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Madison, James Jr., Class of 1771

Portrait by Jacob Cist

Portrait by Jacob Cist

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Jacob Cist, after Gilbert Stuart, American, 1755–1828, American, 1782–1825 James Madison (1751–1836), Class of 1771 Oil on canvas sight: 72 x 59.8 cm (28 3/8 x 23 9/16 in.) frame: 85.1 x 72.4 cm (33 1/2 x 28 1/2 in.) Princeton University, gift of Gilbert S. McClintock, Class of 1908 PP252

Madison, James, Jr., 1771 (1751-1836), statesman and political philosopher, should, by tradition, have attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. Most aspiring young Virginia men of his family's station did so. Three influences, however, diverted him. One was his tutor, Thomas Martin, Princeton 1762, who persuaded him of the merits of the young institution in New Jersey. Another was President John Witherspoon's fame, which had begun to spread through the colonies. The third was Madison's family, which had differences with the administration of the Virginia college. So in the summer of 1769 Madison, the eldest of ten children, set out for the College of New Jersey.

Entering as a sophomore, Madison joined a group of students who remained his close and lifelong friends: William Bradford, Jr. 1772, later U.S. attorney general; Hugh Henry Brackenridge 1771, jurist and novelist; and Philip Freneau 1771, the "poet of the Revolution." Other future leaders whom he came to know at the college -- which, more than any other, drew its students from throughout the colonies -- included Gunning Bedford, Jr. 1771, signer of the Constitution from Delaware; Samuel Spring 1771, Massachusetts cleric and founder in 1808 of Andover Theological Seminary; and Aaron Burr, Jr. 1772, senator from New York and vice president of the United States, who was later responsible for introducing Madison to the widow, Dolly Payne Todd. Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769, Witherspoon's successor as president of the College, became Madison's college tutor and lasting friend. And Witherspoon himself served as Madison's moral preceptor and faithful champion. These were, as Madison called them in 1774, his "old Nassovian friends."

The College had begun to feel the winds of revolutionary politics by 1770, but Madison's two years of study were spent in reasonable tranquility. He worked hard to master the classics and the great works of the Scottish Enlightenment, often sleeping, despite his somewhat sickly disposition, less than five hours a night. Like many later undergraduates, he came to college with a smattering of French, but, unlike them, he spoke it with a Scottish accent. "Jemmy," as he was affectionately called, also revealed a side of himself that others, usually meeting this soft-voiced man on serious public occasions, later mistook for a dour and stiff personality. He was one of the earliest members of the Whig Society, and spent much of his time debating with its members the affairs of government and society. He also wrote lusty, ribald doggerel and must have kept his eye on the alert for female companions, for he later wrote wistfully to his friend Bradford that he knew "no place so overstocked with Old-Maids as Princeton." Witherspoon, however, is said later to have told Thomas Jefferson "that in the whole career of Mr. Madison at Princeton, he had never known him to do or say an indiscreet thing."

After completing his junior and senior work in one year, Madison took his degree in the fall of 1771. However, he remained at the college until the spring of the next year to read some law and learn some Hebrew under Witherspoon's tutelage. Returning in 1772 to the pre-revolutionary calm of the Virginia piedmont, he buckled down to a regimen of reading and tutoring his younger siblings. He had warned Bradford to avoid "those impertinent fops that abound in every city;" yet he himself felt isolated in the Old Dominion. Depression and doubt beset him at the very time that his brilliant mind and celebrated convictions were taking mature shape. Given Witherspoon's influence, Madison might have entered the pulpit, but he did not do so, his thin voice possibly deterring him. The practice of law, it seems, also did not appeal to him. What might otherwise have become of this promising but unsure young man is impossible to say. But, as with so many of his generation, the Revolution helped resolve the dilemma. It gave his life a focus, at last released his energies, and dispelled his gloom. Not hardy enough to join the army, he instead helped govern Orange County, Virginia, as a member of its Committee of Safety and then helped draft the state's first constitution as a member of the Virginia general convention in 1776. These opportunities marked the beginning of one of the most distinguished public careers in the nation's history.

