Madison biographer Irving Brant described the fifty-year relationship between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as a "perfectly balanced friendship" — they complimented and supported each other, both personally and in their political careers.
Madison was born into the Piedmont gentry on March 16, 1751 (n.s.), on his maternal grandparents' plantation in King George County, and was named for his father, James Madison, Sr. As the eldest of twelve siblings, seven of whom lived to adulthood, he was heir to his father's plantation, which began to be called "Montpelier" in the 1780s.
Rather than attending the College of William and Mary as most young Virginia gentlemen did, Madison and his father chose the Presbyterian College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) for his education, both because of concerns that the tidewater of Virginia was unhealthy and because of disagreements with the Anglican establishment that controlled the Virginia college. He set out for Princeton in 1769 accompanied by his personal slave, Sawney, and proceeded to complete a four-year course of study in only thirty months, graduating in September 1771. Unfortunately, his Princeton practice of sleeping only five hours per night in order to pursue his studies took a toll on his health, and the following spring Madison returned to his father's plantation to rest and to decide upon a career. Throughout his life, Madison considered himself to be in frail health. He was small, standing about 5'6", of a slight build, and has been variously described as "feeble," "pale," and "sickly"; yet he lived to the age of 85 years. During this period of recuperation following his graduation from Princeton, he studied law, though he never intended to practice and never qualified as a lawyer.
Madison became interested in public affairs while still a student at Princeton, and in 1776, at the age of 25, he was elected as one of two delegates from Orange County to attend the Fifth Virginia Convention in Williamsburg. The conventions replaced the House of Burgesses during the American Revolution as the colony's legislative body. After adoption of Virginia's first constitution in June 1776, Madison continued as a member of the House of Delegates, and it was here that junior member Madison was introduced to Thomas Jefferson in the fall of 1776 when Jefferson returned to Williamsburg from the Continental Congress. The two men became acquainted that fall as they worked together on diminishing the power of the established church in Virginia and promoting religious freedom, a topic to which both were deeply committed and on which they would cooperate for years. By 1779, the two became more intimate while Jefferson was serving as Governor of Virginia and Madison as a member of the Council of State (first appointed to the position in 1777 under Governor Patrick Henry). As the governor could do little without the advice and consent of the council, Madison and Jefferson began to come into almost daily contact, and their mutual admiration and friendship grew.
Madison was instrumental in pulling Jefferson back into the public arena after the bitterness of the legislative inquiry into Jefferson's term as governor in 1781 and then after his wife's death in 1782. It was Madison who nominated Jefferson as one of the negotiators of a peace treaty with England in November 1782 with unanimous support from the Confederation Congress. Urged by Madison, Jefferson accepted the appointment and arrived in Philadelphia in January 1783, in anticipation of leaving for Paris; however, the treaty was concluded before Jefferson could leave.
While in Philadelphia, Jefferson lodged in the same boarding house as Madison. Among other boarders were New York Congressman William Floyd and his family, including his teenaged daughter, Kitty. With Jefferson's encouragement, Kitty Floyd and Madison became engaged, even though Madison was twice the age of the 16-year-old Kitty. In regard to the courtship Jefferson wrote, "I wished it to be so as it would give me a neighbor whose worth I rate high, and as I know it will render you happier than you can possibly be in a single state. I often made it the subject of conversation, more exhortation, with her and was able to convince myself that she possessed every sentiment in your favor which you could wish." Jefferson's matchmaking activities did not end as he hoped, however, as after returning home to New York, Kitty broke off the engagement in July of that same year. It would be eleven years before Madison would enter into another serious romance, when in 1794 he courted and married a young Philadelphia widow named Dolley Payne Todd.
During the time that Madison and Jefferson were occupying the same Philadelphia boarding house, Madison was appointed to a committee to compile a "list of books proper for the use of Congress," and it is probable that the two men conferred on the compilation of this list. The proposal, however, was not acted upon by the Continental Congress, and the Library of Congress was not realized until Jefferson's presidency. It was, of course, under Madison's presidency that Jefferson's personal library was purchased to begin the rebuilding of the Library after the original collection had been burned during the War of 1812.
Both men collected books throughout their lives. When Madison died in 1836, the library at Montpelier was known to have been quite extensive (though never as extensive nor as completely cataloged as that at Monticello) and rivaled in the Piedmont area only by Jefferson's former library. Some of the Montpelier volumes had been obtained through Jefferson; the elder of the two friends having offered before leaving for Paris in 1784, "In the purchase of books, pamphlets &c. old and curious, or new and useful I shall ever keep you in my eye." In exchange, Jefferson asked his friend to take over the supervision of the schooling of his nephews and wards, Peter and Dabney Carr, while he served as ambassador to France. Madison took up Jefferson's offer and requested "treatises on the antient or modern f≈ìderal republics, on the law of Nations, and the history natural and political of the New World; to which I will add such of the Greek and Roman authors where they can be got very cheap, as are worth having and are not on the common list of School classics."
