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James Madison Develops Principles for the US Constitution



By 1785, James Madison and most other American statesmen knew that the time was near for a revision of the Articles of Confederation. Numerous small rebellions in the countryside and repetitive attempts by states to overpower the federal government had alerted America to trouble within the system that had been set up less than a decade earlier. Seeing this trouble, James Madison decided to undertake a research project that would eventually provide much of the historical basis and main ideas for the Constitution of the United States of America. James Madison knew that America already had determined a justification for a government that is both for and by the people. However, the method of government most successful in this new situation had not yet been created nor even thought of. It was with this frame of mind that Madison set out to study and learn about past attempts at republics and confederacies in order to help America form a more perfect union.

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In early 1786 in the halls of the Virginia General Assembly Madison proposed a convention to be held in Annapolis in the Fall of 1786. The purpose of the Convention would be to review the Articles of Confederation and propose a course of action for improving or re-writing them. In preparation for the Annapolis convention and whatever would follow, Madison took what would turn out to be a year of his life to study and prepare. He was a strong believer in the fact that "Experience is the oracle of truth; and where its responses are unequivocal, they ought to be conclusive and sacred." Believing this, he set out during the Spring and Summer of 1786 to research the constitutions and histories of both ancient and modern republics and confederations. The result of his research was kept in detailed notes that were taken over that period of time that he spent at home in Montpelier. The discoveries and conclusions that he made are evidenced in the many memos and letters that he wrote over the subsequent years, his many speeches and interjections during the course of the Constitutional Convention, his writing in the Federalist Papers and in the Constitution itself.

Out of this in depth and lengthy study of both ancient and modern confederacies Madison made several conclusions. First, he concluded that there is a "tendency of federal bodies rather to anarchy among the members than to tyranny in the head." This arose from the fact that nearly all of the confederacies that he studied had broken up, dissolved or been conquered because of the weakness of the confederacy. Secondly, his study confirmed his already strong beliefs about the division of power in a government between a legislative, executive and judicial branch. Third, Madison realized the importance of controlling faction to the survival of a republic.

He felt that the most pressing problems from the American government to deal with were those that he found in both the ancient and modern confederacies and the Articles of Confederation. The largest two problems that he devised solutions for were the strength of the federal government and controlling faction within a nation. He then began to fit his ideas into possible structures that could be presented at the Constitutional Convention. In order to create a more united union that lasted for many years, Madison was in favor of creating an extremely strong federal government. He felt that this would best check the power-hungry states and preserve the union. In order to control the effects of faction, Madison proposed the expansion of both the size of the government and the size of the nation. He justified this because he believed that

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests... and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority... Extend the sphere and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens. [1]

Madison made this change a reality by changing state’s representation in the Senate and ensuring that America could grow in the coming years.

James Madison was an extraordinary political visionary who based plans for the future on the foundations that were laid by the past. Preceding the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Madison envisioned the need for a completely new governing document for the United States of America. He then took action on that need and spent his time researching the past successes and failures of republics, confederacies and constitutions. Despite the fact that all of Madison’s ideas were not included with the Constitution, the application of his knowledge of past governments created the solid foundation of America’s Constitution that still stands today.


[1] Madison, James; Jay, John; Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist Papers. Penguin, NY: 1961. p. 83


Madison, James; Jay, John; Hamilton, Alexander. The Federalist Papers. Penguin, NY: 1961.

Researched and Written by:
Kristian Werling
December 15, 1998

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