During these early years of national service, Madison continued to harbor doubts about his own capacities. Even after he had served in the Continental Congress as its youngest member and won election to the Virginia House of Delegates, where with Jefferson he played a major role in the passage of the historic Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, his continued self-doubting elicited from Samuel Stanhope Smith the exasperated wish that "you had the same high opinion of yourself that others have." Yet Madison steadily accumulated the respect of others with whom he served in Virginia and the Continental Congress. (He returned to Princeton at least once during this period when the Congress fled Philadelphia in 1783 to escape the mutiny of American troops.) Bending all his efforts to serve the union, he attended the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and, at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, was the guiding spirit behind the far-sighted Virginia Plan, which brought a working federalism into being. Without his careful notetaking during the Convention debates, we should know little of the proceedings of that historic meeting. His presence and intelligence during the Convention, acknowledged by almost everyone, won him enduring renown as "Father of the Constitution."

His work in Philadelphia done, Madison turned to securing the Constitution's acceptance. His efforts toward ratification were essential. His arguments in behalf of the Constitution at the Virginia ratifying convention carried that state for the Constitution, without which the ratification of New York might have been lost and hence the federal union with it. Moreover, his co-authorship, with Hamilton and Jay, of the Federalist Papers, written in 1787 and 1788 to win over doubters and opponents to the new Constitution and embodying the ideas and learning that Madison had started to accumulate at Nassau Hall some twenty years before, produced the nation's greatest contribution to Western political science. Madison's 10th Federalist, which overturned conventional arguments about the dangers of an extended republic and provided an analysis of the social bases of political factions and a plan to check their worst effects, alone worked a revolution in political theory and is rightly considered a classic expression of American thought. For his service during this period, Princeton awarded Madison a Doctor of Laws honoris causa in 1787. Witherspoon wrote Madison at the time to say that Princetonians were proud to recognize in this way "one of their own sons who had done them so much honor by his public service."

In the 1790s, Madison served in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he sponsored the Bill of Rights and, with Jefferson's encouragement, created a legislative opposition to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton that helped lay the basis for the Democratic-Republican party, the first modern political party in the world. In 1798, in protest against the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, he wrote the controversial Virginia Resolution, which put forward for the first time the doctrine of state interposition, a doctrine that would deeply influence the later theories of Nullification and Secession. Upon the inauguration of his close friend Jefferson to the presidency in 1801, Madison became secretary of state. After eight years of demanding State Department service during the era of the Napoleonic Wars, he became in 1809 fourth president of the United States. His two terms in the White House were fraught with the difficulties born of war and bitter partisan struggles. Yet Madison and his administration were able to see the nation through its Second War for Independence, which finally ended Britain's threat to the growing republic. He retired in 1817 after over forty years of public service, but continued to work for the public good by helping Jefferson found the University of Virginia, by serving as its rector after Jefferson's death, and by participating in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829.

Madison always maintained a lively interest in the College of New Jersey. In 1796, he made a contribution toward the purchase of material for instruction in chemistry. And in 1826 he accepted election as first president of the newly formed Alumni Association of Nassau Hall, a post he held until his death. He contributed regularly to the Alumni Fund in his last years and, upon his death at eighty-five as the last surviving signer of the Constitution, he bequeathed $1,000 to the College library from the proceeds of his posthumously published ``Notes'' on the debates at Philadelphia, the largest gift to the library until after the Civil War. Princeton's sense of Madison's place is perhaps best revealed by the order of honors listed on the plaque beneath his portrait in Maclean House:

James Madison -- Class of 1771 First President of the Alumni Association Fourth President of the United States

Madison's greatest contribution to the nation's history was his ability to translate theory into institutions and norms. No more apt characterization of him can be found than Jefferson's in 1812: "I do not know in the world a man of purer integrity, more dispassionate, disinterested, and devoted to genuine Republicanism; nor could I in the whole scope of America and Europe point out an abler head."

Source: James M. Banner, Jr. in Leitch p. 307 ff