James Madison was born in Virginia on March 16, 1751. He was to play a pivotal role in developing the Constitution of the United States, which replaced the Articles of Confederation that were ratified after the War of Independence. Madison thought the Articles, in leaving most power to the state legislatures, had left the national government too weak to raise funds or to maintain an adequate national army.
Madison wanted a federal government established, with checks and balances that divided power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. His “Virginia Plan” formed the basis of the Constitution. In the run-up to its ratification, he co-authored a collection of 85 articles and essays with his colleagues Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. These were dubbed “The Federalist Papers,” and sought to win the argument for a federal government.
Madison’s early drafts of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights earned him the nickname, “Father of the Constitution,” though he modestly stressed the role played by others. The Bill of Rights, a group of 10 amendments to the Constitution, gave written guarantees for such issues as freedom of speech and religion, the right to bear arms, and the right not to be forced to testify against oneself. These guarantees, written by Madison in response to the misgivings that some held about the proposed Constitution, succeeded in having it ratified.
The United States thus became a country with a written Constitution, one governed by laws rather than by men. The rights that it enshrined are no less relevant now than they were then, and have lasted through the 230 years that have elapsed since. The model set out by that Constitution is that the people can be protected if power is dispersed, and if lawmakers themselves come under the law.
Madison himself was honoured as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and was elected as its fourth president, serving from 1809 to 1817. He left a name that shines bright in the annals of liberty.