Born into a prominent Virginia planting family, Madison served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the Continental Congress during and after the American Revolutionary War. In the late 1780s, he helped organize the Constitutional Convention, which produced a new constitution to supplant the ineffective Articles of Confederation. After the Convention, Madison became one of the leaders in the movement to ratify the Constitution, and his collaboration with Alexander Hamilton produced The Federalist Papers, among the most important treatises in support of the Constitution.
After the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, Madison won election to the United States House of Representatives. While simultaneously serving as a close adviser to President George Washington, Madison emerged as one of the most prominent members of the 1st Congress, helping to pass several bills establishing the new government. For his role in drafting the first ten amendments to the Constitution during the 1st Congress, Madison is known as the "Father of the Bill of Rights." Though he had played a major role in the enactment of a new constitution that created a stronger federal government, Madison opposed the centralization of power sought by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton during Washington's presidency. To oppose Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Madison organized the Democratic-Republican Party, which became one of the nation's two first major political parties alongside Hamilton's Federalist Party. After Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, Madison served as Jefferson's Secretary of State from 1801 to 1809. In this role, Madison supervised the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the nation's size.
Madison succeeded Jefferson with a victory in the 1808 presidential election, and he won re-election in 1812. After the failure of diplomatic protests and a trade embargo against the United Kingdom, he led the U.S. into the War of 1812. The war was an administrative morass, as the United States had neither a strong army nor financial system. As a result, Madison came to support a stronger national government and military, as well as the national bank, which he had long opposed. Historians have generally ranked Madison as an above-average president.
James Madison Jr. was born on March 16, 1751, (March 5, 1751, Old Style, Julian calendar) at Belle Grove Plantation near Port Conway, Virginia, to father James Madison Sr. and mother Nelly Conway Madison. He grew up as the oldest of twelve children, with seven brothers and four sisters, though only six of his siblings would live to adulthood. His father, James Madison Sr. (1723–1801), was a tobacco planter who grew up on a plantation, then called Mount Pleasant, which he had inherited upon reaching adulthood. He later acquired more property and slaves, and with 5,000 acres (2,000 ha), he became the largest landowner and a leading citizen in the Piedmont. James Jr.'s mother, Nelly Conway Madison (1731–1829), was born at Port Conway, the daughter of a prominent planter and tobacco merchant. In the early 1760s, the Madison family moved into a newly built house, which they named Montpelier.
From age 11 to 16, Madison was sent to study under Donald Robertson, a Scottish instructor who served as a tutor for a number of prominent plantation families in the South. From Robertson, Madison learned mathematics, geography, and modern and classical languages—he became especially proficient in Latin. At age 16, Madison returned to Montpelier, where he began a two-year course of study under the Reverend Thomas Martin in preparation for college. Unlike most college-bound Virginians of his day, Madison did not attend the College of William and Mary, where the lowland Williamsburg climate—more susceptible to infectious disease—might have strained his delicate health. Instead, in 1769, he enrolled at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he became roommates and close friends with poet Philip Freneau.