James Madison is known to us as one of the key figures at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and later as Secretary of State for eight years under President Thomas Jefferson and as a two-term President (1809-17). What is less well-known is his fight to become a member of the first Congress after the Constitution was ratified, and in which he triumphed acting like a real politician.
Once the Constitution was ratified in June 1788, the states began setting up procedures for the election of the first Congress and Presidential electors. It was a foregone conclusion that George Washington would be the first President; it was the only thing the Federalists and anti-Federalists could agree on. Washington very much desired that Madison become one of Virginia's new senators. It was not to be.
Virginia saw a long and close contest over whether to ratify the Constitution; a contest only won narrowly by the Federalists. The anti-Federalist forces were led by Patrick Henry and George Mason and once they lost the ratification battle they were determined not to lose the fight over representation in the new Congress. The selection for the two senators was by the Virginia legislature, not by popular election and Madison lost to two anti-Federalists, Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson.
This left Madison with only one alternative, running for the House in his newly created Congressional District. However, Patrick Henry and his allies in the legislature plotted to thwart Madison's ambitions and the district he resided in was designed to include large areas of anti-Federalist voter sentiment. If Gerrymandering existed as a term in 1788 that's the word that we'd use to describe how the district boundaries were decided.
Madison now had an uphill struggle and the man he was running against was an old friend, James Monroe. Monroe, who would later follow Madison as the fifth president of the United States after serving as his Secretary of State for two terms, voted against ratification by Virginia.
(Madison (left) and Monroe from The Atlantic)
Let's pause for a minute to clarify what anti-Federalists believed. Most of them supported a stronger central government believing the Articles of Confederation to be ineffective. Their concerns about the proposed Constitution were that it lacked a bill of rights and gave too much power to the new central government. With those amendments Virginians like Monroe and George Mason would have been satisfied.
The election was set for February 2, 1789 with a month of campaigning before the balloting. On his return to Virginia from the last session of the Continental Congress in New York, Madison stopped at Mt Vernon and stayed with Washington from December 19 to 25. Undoubtedly they discussed Madison's campaign strategy which proved to be very creative.
During the campaign, in which Monro and Madison traveled together, debated and even, on occassion shared a bed at inns (a common practice at the time), Madison for the first time publicly called for a bill of rights arguing that as a leading Federalist in what was to be a Federalist dominated Congress he would be more effective than Monroe in ensuring that such amendments would be approved. He went further implicitly suggesting he was an unsuccessful advocate for a bill of rights at the Constitutional Convention. In making such claims Madison had a distinct advantage since the proceedings of the Convention were held secret and his authorship of many of the essays that later became known as The Federalist was not known to the public (nor to Monroe who had not been at the Convention) helping obscure the reality that he had opposed the need for a bill of rights in both forums.
Madison's change of heart along with support from Baptist and Lutheran ministers prompted by his leading role in drafting and enacting Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom was enough for him to win, receiving 1308 votes to 972 for Monroe. Based on the number of voters Congressional campaigning was a very intimate experience in 1789.
Madison and Monroe remained friends and in the first Congress it was Madison who led the successful effort to draft and pass the amendments which later became known as the Bill of Rights. During that first session of Congress he remained a confidante of Washington, drafting his first inaugural address. Though they later parted ways over disagreements about the scope of the powers of the new Federal government the work they did together from 1786 through 1789 served America well.