that the convention had violated its charge and that the "new Constitution was more than an Alteration of the Articles of Confederation under which Congress acted, and even subverted the articles altogether." The letter further explained how defenders of the Constitution countered this argument and discussed efforts by states to offer amendments.

  • On what grounds did some argue that the convention "subverted" the charge of Congress to amend the Articles?
  • What arguments did supporters of the Constitution use to defend the document before Congress?
example of portion of the Madison letter written in cipher, preferably the bottom of the second page where Madison talks about Adams and Hancock

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 17, 1788. Partly in Cipher. This excerpted portion of the letter shows an example of a cipher used by Madison and Jefferson in their correspondence.

In a letter to Washington written during the debate over ratification of the Constitution, Madison included the first seven essays of The Federalist. Madison requested that Washington, if he agreed with the essays, circulate them in Richmond to encourage ratification in Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson, serving as envoy to France, had written to Madison from Paris in December 1787, expressing his general support for the Constitution but criticizing the omission of a bill of rights. In a letter to Jefferson written on October 17, 1788, Madison writes that his "opinion has always been in favor of a bill of right,."and also explains his related concerns

  • What were Madison's reservations about including a Bill of Rights in the Federal Constitution?
  • In the letter, Madison says, "the President will be from a Southern State." On what assumption did he base this statement? Was Madison correct in this assumption?
  • Madison continues on to describe, in cipher, two possible candidates for vice-president, John Hancock and John Adams. The transcription of the letter decodes these descriptions. How did Madison assess the qualifications of these two men? Why do you think he put these descriptions in code?

After the bitter ratification debate, some prominent individuals still wished to call a new convention. According to Anti-Federalists, the failure to secure a declaration of rights was one of the basic flaws in the Constitution. To combat further opposition to the Constitution and to fulfill a pledge made during several state ratification conventions, Madison proposed a bill of rights in a speech in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789. Read Madison's notes for his speech introducing the bill of rights, in which he listed his recommended additions to the Constitution and reasons why they should be adopted.


Development of Political Parties in the New Nation

The framers of the Constitution did not anticipate political parties, but parties soon developed, over issues that arose during the Washington administration. The Federalist Party, with allegiance to Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison were at odds over Hamilton's financial program, agrarian vs. manufacturing interests, and foreign alignments favoring either Britain or France.

Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, had urged the United States to assume the debts that states still carried from the American Revolution. To raise the money to pay those debts, a tax was placed on producers of alcohol. The tax on small producers was higher than on large producers, angering small producers in the western counties of the various states. In 1794, their protests escalated into armed violence. President Washington called up the militia to put down the so-called Whisky Rebellion.

On December 28, 1794, Jefferson wrote to Madison, responding to President Washington's accusation that the Whiskey Rebellion was the work of "democratic societies."

  • To whom was Jefferson referring when he talked about the "Monocrats"? Why do you think he gave them this name?
  • In what sense do you think Jefferson used the word wonderful? What attitude toward President Washington did he express?

The ratification of the Jay Treaty negotiated with Britain was yet another issue that caused friction between the parties. Madison wrote a letter to James Monroe, U.S. minister to France, on March 11, 1795, informing him that the long-awaited Jay Treaty with Britain had arrived but that its contents were unknown except to the President. Search the collection using the keywords Jay Treaty to locate the terms of the treaty signed on November 19, 1794.

Once made public, the treaty provoked considerable hostility. Its supporters believed the treaty, negotiated by John Jay, would prevent war with Britain and improve trade. Detractors, including Madison and Jefferson, thought it aligned the United States too closely with Britain (rather than France) and thus would undermine the values of the new republic. Despite popular criticism, the Senate ratified the treaty on June 24, 1795. Republicans in the House of Representatives, including Madison, attempted to block implementation of the treaty by refusing appropriations. They also sought papers relating to the treaty from the President. Washington exerted "executive prerogative" and refused to send documents to the House of Representatives. Ultimately, the House approved appropriations for enforcing provisions of the treaty.