Madison immediately put the books he received from Paris to use and wrote to Jefferson from Montpelier, "Since I have been at home I have had leisure to review the literary cargo for which I am so much indebted to your friendship. The collection is perfectly to my mind." The books from Jefferson would prove particularly useful as Madison was becoming more convinced that a stronger federal government was needed, and aided by the books, he compiled a paper, "Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies," and then a second essay, "Vices of the Political System of the United States." Through his careful study and preparation, Madison became a leading theoretician for constitutional reform, and it was Madison's ideas that formed the basis for the Virginia Plan, which in turn became the basis for the United States Constitution. Late in his life, when Madison was referred to as the "writer of the Constitution," he modestly replied, "You give me a credit to which I have no claim," and went on to say that the document "ought to be regarded as the work of many heads & many hands."
Madison kept his colleague in Paris well-informed on Virginia politics, including adoption of Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom, and on the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention. Their correspondence during this period reveals not only several of the uncommon disagreements between the two men, but also how they worked together on important political issues. For example, Jefferson felt that Madison was overreacting in his proposal to give the federal congress a veto over all state laws, mending "a small hole by covering the whole garment." Jefferson also felt strongly that the Constitution required addition of a bill of rights, writing to Madison, "Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference." Madison, initially reticent to do anything that might jeopardize ratification of the Constitution, came around to Jefferson's view and is today often referred to not only as the "Father of the Constitution" but as the "Father of the Bill of Rights." During the debates over ratification of the Constitution, Madison's regular correspondence with Jefferson allowed him to assert when challenged on the floor of the ratification convention, "I believe that were that gentleman now on this floor, he would be for the adoption of this constitution."
Though the politics of founding the new republic occupied much of their attention, the friendship between Jefferson and Madison was built on many shared interests. Both men were very involved in the study of the natural sciences. Prior to leaving for Paris, for example, Jefferson had recruited Madison to record weather observations and seasonal changes and had nominated him for membership into the American Philosophical Society, with his membership dating to 1785. During his years in Paris, Jefferson supplied Madison with scientific instruments as well as books. For advancing his inspection of natural phenomenon on his walks or "in case of a ramble into the Western Country," Madison came up with the idea of a portable telescope fitted into a cane, and also requested a compass with "a spring for stopping the vibration of the needle when not in use." The next year he wrote to Jefferson that he had "a little itch to gain a smattering in Chymistry," and wished for a "good elementary treatise" along with "two Boxes, called Le Necessaire chemique." The exchange was not one way, as Madison did his best to fill Jefferson's requests for plants and animals that demonstrated the uniqueness of the United States, including pecans, seeds of the sugar maple, Pippin apples, and various other seeds and grafts of American fruit trees. He was unsuccessful, however, in supplying Jefferson's request for a live opossum. Madison's letter of June 19, 1786, is indicative of the preoccupations of these two men, as it begins with a lengthy discussion of political philosophy, which Madison admits is turning into a "dissertation," and concludes with a very detailed account of his dissection of a female weasel and its comparison with its European counterpart. Jefferson and Madison were both intent on gaining a better understanding of North American and European fauna and conferred to test and refute the Comte de Buffon's theory of the degeneracy of North American animals — all of this was part of their Enlightenment belief in the ability of mankind to progress through reason and study.
Jefferson and Madison were on equal footing in areas of political philosophy and science, but on questions of architecture, Madison deferred to Jefferson. Unlike Jefferson's efforts at Monticello, Madison was not building Montpelier from the ground up. The original mansion on the Madison estate in Orange County was built by James Madison, Sr., between 1755 and about 1765; however, after his marriage to Dolley in 1794, Madison did extensively enlarge and renovate the house begun by his father. During the renovations, Madison relied on Jefferson for advice and assistance in procuring materials and even purchased nails from Monticello's nailery.
In the summer of 1808, Madison began planning a more extensive enlargement and remodeling of the mansion that would continue over the next four years. Jefferson was at Monticello that summer and would have been available for consultation; however, it is Jefferson's master builder, James Dinsmore, who is credited with the major architectural changes at Montpelier. Over the years Madison took advantage of the expertise of various Monticello workmen; in addition to Dinsmore, he used builder John Neilson, a brick mason named Richard Richardson, and another workman named Chilton. How much of the architectural design was reviewed by Jefferson is not known. It was through the renovations of the 1790s and the more extensive remodeling from 1808-1812 (during most of which the Madisons were in Washington) that Montpelier was transformed from the Georgian style into a larger and more refined Neoclassical structure. This transition was accomplished primarily by craftsmen who had worked closely with Jefferson during the building and remodeling of Monticello.
Not only can parallels be seen in the architectural taste of Jefferson and Madison, but in their views toward the visual arts as well. Margaret Bayard Smith, a visitor to both Monticello and Montpelier, said of Madison's art collection at Montpelier that it gave "activity to the mind, by the historic and classic ideas that it awakened." Like Jefferson, Madison never pursued art strictly for its visual qualities, but considered content and the intellectual stimulation it afforded as well. Thus it is not surprising that the collections at Monticello and at Montpelier were similar, often containing replicas of the same original master work, including John Trumbull's The Battle at Bunker's Hill and The Death of General Montgomery, and John Vanderlyn's views of the falls at Niagara. In religious subject matter, the Magdalen now hanging in the Monticello parlor was originally at Montpelier.
What is often referred to as the "great collaboration" between Jefferson and Madison on political matters blossomed after Jefferson's return from Paris. This aspect of their relationship is studied extensively elsewhere (see, e.g., the Further Sources listed below), but a short summary is in order.
In the 1790s, with Jefferson initially serving as Secretary of State under George Washington and Madison as an informal leader in the new House of Representatives, the two friends cooperated closely in the effort to oppose the expansive plans for the federal government promoted by Federalist Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. While both were critical of a party spirit that divided citizens, in this role of political opposition, Jefferson and Madison effectively led the effort to found what became the Democratic-Republican Party. When Federalist John Adams was elected president in 1796 and Jefferson vice-president, it was Madison who cautioned Jefferson against sending a friendly conciliatory letter to Adams for fear of its possible future political consequences.
In the bitter election campaign of 1800, including their fight against the Alien & Sedition Acts and support of the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Madison was Jefferson's most trusted confidante. After Jefferson's inauguration as president in 1801, his good friend became Secretary of State and was undoubtedly Jefferson's chief policy advisor throughout the elder statesman's administration. Succeeding Jefferson in the presidency, Madison was unable to maintain the neutrality that they both had sought and led the nation through the War of 1812.
In their retirement years, almost living as neighbors at Monticello and Montpelier, Jefferson and Madison were to join in one last major collaboration: the founding of the University of Virginia. Both men had been devoted to the idea of free public schools throughout their careers, as they saw education as essential to the success of a republican form of government. Madison expressed the belief that, "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both." Madison was still serving as president when Jefferson began initial planning for the University, but joined Jefferson and James Monroe in 1816 on the initial Board of Visitors. As plans for the University proceeded, Madison worked closely with Jefferson in selecting and hiring the first faculty, and Jefferson conferred with Madison in the preparation of a book list for the University library. The last time they would see each other was at a Board of Visitors meeting in Charlottesville on April 3 and 4, 1826; in their last letters to each other, they conferred about the professors' teaching duties. Upon his death, Jefferson left the "care" of the University with his friend. Madison assumed Jefferson's post as Rector, and continued in this office until 1834, when his health became too frail to make the journey to Charlottesville for Board meetings.
In a letter to Madison dated February 17, 1826, Jefferson reviewed their lengthy friendship: "the friendship which has subsisted between us, now half a century, and the harmony of our political principles and pursuits, have been sources of constant happiness to me thro' that long period." He concluded the letter with a request: "to myself you have been a pillar of support thro' life. take care of me when dead, and be assured that I shall leave with you my last affections." Indeed, Madison did take care of Jefferson when dead, not just in his care of the University, but in his guardianship of Jefferson's reputation as well. He outlined the highlights of Jefferson's career for biographers and historians and urged the publication and use of Jefferson's grandson's edition of his grandfather's writings, published in 1829. As a memento to this long and true friendship, Jefferson had left to Madison in his will a gold-headed walking stick.
Madison died at Montpelier in 1836, outliving both Jefferson and Monroe. Dr. Robley Dunglison, who had cared for Jefferson during his final illness, came from his new home in Baltimore to attend former President Madison. He was attended also by his enslaved valet of sixteen years, Paul Jennings. Madison died on June 28 after refusing stimulants to extend his life the few days until July 4, the sixtieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and was buried the following day in the family plot at Montpelier. The service was attended by his wife, Dolley, and other family members and friends, and approximately 100 of the Montpelier slaves. Several years before, Madison had written for posthumous disclosure his "Advice to My Country," in which he expressed his final concerns for the republic he and Jefferson had worked so hard to establish: "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished & perpetuated."
- Gaye Wilson, 10/24/97; revised Anna Berkes, 8/29/14; revised John Ragosta, 5/9/20
Bilder, Mary Sarah. Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Dunn, Susan. Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
Feldman, Noah. The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President. New York: Random House, 2017.
Koch, Adrienne. Jefferson and Madison: The Great Collaboration. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950.
Taylor, Elizabeth Dowling. A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons. Boston: St. Martin's Press, 2012.
Livestream: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison
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