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James Madison Timeline 1751-1773

The Colonial Period


James Madison born Port Conway, Virginia (March 16, 1751--March 5, Old Style)*, 1st of 12 children of James Madison and Nelly Conway Madison. The Madisons' considerable wealth in land, slaves, and tobacco provides for family home, Montpelier, in Virginia's Orange County, and for eldest son's education. James is an excellent student but a frail and sickly child.

*March 5 by Old (Julian) Calendar, March 16 by New (Gregorian) Calendar. New Calendar adopted by Great Britain and its colonies in 1752. To bring calendar in line with solar year, 11 days added; new year begins in January rather than March.


Enters College of New Jersey (now Princeton); graduates in 1771. Compiles books, collections of aphorisms, and other texts and, like most 18th-century students, commits parts of these texts to memory for future use. One such book, "A Brief System of Logick," appears to have been written by Madison during his years at College of New Jersey.


Returns to Virginia. Studies law. Becomes involved in local politics, particularly issue of religious freedom for nonconformist sects in Virginia.


Group of patriots, disguised as American Indians, raid British tea ships berthed in Boston Harbor and dump tea into harbor in protest (December 16).

The American Revolution


James Madison appointed to Orange County, Virginia, Committee of Safety. Committee oversees local militias and carries on necessary functions of government in event of war for independence. Madison, a zealous patriot, heavily involved in building up strength of county militia (December).


British regular troops, sent to Concord, Massachusetts, to destroy rebel weapons depot, engage with local militia on Lexington Green. British retreat 20 miles back to Boston; engage in running battle with local militia. News galvanizes the colonies (April 18).


Elected to Virginia Convention that frames new state's constitution. Makes major contribution to constitutional law during the revision of Virginia Declaration of Rights of free exercise of religion as a right, not privilege.

Declaration of Independence adopted by Continental Congress (July 4).

Member, newly convened Virginia House of Delegates; meets Thomas Jefferson for first time (October).


Loses seat in House of Delegates for refusing to follow longstanding Virginia custom of treating voters to whiskey (seeming too much like buying votes). Elected later that year to 8-member Council of State.


Cold, sick, and hungry, the Continental Army, led by General George Washington, bivouacs at Valley Forge outside Philadelphia; France enters alliance with United States (winter).


Elected to 3-year term in Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (December).


Arrives in Philadelphia to attend Continental Congress. Keeps daily journal of its work. Most congressional work done in committees, a forum especially suited to his preferred method of problem solving. In his first years, Congress tasked with running a war with limited funds and resources, a challenge made more difficult by the states' resistance to yielding power to central government. During Congressional term, supports efforts to strengthen power of confederation government at expense of state legislatures. Many unsuccessful attempts to compromise with pro-state delegates (March).


British, under command of General Charles Cornwallis, surrender to General Washington and allied French force at Yorktown, Virginia (October 19).


Meets Catherine "Kitty" Floyd, 15-year-old daughter of New York delegate William Floyd. Becomes infatuated and courts her through spring 1783. Kitty Floyd calls off engagement, summer 1783. Madison never talks of the doomed romance and strikes out all references to it in past letters to Jefferson (winter).

Treaty of Paris signed, formally ending American Revolution (September).

Tenure in Continental Congress establishes reputation as creative, fair, and wise national leader. Makes last appearance as delegate to Congress, leaves Philadelphia, and returns to Virginia—first trip south in nearly four years (October).

The Early Republic


James Madison returns to Montpelier, studies law, and ventures into land speculation without much success in either. Tours New York State with Marquis de Lafayette. Again serves in Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 to 1786.


While member of Virginia House of Delegates, blocks all efforts to establish state support for churches, culminating in ratification of Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom.


Attends convention on interstate trade in Annapolis, Maryland; decision made to hold convention the following summer to revise Articles of Confederation.


Arrives in Philadelphia as part of Virginia delegation to Constitutional Convention; presents his Virginia Plan. Plan champions stronger national government operating directly for individual citizens rather than states. Document becomes building block for U.S. Constitution.


Member of the Continental Congress. Using name "Publius," Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Madison co-author The Federalist. These essays, published in newspapers and bound editions, argue for ratifying new Constitution.

Argues for ratifying new Constitution at Virginia ratifying convention. Virginia becomes tenth state to vote for ratification (March).


Elected to U.S. House of Representatives; serves until 1797. Against wishes of some leading members of nascent Federalist Party, sponsors series of constitutional amendments to safeguard individual rights. Congress chooses 12 of large number of proposed amendments to send to states for consideration; 10 amendments ratified—known as Bill of Rights.

Disagrees with Alexander Hamilton's proposal to establish Bank of the United States. Further breaks with Hamilton and his emerging Federalist Party over their support for Great Britain during its war with France. Recognizes that principles of Federalist Party, particularly regarding economics, are no longer his own. With Thomas Jefferson and some Anti-Federalists, Madison soon becomes leading figure in emerging Jeffersonian Republican Party (also known as the Democratic-Republican Party).