Madison wrote a letter to Robert Livingston on August 10, 1795, criticizing the treaty. He drafted a letter to an unknown recipient on August 23 that included the first draft of his petition to the Virginia Assembly against the treaty. In a letter to Monroe, written December 20, 1795, Madison provides a detailed summary of events leading to ratification of the Jay Treaty.

  • What were the terms of the Jay Treaty? Why did Republicans oppose the treaty?
  • What precedent did Washington set by refusing to give the House papers relating to the treaty?
  • What were Madison's arguments in opposition to the treaty?

Madison, in a letter to Jefferson, the Republican party's presidential candidate, on December 19, 1796, reported presidential election results indicating that Adams, the Federalists' candidate, would win the election but that his vice presidential candidate Thomas Pinckney would probably rank third. He advised Jefferson to "…prepare yourself, therefore, to be summoned to the place Mr. Adams now fills…On the whole, it seems essential that you should not refuse the station which is likely to be your lot." Madison concluded the letter in cipher, urging Jefferson to accept the vice presidency since he might have some influence over Adams. Madison himself retired from the House of Representatives in 1797.

Party conflicts continued through the Adams administration, especially over issues related to a possible conflict with France and Britain. The French were not happy about the Jay Treaty, seeing it as a rebuff of the Franco-American Alliance. France and Britain were at war, and the French seized a large number of U.S. ships. While Hamilton and others called for war, President Adams sent a delegation to Paris in 1797 to try to negotiate a peace agreement. Three French agents (X, Y, and Z) demanded that the Americans pay a large bribe before French officials would meet with them. When word of this so-called XYZ Affair became public, Americans were outraged. The collection includes documents with information about the affair: Jefferson's letter to Madison on April 6, 1798, and Madison's reply of April 15.

After public furor over the XYZ Affair subsided, Madison wrote to Jefferson that

The management of foreign relations appears to be the most susceptible of abuse of all the trusts committed to a Government

From "James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, May 13, 1798," image 574

When it appeared probable that the United States would be drawn into war, Federalists in Congress secured passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Conduct a full text search for letters relating to these acts and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions Madison and Jefferson instigated in opposition.

  • How did Republicans respond to the disclosure of the XYZ Affair?
  • How did Madison appraise President Adams' handling of the Affair?
  • What accusations did Madison make in his May 13 letter to Jefferson?
  • Why were Madison and Jefferson so adamantly opposed to the Alien and Sedition Acts?
  • How did events during the Adams Administration further divide the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans?

The New Nation and Foreign Relations

When Thomas Jefferson won the contested presidential election of 1800, Madison served in his cabinet as Secretary of State until 1808, when he was elected to succeed Jefferson as president.

Madison inherited serious economic and foreign relations problems resulting from the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts. These laws had been enacted in response to actions by the two warring countries—Great Britain and France—that made foreign trade dangerous at best and virtually impossible at worst. These two acts stopped trade with those nations, which hurt American businesses. Great Britain had angered Americans by impressing American sailors—taking them off U.S. ships and forcing them into the British Navy on the grounds that they were British deserters, further enflaming Americans by firing on the U.S. ship the Chesapeake in American waters in 1807, killing three sailors and injuring 18 others.

President Madison wrote Jefferson on October 19, 1810, responding to information that France had taken steps to improve relations with the United States. He expressed the hope that the British would do likewise. He commented on the acquisition of West Florida and expressed recognition that the annexation may "…bring on not a triangular, but quadrangular contest."

The U.S. annexation of West Florida (currently the lower regions of the states of Mississippi and Alabama), resurrected a number of outstanding issues with the British. Madison discussed those issues, a few days after the correspondence with Jefferson, in a letter to William Pinkney, special envoy to Britain. Madison asserted the rights of the United States to territory and warned that the nation would not permit any attempt by the British or other European state to annex East Florida or the island of Cuba. He concluded the letter with an observation regarding the Congressional elections and the weakening of the "British Party" in the United States.


A year later, in a private letter to Joel Barlow, American diplomat in France, Madison discussed the continuing restrictive French and British policy regarding neutral rights on the seas. He expressed some agitation about how slowly the British were settling reparations for the Chesapeake Affair and suggested that it was nothing more than a "diplomatic ruse."

  • According to Madison, how serious was British and French interference with American shipping?
  • Why did he believe that the annexation of West Florida might result in war?
  • Why was Madison unwilling to have Florida or Cuba fall under the influence of the British or other European nations?

In 1812, with American merchants suffering because of trade restrictions and the British showing no signs of changing their policy towards the United States, Madison asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain. The war continued for two years, with limited success for the United States. Correspondence from July 1814 indicates that Madison and others were concerned about an attack on Washington, D.C. In August 1814, the British attacked Washington, D.C., burning and looting government buildings.

Read Madison's August 24, 1814, diary entry, in which he describes the meeting with cabinet members at Bladensburg, Maryland, a few miles northeast of the capital. Madison writes of the hostility in the capital to the president and especially towards his Secretary of War, General John Armstrong. Five days later, on August 29, 1814, the President documents conversations with Armstrong regarding war plans. The entry reveals the low morale of the militia and the officer corps' firm opposition to Armstrong. He further remarks that officers "would tear off their epaulets if Genl. Armstrong was to have any thing to do with them."

  • What reasons did Madison note for the opposition to General Armstrong? How did Madison himself seem to view Armstrong's job performance?
  • How did Armstrong respond to Madison's "frank conversation"?
  • What similarities and differences do you see between administration politics in the Madison era and in later periods in U.S. history?

The War of 1812 ended with a treaty signed in December 1814, although General Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British at New Orleans did not occur until January 1815. The war itself achieved little. With the end of the war between Great Britain and France, many of the problems that had caused economic and diplomatic woes for the United States also ended.


Madison in Retirement: The Judiciary

After he retired from public office in 1816, Madison remained interested in public affairs, both nationally and in his home state of Virginia. Writing about the judiciary, in a September 2, 1819, letter to Judge Spencer Roane, who was serving on the Virginia Court of Appeals, Madison responds to Roane's letter expressing opposition to a recent Supreme Court ruling. In that case, McCulloch v. Maryland, the Court ruled regarding the right of a state to tax the Bank of the United States. Read Madison's reply to Judge Roane.

  • What is Madison's view of the decision rendered by the Supreme Court in McCulloch v. Maryland?
  • How does Madison respond to Chief Justice John Marshall's interpretation of "the necessary and proper" clause in his justification for the Court's decision?
  • Why does Madison express the wish to see the reasoning of all the justices? How does his reasoning align with the frequent argument that the most important decisions should be unanimous to give them greater authority?

In 1823, Madison wrote to Jefferson on the judiciary, reaffirming his original opinion expressed in Federalist 39 that a tribunal was necessary "to prevent an appeal to the sword." He takes issue with some decisions of the Supreme Court, saying, "At one period the Judges perverted the Bench of Justice into a rostrum for partizan harangues." He goes on to write: "…if no remedy of the abuse be practicable under the forms of the Constitution, I should prefer a resort to the Nation for an amendment of the Tribunal itself."

  • Would you say that Madison, in his later life, changed his views on the importance of an independent judiciary? Give evidence from this and other documents to support your position.
  • Under what circumstances would Madison have supported a constitutional amendment to limit the Supreme Court? Who, according to Madison, was the "ultimate arbiter"?
  • Explain to what extent Madison's comments on the judiciary are still germane to discussions of the role of that branch today.


Madison in Retirement: Slavery

Like many of his Virginia contemporaries, Madison seemed unable to come to terms with slavery. During the Revolution, he wrote a letter to Joseph Jones, stating his opposition to a Virginia proposal that would offer white enlistees slaves as a recruitment incentive.

