Today in History

Today in History: March 16

United States Military Academy at West Point

Looking up the Hudson, West Point
Looking up the Hudson, West Point, Haines Photo Co., copyright 1909.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

On March 16, 1802, Congress approved legislation establishing the United States Military Academy at West Point, one of the oldest military service academies in the world. Strategically located on the west bank of the Hudson River approximately fifty miles north of New York City, West Point was first garrisoned in January 1778 and is the oldest continuously occupied military post in America. George Washington transferred his headquarters there in 1779 as a Revolutionary War outpost. In 1780, Benedict Arnold, then in command of the post, tried unsuccessfully to betray it to the British.

The Academic Building
The Academic Building, West Point, New York, between 1900-1915.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, superintendent at West Point from 1817 to 1833 is credited with instituting the high standards of discipline and scholarship for which the Academy is known today. Under Thayer's tenure, civil engineering was the foundation of the curriculum. After graduation from West Point, commissioned officers put their technical skills to work for the U.S. government in the construction of canals, roads, railroads, and other infrastructure needed to facilitate westward expansion.

Both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were educated at West Point. Other famous graduates include Union generals George H. Thomas, William Tecumseh Sherman and George A. Custer; president of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis; World War I hero General John J. Pershing; and Dwight David Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander at the time of the D-day invasion during World War II and the thirty-fourth U.S. president.

Army - Navy Football Game
Army - Navy Football Game, November 28, 1908.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

James Madison: Father of the Constitution

James Madison
James Madison
Miniature portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1783.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division in Madison's Treasures

James Madison, "Father of the Constitution" and fourth president of the United States, was born on March 16, 1751.* A graduate of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, where he studied the liberal arts, Madison wed his love of learning to a deep sense of civic responsibility to charter and to lead the young United States of America.

Following the outbreak of the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress authorized the colonies to adopt new constitutions. Elected in 1776 to help shape Virginia's constitution, James Madison drafted that document's guarantee of religious freedom. Years later, in 1785, Madison wrote a Memorial and Remonstrance, one of the most significant American statements on the relationship of government to religion, to defeat a bill proposed by Patrick Henry to provide financial aid to "teachers of the Christian religion." In its place Madison sponsored and guided to passage an Act for Establishing Religious Freedom written (in 1779) by Thomas Jefferson. This important piece of legislation permanently severed the link between government and religion in Virginia, and paved the way for a national separation of church and state.

As a Virginia representative to the Confederation Congress from 1780 to 1783, Madison worked for ratification of the Articles of Confederation and to increase the powers of Congress. He also favored Virginia's cession of her western territories to Congress, as a bequest to the nation.

Madison was appointed a deputy from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the Constitutional Convention that convened in Philadelphia in 1787. The Virginia Plan, presented to the convention by Virginia governor Edmund Randolph, was a blueprint for the new federal government and contained several of Madison's favorite ideas: separation of powers, a strong legislature, and an independent judiciary. Madison's leading role at the Convention earned him the title "Father of the Constitution," the use of which he discouraged by insisting the document was "the work of many heads & many hands." His notes, taken at the time of the Convention's debates, and later revised by him, form the fullest primary-source history available for those proceedings.

Written in Favour of the New Constitution
The Federalist (vol. 1)
J and A M'Lean, publisher, New York, 1788.
Rare Books and Special Collections Division in Madison's Treasures

Madison and thirty-eight others signed the proposed Constitution on September 17, 1787. It included what is, from today's perspective, the shocking compromise supported by Madison to count each slave as three-fifths of a person. Like many great men of his era and status, Madison was not willing to move decisively against slavery and servitude at the personal cost of his own slaves or the political cost of national unity.

About six weeks after the Constitution was signed,the first of a series of articles on it under the name Publius appeared in print. Written by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, these articles constituted an intellectual media blitz, aimed particularly at New York and Virginia, to spur ratification of the new Constitution by the states. Madison wrote more than a third of the Publius articles, all of which were eventually compiled and published as The Federalist (also known as the Federalist Papers). They remain one of the greatest achievements of Anglo-American political philosophy.

