James Madison’s Role in Ratifying the Constitution and Adopting the Bill of Rights

Examining the most significant Madison holographs related to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

Madison’s Family Tree

James Madison, Family Tree, 1813-1819. Holograph draft. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

According to the editors of his papers, James Madison prepared this family tree between 1813 and 1819. His father, James Madison, Sr. (1723-1801), and his mother, Nelly Conway Madison (1732-1829), were married on September 15, 1749. Madison was born on March 16, 1751. From both sides of his initials, Madison horizontally lists his brothers and sisters, their wives and husbands and, with some inaccuracies, their children. He was married on September 15, 1794 (exactly forty-five years after his parents wed) to Dolly Paine Todd (1768-1849). They had no children.

Autobiographical Sketch

James Madison, Autobiographical sketch, 1832(?). Holograph draft. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Late in life, James Madison prepared this list of highlights of his career, possibly for inclusion in a letter to James K. Paulding in 1832. A longer autobiographical sketch, based on this list, appears in his papers in the handwriting of his brother-in-law, John C. Payne. Significantly missing from this thumbnail sketch of his major accomplishments is any mention of his role in the writing of the Bill of Rights in 1789. Nor does he mention any of his state papers on behalf of freedom of religion.

The Weaknesses of Confederacies

James Madison, Notes on Ancient & Modern Confederacies, spring, 1787. Page 2. Page 3. Holograph draft. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In preparing for the deliberations at the Federal Constitutional Convention in the Spring of 1787, Madison studied confederated governments in antiquity and modern times and filled forty pages with observations which he called “Ancient & Modern Confederacies.” He concluded that all confederacies — ancient and modern — suffered from the problem that had caused the debility and “imbecility” of American national government under the Articles of Confederation: the failure of the constituent states to grant adequate powers to the central government. Madison and his colleagues remedied this deficiency by ensuring that the new national government, created in Philadelphia in 1787, was endowed with sufficient power to govern.

An Attempt to Establish a Library of Congress, 1783

James Madison, Notes of debates in Congress, 1782-3. Page 2. Holograph notes. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

On January 23, 1783, a committee chaired by Madison submitted a list of approximately 1300 books to the Confederation Congress. Described as “proper for the use of Congress,” the books were compiled by Madison who was assisted by Thomas Jefferson. Madison urged that “it was indispensable that congress should have at all times at command” authorities on public law whose expertise “would render . . . their proceedings conformable to propriety; and it was observed that the want of this information was manifest in several important acts of Congress.” Madison’s proposal was defeated because of “the inconveniency of advancing even a few hundred pounds at this crisis.”

The Case for Religious Freedom

James Madison, To the Honorable the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia. A Memorial and Remonstrance, summer 1785. Holograph document. Madison Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Written in the summer of 1785 in opposition to Patrick Henry’s bill proposing general religious taxes, Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” has grown in stature over time and is now regarded as one of the most significant American statements on the relationship of government to religion. Madison grounded his objections to Henry’s bill on the civil libertarian argument that it violated the citizen’s “unalienable” natural right to freedom of religion and on the practical ground that government’s embrace of religion inevitably harmed it.

“…the reform which ought to be pursued…”

James Madison to George Washington. April 16, 1787. Page 2. Page 3. Page 4. Holograph letter. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In this letter written on the eve of the Philadelphia Convention, Madison describes to Washington the measures that should be taken to rescue the nation from the difficulties confronting it. Many of his suggestions — a strong national executive, federal judicial supremacy, and representation by population — were written into the constitution; however, a significant one — a federal veto on state laws — was rejected.

The Virginia Plan

George Washington, Copy of the original plan for a new Government as given in the Convention by the State of Virginia, [May 29, 1787]. Page 2. Holograph draft in Washington’s hand witing. Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Here is George Washington’s copy of the Virginia Plan, the blueprint for a new government introduced into the Philadelphia Convention (May 29, 1787) by Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia. The Virginia Plan contained Madison’s ideas for the new government, which he had proposed to both Washington and Randolph in the weeks preceding the Convention. It was refined by the Virginia delegation in Philadelphia before being introduced.

Objections to the Constitution

James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 17, 1788. Page 2. Page 3. Page 4. Holograph letter. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This letter to Jefferson is written partly in a private code that he and Madison shared. The “translation” of the code (i.e. the letters inscribed above the numbers) is in Jefferson’s hand. In the letter Madison discusses the jockeying in New England for the vice-presidency in the new national government and describes some of the reasons for opposition to the Constitution. Many of the opponents, Madison tells Jefferson, were self-interested advocates of measures to obstruct creditors: others, however, opposed the constitution for “honorable and patriotic motives,” believing that it suffered from the absence of a bill of rights. Madison reported that he “never thought the omission a material defect nor [had] been anxious to supply it even by subsequent amendment.”