When Madison went to Philadelphia to serve his first term in Congress, he took along Billey, one of his enslaved servants. While in Philadelphia, Billey sought his freedom. In a letter to his father, Madison explained that he was prohibited in Pennsylvania from selling Billey but had arranged for his indenture for seven years, writing that he "cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood."

. . . I am persuaded his mind is too thoroughly tainted to be a fit companion for fellow slaves in Virga [Virginia]. . . . I do not expect to get near the worth of him; but cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right, & worthy the pursuit, of every human being.

From "James Madison to James Madison Sr., September 8, 1783," images 69 and 70

Read the letter to Robert Evans, June 15, 1819, in which Madison states his views on the gradual emancipation of slaves. In the letter, Madison expresses the belief that prejudice would necessitate removal of emancipated slaves and suggests that the proposal to settle emancipated slaves in Africa "merits encouragement from all who regard slavery as an evil, who wish to see it diminished and abolished by peaceable & just means." In response to a letter from R. R. Gurley, Secretary of the American Colonization Society, Madison writes of his wishes for the society's success.

Madison was critical of arguments in Congress regarding the Missouri Compromise to regulate slavery. In a February 10, 1820, letter to President Monroe, Madison opposed the opinion that the framers of the Constitution had objected to the internal migration of slaves. A few months earlier, Madison, in a letter to Robert Walsh (November 27, 1819), clarified issues regarding slavery discussed at the Constitutional Convention. He wrote of the discussion regarding the slave trade and the three-fifths compromise and expressed his views on the Congressional debate over the Missouri question.

The Marquis de Lafayette opposed slavery and had often written to the founders urging emancipation. Read Madison's letter to Lafayette, February 1, 1830 regarding the discussion of slavery in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-1830 and the American Colonization Society.

  • To what was Madison referring as "the price of so much blood"? How did this event seem to influence his thinking about slavery? What evidence in the same letter suggests Madison had mixed feelings about slavery?
  • Why do you think Madison was particularly concerned about some arguments being made in the debate on the Missouri Compromise? How does he refute those arguments?
  • What reason does Madison give for the Virginia Convention's failure to deal with emancipation?
  • What position does Madison take with regard to the American Colonization Society? What reasons does he give to support this position?
  • What views on emancipation did Madison express in the letter to Thomas Dew? How did his personal actions regarding his own slaves align with those views?


Madison in Retirement: Nullification Crisis

In 1832, a state convention in South Carolina issued an ordinance declaring the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 to be null and void after months of threatening nullification. Proponents of nullification cited the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798-99 as one factor legitimizing a state's right to nullify federal law. Both proponents and opponents of nullification called on Madison, as author of the Virginia Resolution, to explain his position.

Madison received a letter commenting on the crisis that prompted John C. Calhoun and prominent state officials to call for nullification. In response, Madison wrote to Mathew Carey on July 27, 1831 expressing his opposition to the actions taken by South Carolina.

In later correspondence to John Townsend (October 18, 1831), Madison responds to accusations that Jefferson had justified nullification in the Kentucky Resolution of 1798. The question of secession arose in a letter to Nicholas Trist, in which Madison referred to both the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, pointing out the differences in the doctrines expressed by Jefferson and himself from those of South Carolina's Ordinance of Nullification.

  • According to Madison, how grave was the crisis?
  • Why did he fear that the crisis could be a forerunner of war?
  • On what grounds did Madison argue in the Townsend letter that Jefferson would have opposed South Carolina's nullification ordinance?
  • From Madison's perspective, how were the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions being misconstrued?


Critical Thinking

Madison in Retirement: Slavery

Like many of his Virginia contemporaries, Madison seemed unable to come to terms with slavery. During the Revolution, he wrote a letter to Joseph Jones, stating his opposition to a Virginia proposal that would offer white enlistees slaves as a recruitment incentive.

When Madison went to Philadelphia to serve his first term in Congress, he took along Billey, one of his enslaved servants. While in Philadelphia, Billey sought his freedom. In a letter to his father, Madison explained that he was prohibited in Pennsylvania from selling Billey but had arranged for his indenture for seven years, writing that he "cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood."