After due consideration, Virginia became the tenth state to ratify the Constitution, which had already become the foundation of a new government when a ninth, New Hampshire, ratified it in June 1788.  The following year George Washington, in his first inaugural address, echoed the sentiment of many who insisted that the Constitution be amended to include a Bill of Rights. Madison, elected to the newly formed U.S. House of Representatives, took the lead in steering that bill, comprising the first ten amendments to the Constitution, through passage by the First Federal Congress.

In the next several years, as Madison became a leader in Congress, the nation's two-party political system emerged. Madison and others split with earlier allies such as Hamilton and Jay over a variety of issues, including the formation of a national bank, funding the war debt, and the proper role of an elite class in the nation's political leadership. Such differences led to the coalescence of the Republican (sometimes known as the Democratic-Republican) party headed by Jefferson and the Federalist party led by Hamilton.

Mrs. James Madison
Mrs. James Madison
from an original picture by Gilbert Stuart in possession of Richard Cutts, Esq. M.D.
Washington, D.C., between 1804 and 1855.
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

In September 1794 James Madison married Dolley Payne Todd. When Madison became secretary of state to the widowed President Thomas Jefferson in 1801, his wife became a leader in Washington society who sometimes acted as the president's hostess. As first lady when her husband succeeded to the presidency, Mrs. Madison won praise for her role in preserving various White House treasures, including Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of George Washington, during the War of 1812. A sharp contrast to her formal and reserved husband, Dolley Madison added vivacity to his life, to Washington society, and to the nation as a whole.

James Madison
James Madison, Fourth President of the United States,
Gilbert Stuart, artist, 1828(?).
By Popular Demand: Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present

On March 4, 1809, Madison took the oath of office as fourth president of the United States. He faced a dangerous international situation that included trade blockades and the confiscation of American ships, sailors, and cargo on the high seas by both the French and the English, who were at war with each other. Subject to conflicting pressures from congressional "War Hawks" such as Henry Clay and John Calhoun, and those wanting peace through diplomatic efforts, Madison preferred neutrality but eventually felt compelled to ask Congress to declare war on Great Britain in what came to be known as the War of 1812. The ultimate U.S. victory came only after Britain had captured Washington and burned the White House and the Capitol (which housed the congressional library) in 1814. Months later Jefferson wrote to Madison about replacing the ruined library and Madison, who as a young member of the Continental Congress had sponsored a proposal for a congressional library, signed an act expanding both the volume and the scope of the Library of Congress through the purchase of Jefferson's books.

Following his two-term presidency, Madison retired to his Virginia estate, Montpelier. During the last nineteen years of his life he wrote numerous letters and articles, including refutations of the doctrine of nullification. For a time he also served as rector (head) of the University of Virginia. Madison died on June 28, 1836, and Dolley Madison, who returned to Washington in the autumn of 1837, passed away in 1849.

What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?

James Madison, letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822

Learn more about the life of James Madison and the United States Constitution:

John Witherspoon
John Witherspoon
Oil on canvas, by Rembrandt Peale after Charles Willson Peale
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1794.
Religion and the American Revolution
in Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

John Witherspoon (external link) (1723-1794) was president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton when James Madison attended. His students included the future president, a vice-president, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, nine cabinet officers, and twelve state governors. He also taught five of the nine Princeton graduates who were representatives to the Constitutional Convention, and was himself a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Accused of running a "seminary of sedition," he introduced students to Enlightenment thinkers, Scottish Common Sense philosophy, and a firm belief that faith might walk hand-in-hand with reason.

* With the intention of more accurately reflecting a solar year, Britain and its colonies replaced the Julian ("Old Style") Calendar with the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, adjusting all dates forward by eleven days. At the same time, New Year’s Day was moved from March 25 to January 1. This is our present calendar. James Madison's March 5, 1750, birth date therefore became the "New Style" date of March 16, 1751.