This day in 1836, America lost one of its first great statesmen, James Madison, the 4th president of the United States. Madison, who served from 1809-1817, was nicknamed the “Father of the Constitution” because he personally penned the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.
One of the advantages of being tuned into world history is that it gives a person a long-term perspective, allowing one to have a better context to understand the present. For example, people often bemoan not feeling safe and we talk about the “good old days” before international terrorism what the threat that it has become. Presidents today do certainly have their hands full in keeping this country safe from enemies.
James Madison, though, arguably had about as tough a job as any president.
The Revolutionary War was only about three decades in the past, and relations between England and America were terrible. During this time, France and England were at war with each other and this led to American ships, intending to do trade with either England or France, sometimes getting blockaded by British or French warships.
Some Americans were even abducted and forced to serve on British or French warships. In the summer of 1812, Madison asked Congress to officially declare war, hence leading to what became known as the “War of 1812”, although it lasted until 1814. In the summer of 1814, British troops invaded Washington D.C. and burned the Capitol building, the White House, and a number of other government buildings. Madison was forced to flee Washington D.C. to avoid being killed or captured!
After toppling Washington D.C., British troops invaded Maryland. U.S. troops fought hard at Fort McHenry to prevent the British from taking over the city. The struggle was memorialized by Francis Scott Key’s poem, “Defense of Fort McHenry," which later became known as “The Star Spangled Banner”.
When the war finally ended, Madison had two more years as president, and this optimistic postwar era was later dubbed the “era of good feeling." Madison and his wife, Dolley, never again lived in the White House. It took years to reconstruct the building, and it wasn’t completed until James Monroe, the 5th president, was in office.
Though Madison will always be remembered for weathering the storm of 1812, his greatest legacy by far is the Bill of Rights. Madison understood that the freedom the colonies had recently achieved could not be taken for granted. He understood that governments have a natural tendency (although sometimes very subtle) to suppress people’s freedom, and that steps were needed to block the government from encroaching on individual rights.
Madison’s tactfully worded amendments regarding the right of free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to not testify against yourself in court, the right to a speedy, public trial if accused of a crime, the right to confront your accusers, the right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, etc. are still the basis of our society today.
Thank God that Madison and the other founding fathers had the foresight to make sure that the government not interfere with these and other “inalienable” human rights.