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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.


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?