Historical Comprehension: Reading Documents for What They Reveal about the Humanity of the Individuals Involved

Various documents in the collection reveal Madison's feelings toward other prominent Americans of the period. Like most people, Madison regarded people he knew with feelings that ranged from deep affection and respect to disdain.

Read portions of the extract from Madison's "Detached Memorandum," written shortly after his retirement from the presidency. Madison remarks on the character and accomplishments of General Washington. He also includes notes on memorable events in Washington's presidency, such as the authorization of the Bank of the United States.

  • What qualities does Madison see in George Washington?
  • According to Madison, what caused President Washington to favor the Federalist Party in the latter years of his presidency?
  • Why does Madison believe that Washington would refuse to sign the authorization of the Bank of the United States?
  • According to Madison, what factors contributed to the authorization of the Bank?

Madison wrote a letter to Jefferson on June 27, 1823, in which he discusses a number of issues, one relating to Washington's farewell address. As Washington approached the end of his second term, he asked Alexander Hamilton to assist in preparing his farewell address. Madison's letter to Jefferson expresses regret that the mention of ghostwriters would diminish respect for Washington and "…if particular passages be understood in new senses, & with application derived from the political doctrines and party feelings of the discovered Author."

Sketch of UVa.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, April 15, 1825. At the end of their lives, the two friends shared a passion for the newly established University of Virginia and exchanged a flurry of letters on the subject.

  • Why was Madison concerned that Washington had asked for assistance in preparing his farewell address? Do you think his concern was justified?
  • Do you think political leaders today have similar concerns about the work of speechwriters? Why or why not?

Read Madison's February 18, 1789, letter to Jefferson in which he contrasts the characters of former President Washington and President John Adams.

  • How does Madison characterize Adams?
  • What "rash measures" may have caused Madison to refer to Adams as "our hot-headed Executive"?
  • Why do you think Madison had such widely differing views of Washington and Adams?

Madison and Thomas Jefferson exchanged hundreds of letters over a 50-year friendship and political alliance. In a letter dated February 17, 1826, Jefferson recalls their long friendship and calls upon his colleague to insure that the University of Virginia prospered. Nicholas Trist, Jefferson's son-in-law, wrote to Madison on July 4, 1826, describing Jefferson's last hours. Read Madison's reply of July 6.

  • How does Madison describe his long relationship with Jefferson?
  • What honor does he pay to his colleague?
  • What can be discerned from the letter regarding Madison's values?


Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Identifying Causes of Historical Events

The Federal Convention, known today as the Constitutional Convention, was a critical event in U.S. history, but its outcome was far from inevitable. Madison's actions prior to the convention were among the factors that shaped the outcome.

Read Madison's letter to Caleb Wallace, August 23, 1785, detailing a proposal for the structure of a new government with substantially more powers than granted under the Articles of Confederation. In a March 1786 letter to James Monroe, Madison writes of the need to correct the "vices of the Confederation".

Read Madison's letter to George Washington dated April 16, 1787. This letter was in response to Washington's correspondence of March 31, in which Washington expresses satisfaction that a convention would be called to amend the Articles of Confederation; he went on to say that he believed it was hopeless simply to offer amendments. (See this letter in the George Washington Papers.)

  • What do these letters, written more than a year before the Federal Convention, reveal about Madison's determination to replace the Articles of Confederation?
  • What does the correspondence between Washington and Madison reveal about their concern for the success of the forthcoming convention?
  • Why did Washington believe it was wise not to have advocates of the convention reveal their desire to radically alter the Articles of Confederation?
  • Find additional evidence in the collection of Madison's beliefs regarding the appropriate work for the Federal Convention and his preparation for the convention. How important do you think Madison's role was in shaping the outcome of the convention?

