James Madison was elected to the House of Representatives in 1789, as a member of the First Federal Congress under the newly-ratified Constitution. Governor Patrick Henry, still opposed to the Constitution, prevented Madison from becoming a senator by influencing the Virginia legislature to choose antifederalist candidates. Henry also worked to keep Madison out of the House of Representatives, ensuring that Orange, Madison’s home county, was placed in a voting district with antifederalist counties. This pitted Madison against James Monroe for the House seat. Despite differing views, Madison and Monroe maintained a cordial relationship during the campaign, sometimes traveling to debates together. (Madison kept a reminder of one such wintry ride with Monroe – a permanent scar on his nose from frostbite.) Madison won the election by promising to support a Bill of Rights.
On the way to New York for the Congressional session, Madison visited George Washington at Mount Vernon and, upon Washington’s request, crafted the president’s inaugural address. Following Washington’s speech, the House of Representatives asked Madison to write their official reply, and Washington asked Madison to write the President’s replies to both the House and Senate. Through the address and subsequent replies, Madison set a precedent for the appropriate tone of address in the newly formed republic. Madison was acutely aware of the lack of precedents in all areas of the federal government; in June 1789, he wrote Jefferson, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us. Our successors will have an easier task. And by degrees the way will become smooth short and certain.”
Madison, who prepared thoroughly for every session and understood how to guide a bill through a legislature, became a leading figure in the House of Representatives. He drafted a list of 19 amendments to the Constitution, based on over 200 recommendations received by Congress. Of the 12 amendments Congress passed, 10 were ratified by the states to become the Bill of Rights. Madison also helped devise the compromise that sited the nation’s future capital on the banks of the Potomac River.
Madison served in the House of Representatives in the first four Congresses. During this time, he increasingly clashed with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. By the third Congress, political parties began to form around Madison (the Democratic-Republicans) and Hamilton (the Federalists – a term increasingly connected with a strong central government and, in Madison’s eyes, suggestive of rule by the elite). Discouraged as the Federalists gained the upper hand in Congress, Madison refused to run for a fifth term. He also declined to stand for election as governor of Virginia. In 1797, former Congressman James Madison retired to private life.
"Mr. Madison thought it an important principle, and one that ought in general to be attended to - That all laws should be made to operate as much on the law makers as upon the people."
-From James Madison's Speech in Congress, December 16, 1790