After four-month courtship, marries (September 15) Dolley Payne Todd of Philadelphia, an attractive young widow who lost husband, John Todd, and one of their two children to yellow fever epidemic of 1793.


Leads opposition to Jay Treaty with Great Britain. The treaty, negotiated by Chief Justice John Jay, attempted to settle disputes, including continued British military presence in the northwestern U. S. territory, trade in the West Indies and the seizure of goods and men from American vessels. Although widely unpopular, the treaty was ratified.


Retires from U.S. House of Representatives. Returns with family to Montpelier to enjoy pleasures of private life and take over management of family plantation. John Adams elected president; Thomas Jefferson, vice president.


Joins Jefferson in preparing Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, designed to inform states about what Jefferson and Madison see as unconstitutional nature of Alien and Sedition Acts. No other states join opposition.


Elected to Virginia Assembly and defends Virginia Resolutions—a rallying point for fellow Republicans.


Prepares Report of 1800, which explains Constitution as compact that must be honored by states to be effective, and argues for literal interpretation of First Amendment. Federal government moves to Washington, D.C.


Actions of Federalist Adams administration and subsequent anti-Federalist backlash allow Thomas Jefferson's election as president. Madison appointed secretary of state.

James Madison Sr. dies (February 28).


Jefferson administration negotiates Louisiana Purchase from France. During tenure as secretary of state, Madison tries to uphold American neutrality in face of transgressions against American trade by both France and England, who are again at war. Supreme Court upholds right of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison. Lewis and Clark expedition sets out for the West.


In effort to force Great Britain to accept American demands regarding trade and impressment of American seamen into British navy, Madison persuades Jefferson to seek passage of Embargo Act, a complete ban on foreign commerce. Its restrictions have intended effect, but at expense of temporarily destroying the very commerce that they were trying to save.

The Presidency


After contentious nomination within own Republican Party, James Madison elected fourth president of United States. George Clinton, who openly opposes him, is vice president.


Just before Madison takes office, Embargo Act repealed as failure. Madison remains preoccupied with maritime and trade disputes with both France and Great Britain as well as longstanding quarrel with Spain over American claims to Gulf Coast, especially West Florida.


In effort to ease tensions, France repeals commercial restrictions on trade. Continuing crisis with Great Britain shows no signs of easing; trade restrictions remain. Madison announces annexation of West Florida, consolidating American control of Gulf of Mexico.

Second Term and The War of 1812


After four years of commercial warfare and economic depression for American merchants, and no shift in British policy, Madison seeks declaration of war.

Congress declares war against Great Britain. American forces launch series of invasions into Canada, ending in American surrender of Detroit and Michigan Territory (June).

Madison, with Elbridge Gerry as vice president, reelected to presidency (November).


Madison continues to manage war with Great Britain, but fails to achieve any real strategic goals. American naval forces more successful at such places as Lake Erie and the River Thames in Canada. American land forces capture York (present-day Toronto) and restore stability with victories at Chippewa, Lundy's Lane, and Fort Erie.


Madison and government evacuate Washington when British forces under command of General Cockburn defeat American forces in and around the city. Capitol building (including Library of Congress), White House, and other public buildings are torched by victorious British troops (August 24). Later that year, Madison vetoes National Bank law.

Conflict ends with treaty signed at Ghent (December), shortly before General Andrew Jackson defeats British army at New Orleans in January 1815.


Reversing earlier position, Madison signs law creating Second Bank of the United States.


Four days before presidential inauguration of James Monroe, Madison vetoes bill providing federal funding of roads and canals on grounds that no Constitutional clause allows for such improvements funded by federal government (March).

Retires from public service and returns to Montpelier (spring).



James Madison returns to family plantation, Montpelier, and takes up practice and work of resident plantation owner. Elected president of Agricultural Society of Albemarle, leading forum of agricultural education and reform. Through years of bad harvests and depressed agricultural markets, avoids bankruptcy mainly through savings from public-office salaries and selling-off lands in Kentucky. Founding member, American Colonization Society, which calls for emigration of free blacks to Africa; continues to hold own slaves.


Thomas Jefferson, Madison, and 21 other eminent Virginians gather to discuss, organize, and establish, with support of state of Virginia, the University of Virginia. As leading member of Board of Visitors, heavily involved with recruiting suitable faculty for fledgling institution, which opens to students in 1825.


Upon Jefferson's death, becomes rector (head) of University of Virginia (July); holds position for eight years.


Serves as delegate to Virginia Constitutional Convention in Richmond, Virginia.

Mother, Nelly Conway Madison, dies at age of 97 (February).


Elected president, American Colonization Society.


Writes "Advice to My Country" and continues plans to publish his notes of debates in Federal Constitutional Convention.


Dies (June 28). Last of the Founding Fathers, his will does not free his slaves.


Unable to reach compromise with Great Britain, Madison asks Congress to mobilize American forces for defense of the country.