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision Making: Madison's Views on Freedom of Religion

Research Madison's view on the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state. Examine "A Plan of Government," June 8, 1776, and the marginal notes for Section 18 reflecting the amendment he proposed to the wording of the clause on religious toleration. When, in 1785, the Virginia General Assembly proposed a bill to provide funds for "Teachers of the Christian Religion," Madison opposed it, penning the "Memorial and Remonstrance."

In an 1822 letter to Edward Livingston image 134, Madison discusses the importance of maintaining a strict separation between church and state.

Read the letter to Livingston and consider the following questions:

  • How effective are Madison's arguments in favor of religious tolerance and the importance of separation of church and state?
  • How did Madison's views on religious freedom influence his work as a public official?
  • How did Madison's views on religious freedom influence the founding documents of the United States?

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Responding to British Orders in Council

Wars between Britain and France in the early 19th century placed the United States in an untenable position. British Orders in Council allowed British authorities to stop and search any ship that did not call at a British port. In response, the French issued a decree that any ship that called at a British port or was searched by British authorities could be seized by the French. The U.S. government reacted by restricting foreign trade (via the Embargo Act) and then narrowed the embargo to trade with France, Great Britain, and their allies (via the Non-Intercourse Act). These acts, initially passed during the Jefferson Administration, caused problems for the Madison administration.

In an 1811 letter to John Quincy Adams, U.S. minister to Russia, President Madison writes of ongoing hostility in Congress to the British Orders in Council and the probability of a conflict with Britain. He outlines several possible responses.

  • What alternative courses of action does Madison identify? What would be the costs and benefits of each of these courses of action?
  • What events seem to have influenced Madison's thinking about a possible response? In what other ways might the United States have responded to the British enforcement of the Orders in Council?
  • Imagine that you are John Quincy Adams responding to Madison's letter. What course of action would you recommend? Give reasons supporting your recommendation.

Arts & Humanities

Literature: Reading and Collecting

Many of Madison's letters reveal his wide reading; he often discussed a book or pamphlet sent to him by his correspondent. For example, in a letter to Richard Rush written April 21, 1821, Madison mentioned a book by English philosopher William Godwin, which Rush had sent him. In the book Godwin critiqued the work of economist Thomas Malthus regarding overpopulation. In his letter, Madison expressed his own disagreement with Godwin.

In a letter to Edward Everett written March 19, 1823, Madison presents his thinking as to why authors made more money in Great Britain than in the United States.

  • What two explanations does Madison offer as to why authors made more money in England than in the United States? Do you find this argument convincing? Why or why not?
  • According to Madison, what obstacles to reading did Americans face at the time? Do you think those obstacles still exist? Explain your answer.
  • What is the tone of Madison's comment about the "private libraries" in England? Do you think Madison objected to private libraries in principle or to something about the English holders of such libraries?

In August 1814, the British army invaded Washington D.C. and burned a number of public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol, which housed the Library of Congress. Jefferson responded by offering to sell his personal library, the best private collection in the nation, to replace the loss. In a letter to Jefferson written October 10, 1814, Madison writes that the purchase of his library by Congress "will prove a gain to them, if they have the wisdom to replace it by such a Collection as yours."

Why might Madison have felt differently about Jefferson's collection than about the collections of wealthy people in Britain?


An autobiography is the story of a person's life, written by the person. The term did not come into usage until the late 1700s. Earlier autobiographies tended to focus on the writer's religious development. Benjamin Franklin's autobiography may have been the first secular (nonreligious) autobiography published in the United States. Autobiographies became increasingly popular during the 1800s, perhaps spurred by the Romantic writers' interest in developing the self.

Henry Lee, in 1824, wrote to Madison asking him to reveal his perspective on important issues in an autobiography. Madison declined, remarking that "private correspondences and other papers which may throw a valuable light on subjects of public interest" should not revealed during his lifetime.

Later, Madison wrote a pithy autobiography—only 15 pages—with accompanying notes and a chronology. In concluding the brief work image 234, he remarks that it was a forbidding task to go through records, "a labour irreconcileable, at his age, with other indispensable demands on his time."