The Federalist

[John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton], The Federalist: A Collection of Essays, Written in Favour of the New Constitution, vol. 1, New York: J and A M’Lean, 1788. Rare Books and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Here is the first edition of The Federalist, considered the most important work on statecraft and political theory ever written by Americans. It was principally written by Madison and Alexander Hamilton with assistance from John Jay. This particular copy was owned by Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth, who gave it to her sister, Angelica Church, from whom her friend, Thomas Jefferson, acquired it. Jefferson was one of Hamilton’s most inveterate opponents. The essays in The Federalist were written over the pseudonym, Publius. Identifying the individual authors has aroused controversy. Apparently relying on information supplied by Madison, Jefferson assigned essays to individuals in a list on the flyleaf of this volume.

The Federal Convention

James Madison, Notes on the Federal Convention, May 25, 1787. Holograph notes. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Madison’s notes on the Federal Constitutional Convention are the principal source for events and debates at that remarkable assembly. Here he describes the first day’s events (May 25, 1787) at which George Washington was unanimously elected Chairman of the Convention. Madison did not try to include the names of all those present but rather copied the list later from the published Journal of the Convention and inserted the slip of paper in his manuscript notes.

“The main business…”

James Madison, Notes on the Federal Convention, May 29, 1787. Holograph notes. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Here are Madison’s notes on the Federal Convention (May 29, 1787) recording that Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia opened the “main business” by delivering a speech, enumerating the defects of the Articles of Confederation, and presenting the Virginia Plan, an outline for a new, efficient government. As he frequently did in compiling his notes, Madison inserted the text of speeches or resolutions supplied to him by the speaker rather than attempting to create his own account. In a note to himself, Madison wrote “here insert his [Randolph] speech A including his resolutions.”

Randolph’s Speech

James Madison, Notes on the Federal Convention, May 29, 1787. Holograph notes. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This is Edmund Randolph’s speech, in his own hand, introducing the Virginia Plan at the Federal Convention (May 29, 1787). Madison inserted Randolph’s speech in his notes on the Convention, as he did with numerous other speeches and resolutions which were furnished to him by their authors.

A Typographical Error

“Committee of Style” Report, September 12, 1787. Page 2. Page 3. Printed document with Madison’s holograph annotations. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Here is Madison’s copy of what he called, in a title inserted in his hand at the top of the document, the report of the “Comt of revision, or style & arrangement.” The so-called “Committee of Style” report (September 12, 1787) is the penultimate version of the Constitution, which was adopted in its final form five days later. At the bottom of the page Madison notes, with an asterisk a printer’s error, the omission of the phrase “by lot” from Section three, describing the means by which the first Senate was to divide itself into three classes of members. Also note that Madison, probably for his own reference, divided the sections into subsections by inserting letters at the left margin of each section.

Introducing the Bill of Rights

James Madison, Notes for a speech introducing the Bill of Rights, [June 8, 1789]. Holograph draft. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Madison used this outline to guide him in delivering his speech introducing the Bill of Rights at the First Federal Congress (June 8, 1789). One of Madison’s proposed amendments was intended to assuage the anxieties of those who feared that religious freedom would be endangered by the new constitution. According to the Congressional Register, on June 8, Madison moved that the “civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner or on any pretext infringed.”

The Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights. (John Beckley copy), September 28, 1789. Holograph on vellum. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The necessary two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress ratified the Bill of Rights on September 28, 1789. As sent to the states for approval, the Bill of Rights contained twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution. Amendments one and two did not receive the necessary approval from three-quarters of the states. As a result, amendment three in the original Bill of Rights became the first amendment to the Constitution. It and the remaining nine were ratified and made effective on December 15, 1791. This copy on vellum was signed by the Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg; the Vice President, John Adams; the Secretary of the Senate, Samuel Otis; and the Clerk of the House, John Beckley.

The British Burn Washington

James Madison, Memorandum, August 24, 1814. Page 2. Holograph draft. Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In this memorandum Madison describes his futile attempt to organize a military defense of the nation’s capital on August 24, 1814. Madison describes riding to the battlefield at Bladensburg, witnessing the defeat of the American forces, and returning in haste to Washington. From the tenor of the memorandum Madison seems to blame the debacle of the British capture and torching of the capital on Secretary of War John Armstrong, whom Madison describes “as taking no part on so critical an occasion.”

Separation of Church and State

James Madison, Detached Memorandum, 1823(?). Page 2. Holograph draft. Madison Papers (Rives Collection), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Known to scholars as Madison’s “Detached Memorandum,” this document was written after he retired from public life, possibly in 1823. Here Madison declares his opposition to the long established practice of employing at public expense chaplains in the House and Senate on the grounds that it violated the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

Originally published by the United States Library of Congress to the public domain.



%d bloggers like this: