Founding Fathers: James Madison

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12248

The U.S. Constitution is the basis for the country's laws. A unique and freeing document, it nevertheless had a difficult birth. Read how James Madison helped persuade the states to adopt it at last!


United States, United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Have you ever heard of the Connecticut Compromise? Possibly not, but it helped institute one of the great institutions of the United States government, thanks in-part to James Madison!

In the previous lessons on The Founding Fathers, found under Related Lessons in the right-hand sidebar, you learned about two of the three Founding Fathers who wrote The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers are considered important documents in the history of the United States because they played a key role in rallying public support for the Constitution. In this lesson, you will learn about the third and final author of The Federalist Papers, James Madison. As you read, you will learn that being an author of The Federalist Papers was just one of many important contributions Madison made to the founding of the United States of America. As you complete this section, create a list of all of Madison’s accomplishments on a separate sheet of paper.

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Image in the Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Health problems prevented James Madison from fighting in the Revolutionary War, but he was a member of his home state’s government, the Virginia Assembly. As part of the Virginia Assembly, Madison played a key role in writing the constitution for the state of Virginia. After the Americans declared independence from Great Britain, each state was responsible for creating its own constitution with rules to govern the state. In 1780, Madison left the Virginia Assembly when he was elected to be a delegate, or representative, of Virginia in the Continental Congress.

During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress had put together the Articles of Confederation, which acted as America’s first constitution. The document helped govern and hold the new country together throughout the war, but it also created a lot of problems for the new nation. For example, each state was only given one vote in Congress no matter what the size of the state. This created tension between big states and small states. Many began to question how long the Articles of Confederation could hold America together. After the war, James Madison and others began advocating for a new constitution that could better support and govern the new nation.

In 1787, a Constitutional Convention was held to write a new constitution. James Madison was selected to be one of the delegates from Virginia. Before the convention, he spent substantial time researching other world governments and philosophies. He came to the convention with the Virginia Plan, that helped set the agenda for the convention. Some of the most important ideas in the Virginia Plan included a three-branch government system and a bicameral legislature. Madison’s three-branch government with legislative (senate and house of representatives), executive (president), and judicial (supreme court) branches became one of the key features of the new constitution. His ideas for a bicameral, or two-house, legislative branch were partly included in the constitution. Madison proposed that each house should consist of a number of representatives proportional to the population size of each state. So, states with large populations would have greater representation than states with small populations. This concept upset small states and was replaced with the Connecticut Compromise. As part of the Connecticut Compromise, the constitution included Madison’s bicameral legislature, but said the senate would have an equal number of representatives from each state and the house of representatives would have a proportional number of representatives from each state.

Throughout the Constitutional Convention, Madison took detailed notes of all the debates. His notes were frequently referenced throughout the convention and also helped to shape the final draft of the constitution. Madison’s research, note-taking, and contribution of ideas have earned him the nickname, “Father of the Constitution.”

After the Constitutional Convention completed the new constitution, it had to be ratified by at least nine states to go into effect. This task was easier said than done. Many states refused to ratify the constitution because they felt it gave too much power to the federal, or national, government, and took too much power away from the states. Madison and his friends, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, wrote a series of articles, called The Federalist Papers, that explained what was in the new constitution and why it was important. These articles were printed in newspapers throughout the country, and are credited with playing a key role in getting the constitution ratified.

All the states agreed to ratify the constitution if amendments, or additions, were made to the constitution to give more power to the states and individuals. Madison, who had been elected to the newly-formed house of representatives, was one of the authors of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the constitution. It contains rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the ability to own a gun, and the right to a trial by jury.

Madison’s political career did not end with the constitution. He served as secretary of state under President Thomas Jefferson. During that time, he worked with Jefferson to purchase the Louisiana territory from France. This important land deal doubled the size of the United States. After Jefferson, Madison became the fourth president of the United States. As president, Madison successfully led the United States to victory against the British in the War of 1812 and helped improve American trade. After two terms as president, Madison retired to his home in Virginia.

To continue learning about James Madison’s political career, you will watch a short video. Remember to keep adding to your list of accomplishments as you watch Biography's James Madison - Mini Biography:

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When you have finished watching the video, share the list you created with your teacher or parent. Use it to help you answer the following questions on a separate piece of paper.

  • What do you think is James Madison’s most notable accomplishment?
  • How does the work of James Madison continue to impact you and your family today?

After you have finished writing your responses, share what you wrote with your teacher or parent.

Then, move on to the Got It? section to research more about the life and legacy of James Madison.

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