To unify and govern themselves, America’s thirteen former colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1781. Problems soon arose with this loose alliance of states. When individual states refused to pay their share of taxes, the central government had no way to force payment. States violated treaties that the central government made with other countries, and negotiated their own treaties with Native American nations and with other states. States also violated each other’s rights by restricting trade and taxing “imported” inter-state goods. Such breeches raised fears that the union would dissolve and increased worry that Great Britain or another country could seize and rule individual states and territories.
When a convention was called to meet in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, Madison prepared carefully. He studied ancient and modern attempts at self-government. He analyzed the “vices” of the American political system to identify its failings. He persuaded George Washington to add his personal prestige to the Philadelphia convention by attending. Most importantly, Madison drafted what became known as the Virginia Plan; his outline of government, which he shared with George Washington and Governor Edmund Randolph, proposed a model for a new Constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation. Although the final Constitution differed in many important respects from Madison’s original plan, his proposal became the basis for the Convention’s debates throughout the summer.
During the Convention, Madison took an active part in debates and was one of the most frequent speakers. Though he won many arguments, he also compromised on certain issues that he considered important. Throughout the convention, Madison kept the most extensive notes of any of the delegates, later writing, “I was not absent a single day, nor more than a casual fraction of an hour in any day, so that I could not have lost a single speech, unless a very short one.” He recognized that future generations would benefit from understanding how the Constitution was created.
The delegates signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and sent it to the states for ratification. Each state held its own ratification convention, with delegates chosen by the voters, so that “we the people” would give the Constitution its authority. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote a series of essays supporting the Constitution, which were printed in New York newspapers and then published as The Federalist. As a delegate to the Virginia ratifying convention, Madison opposed Patrick Henry, who believed that the proposed Constitution would lead to monarchy and the loss of liberty. On June 25, 1788, the Virginia convention ratified the Constitution, recommending a list of 40 amendments. Virginia was the 10th state to ratify.
Madison initially opposed specifying rights in the Constitution, concerned that those listed might be perceived as citizens’ only rights. However, he eventually conceded, aware that the Constitution would not be accepted unless a statement of rights followed. Madison drafted a bill with 19 amendments for the First Congress to consider. Ten of these amendments were adopted as the Bill of Rights.
“Of all the situations Mr. Madison ever occupied, there was no one he was as fond of talking about, as the Convention of 1787, wh. made the Constitution of the U.S. & of the one in 1788 which ratified it in Virginia. Of the acts & doings of these 2 bodies, he was as fond of talking, as some men are with their old schoolmates of their Collegiate lives.”
-Edward Coles, Dolley Madison’s cousin and secretary, to James Madison
Madison's Notes In Context
Madison's notes on the Federal Constitutional Convention are available in a crowd sourced format through the Center for the Constitution's groundbreaking online tool, ConText.