Thomas Jefferson Knowledge Institute

James Madison

James Madison At his inauguration in 1809, James Madison, a small, wizened man, appeared old and worn; Washington Irving described him as "but a withered little apple-John." But whatever his deficiencies in charm, Madison's buxom wife Dolley compensated for them with her warmth and gaiety. She was the toast of Washington.

Born in 1751, Madison was brought up in Orange County, Virginia, and attended Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey). A student of history and government, well-read in law, he participated in the framing of the Virginia Constitution in 1776, served in the Continental Congress, and was a leader in the Virginia Assembly.

Madison made a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution by writing, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, the Federalist essays. In later years, when he was referred to as the "Father of the Constitution," Madison protested that the document was not "the off-spring of a single brain," but "the work of many heads and many hands." In Congress, he helped frame the Bill of Rights and enact the first revenue legislation.

James Madison's Veto

In 1817, President Madison had on his desk a bill submitted by Congress: "An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements." It was a bill to provide funding "for constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses, in order to facilitate, promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several States, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defense." Having been intimately involved with the hammering out of the new Constitution, Madison was troubled with this expansion of its meaning. The Constitution's limits, he reasoned, did not encompass a law funding roads and canals used for commerce. States had erected tariff barriers against out-of-state goods and the original intent of the Constitiution's commerce clause was to demolish those barriers, making regular (without hindrance) commerce among the states.

"I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses, and that a power in the National Legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it cannot be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and a reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments, and that no adequate landmarks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it..."

Madison in essence said, "This bill stretches the Constitution to the breaking point. It sets a precedent that would allow Congress to draft any law they wanted, despite the fact that the Constitution limits their powers to those enumerated. I will not sign it."

Full text of James Madison's 1817 Veto

The Constitution's Commerce Clause