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Collection James Madison Papers, 1723 to 1859

An Introduction to the Life and Papers of James Madison

An essay by John C. A. Stagg, editor-in-chief of The Papers of James Madison, University of Virginia.

Asked to provide his biography, James Madison—fourth president of the United States, secretary of state, congressman from Virginia, delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and "Father of the Constitution"—noted his accomplishments and failures as an active patriot and his participation in the dynamic history of the young Republic. He also spoke of his birth, his parents, and his marriage to Dolley Payne Madison, but he wished to be remembered more for service to his country than for any aspect of his private life.

From the early days of the Revolution through the struggles of the Constitutional Convention and the challenges of the Embargo Act and the War of 1812, Madison was involved in the most pressing issues confronting the new nation: the form and nature of the national government, the rights of citizens, religious freedom, slavery, trade and economic policy, and establishing America's place in the community of nations.

Even in retirement, he remained active on the national scene. Madison helped to establish the University of Virginia and served as president of the American Colonization Society. The issue of slavery dominated his later years, for he knew that it could tear the country apart. He remained conflicted over the emancipation of slaves, including his own.

The following essay by John C. A. Stagg, editor in chief, the Papers of James Madison, University of Virginia, explores these and other dimensions of Madison's remarkable life.

View a PDF version of John C. A. Stagg's complete essay