Of all of the political thinkers in human history, few—perhaps none—so effectively have combined a sophisticated understanding of political philosophy with the practical skills of a politician as James Madison, the short, shy, scholarly Virginian known today as the Father of the Constitution. More than any other member of the founding generation, Madison grasped abstract principles of political theory—in some cases revising or challenging them with his own keen insights. And he successfully incorporated those principles and his improvements into the fundamental laws of the United States. Yet only now are most Americans coming to appreciate his legacy.
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Madison was born in 1751 on a Virginia plantation that he later named Montpelier after a French city he never visited.1 He was one of ten siblings, so although he never fathered children of his own, he was surrounded in old age by plenty of nieces and nephews. He was given the education expected for the upper class—Latin, Greek, classical history, religion, and mathematics. But in a break with tradition, he attended college not at William and Mary in Williamsburg, but at the College of New Jersey—later Princeton—275 miles north. He was an attentive student but apparently not tediously so. Unlike his later friend, Thomas Jefferson, who was said to have kept at his books so intensely that it annoyed his friends, Madison gained a reputation for a ribald sense of humor.
He was attuned, however, to the controversies of the day, and among his earliest letters is a commentary on the subject that would always be closest to his heart: religious freedom. In 1774, he described to a classmate the persecution of Baptists by the Anglican establishment of Virginia. “That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages,” he complained. “This vexes me the most of anything whatever.”2 And he hinted at what would become a theme of his later political thought: Persecution was more likely in a country where a single sect enjoyed monopoly power. “Union of religious sentiments begets a surprising confidence,” he wrote. “If the Church of England had been the established and general religion in all the northern colonies as it has been among us here [in Virginia] . . . it is clear to me that [intellectual] slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated.”3 . . .
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