  • Why do you think Madison was reluctant to write an autobiography? In his letter to Henry Lee, what did he mean by saying that his papers belong to a "posthumous period"?
  • Madison chose to write his brief autobiography in the third person. Why do you think Madison made this choice? How does it affect your reading of the autobiography? Do you know of other autobiographies written in the third person?
  • Find an anecdote or passage from the autobiography that you think provides insight into Madison's character. Explain your selection.
  • Based on the ideas about government that Madison commented on in his autobiography, what ideas seemed most to engage his interest and passion? How could you test your hypothesis about the importance of these ideas to Mr. Madison?
  • What aspects of Madison's life seem to be missing from his autobiography? Why do you think he chose not to cover those parts of his life in any detail?
  • Madison probably wrote "A Brief System of Logick" while at the College of New Jersey. What can you learn about his education from his autobiography?


In literature, an allegory is a work in which characters, events, and objects are symbols for people, events, or ideas outside the narrative. Thus, an allegory has two meanings: the literal meaning and the symbolic meaning.

Read "Jonathan Bull and Mary Bull," Madison's short allegorical story of the Missouri Compromise.

  • What were Jonathan and Mary Bull, their estate, and their child symbols for? What did the Head Steward represent?
  • To what ideas did Madison give the most attention? Why do you think he did so?
  • Why do you think Madison chose to write about the Missouri Compromise using allegory? What was his intent in writing this allegory? How effective do you think the allegory was in conveying his views? Why?

Letter-Writing: The Complimentary Closing

In historical periods when rapid transportation and communication were not available, writing letters was a critical method for personal and business communication. The numerous letters in the James Madison Papers provide evidence of the importance of correspondence in Madison's life, particularly his life as a political thinker and leader.

Most letters written during the time in which Madison lived were written in a formal style. They often began with an acknowledgment of the addressee's most recent letter to the writer and closed with a complimentary closing. A complimentary closing is a word or phrase that expresses some regard for the addressee and signals the end of the letter. The words or phrases selected depend how well the letter-writer knows the addressee and the type of relationship the two have. While complimentary closings today tend to be rather brief (Cordially, Sincerely, With regards, etc.), in Madison's time they were somewhat longer.

Below are the complimentary closings from several letters written by Madison.

envelope from George Luckey to James Madison, April 25, 1813

George Luckey to James Madison, April 25, 1813. Note how the envelope is addressed. How can you explain changes from the way you would expect a letter to be addressed to the President today?

Locate others and consider the style and tone of the closings carefully.

  • Which do you think were used in letters to family members or friends? To important public officials? To political adversaries? To groups (rather than individuals)?
  • Which do you think show the most respect? Affection? What words or phrases convey these feelings?
  • Find out to whom the letters were written. How accurate were your predictions? What does this suggest about how the meaning of language changes or remains stable over time?
  • In general, how has the style of closings changed since the late 18th and early 19th centuries?


James Madison was an inveterate note-taker and note-maker. Documents in the collection show that he made notes in advance of speeches he was planning to give; see, for example, his "Notes for Speech on Constitutional Amendments. June 8, 1789."

Madison took notes of debates at and decisions made by various public bodies of which he was a member, most notably the Constitutional Convention. In his introduction to the notes of the Convention, he writes that he "was not absent a single day, nor more than a cassual fraction of an hour in any day", something which aided his methodology.

  • Describe Madison's note-taking technique. How does this technique compare to your own method of taking notes?
  • Madison said he was helped by his familiarity "with the style and the train of observation and reasoning which characterized the principal speakers." What do you think he meant by this? Do your own experiences taking notes in class support Madison's observation?
  • Have modern technologies made note-taking skills like those that Madison practiced obsolete? Why or why not?
  • What were Madison's reasons for keeping notes at the convention? (Image 1642 of the notes describes his thinking.) Did he achieve his goals? Give evidence to support your answer.