James Madison, Founding Father, architect of the Constitution, and fourth President of the United States, was born on March 16, 1751 at his mother’s home in Port Conway, Virginia, on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg. His parents—Nelly Conway Madison and James Madison, Sr.—couldn’t have known that their eldest child would have a major role in shaping the collection of British colonies they currently inhabited into a nation that would ultimately become a global superpower.
The Madisons lived in a relatively small plantation house called Mount Pleasant in Orange County, Virginia during James Madison, Jr.’s young childhood. In the early 1760s, the plantation’s enslaved labor force constructed a brick Georgian structure a half-mile away, and the Madisons moved into this house, later renaming the estate "Montpelier."
A naturally curious and studious child, James Madison likely began his education at home under his mother. He was the oldest of 12 children, although only seven would live to adulthood, and as the eldest son of a wealthy Virginia planter, Madison had a number of privileges that would allow him to hone his inquisitive mind. A distinguished Scottish teacher named Donald Robertson instructed young “Jemmy” between the ages of 11 and 16 at his school in King and Queen County. There, the eager pupil discovered a fascination for an array of subjects, including mathematics, geography, and both modern and classical languages, particularly Latin. His ability to dive deeply into ancient philosophy built a foundation for the future statesman’s influential ideas.
After some further preparatory study back at Montpelier under the Reverend Thomas Martin, James Madison chose to pursue his higher education at the College of New Jersey, which would later be known as Princeton University. Most prominent young Virginians, such as his future mentor and friend Thomas Jefferson, attended the College of William and Mary. But the Virginia college’s humid, coastal clime was thought to be detrimental to Madison’s health, so northward he went.
In 1771, Madison graduated with high marks in classical languages, mathematics, rhetoric, geography, and philosophy. Not satisfied with just those subjects, he became the college’s first graduate student, studying Hebrew and political philosophy under university president John Witherspoon, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence.