Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

James Madison: From Father of the Constitution to President (4 Lessons)



The Unit


Q. Who was called the "Father of the Constitution"? A. James Madison, of Virginia, because in point of erudition and actual contributions to the formation of the Constitution, he was preeminent.
—From Constitution Q and A on the EDSITEment-reviewed Educator Resources section of the National Archives website. 

…if the letter of the Constitution is strictly adhered to, and if no flexibility is allowed, no power could be exercised by Congress, and all the good that might be reasonably expected from an efficient government would be entirely frustrated.
— James Madison, February 2, 1791 (PDF of Madison's full remarks here)

The Framers gave us a document durable and flexible enough to take us from the agrarian land of the 18th century, of the musket, the axe and the plow-to the country we know today, of the Internet and the human genome and a thousand different cultures living together in one nation like a glittering mosaic.
—Michael Beschloss at the ceremony to unveil page two of the Constitution in its new encasement, September 15, 2000, in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

Even in its first 30 years of existence, the U.S. Constitution had to prove its durability and flexibility in a variety of disputes. More often than not, James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution," took part in the discussion. Madison had been present at the document's birth as the mastermind behind the so-called Virginia Plan. He had worked tirelessly for its ratification including authoring 29 Federalist Papers, and he continued to be a concerned guardian of the Constitution as it matured. However, it should be noted that Madison chose not to allow his notes from the Constitutional Convention to be published until after his death,

In the early years of the Republic, Madison held a variety of offices, both appointed and elected. At other times, he was part of the loyal opposition. Both in office and out, he played an important role in the continuing debate [stet]. Virtually every important event was precedent-setting, raising crucial questions about how the constitution should be interpreted and implemented. How should the Constitution be applied to situations not specified in the text? How can balance be achieved between the power of the states and that of the federal government? How can a balance of power be achieved among the three branches of the federal government? In this curriculum unit, Madison's words will help students understand the constitutional issues involved in some controversies that arose during Madison's presidency.

Guiding Questions

  • How was Madison involved in the creation and implementation of the Constitution?
  • What events during Madison's presidency raised constitutional questions?
  • What were the constitutional issues that arose during his presidency?
  • What positions did Madison take on each of these issues?
  • Did his thinking evolve and, if so, what factors influenced his thinking and actions?

Learning Objectives

  • List reasons why Madison is called the "Father of the Constitution."
  • Summarize three significant issues during Madison's presidency that raised constitutional questions.
  • Explain the constitutional questions raised by these events.
  • Discuss Madison's opinions on the constitutional questions.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • In Lesson One, a graphic organizer helps students see how involved James Madison was in the major events of his time. Though the lesson can stand alone, it works to demonstrate Madison's importance and to show why his opinions are so central to understanding the on-going process of creating a working democracy based on the Constitution. EDSITEment offers the following complementary lessons you may want to use in part or whole:
  • Lesson One helps students see that James Madison had connections to many of the important events of the day. Among other things, he:
    • served in the Continental Congress before and while the Articles of Confederation were in effect;
    • conceived the Virginia Plan, which became the foundation of the Constitution;
    • worked to get the Constitution ratified (by writing many Federalist Papers, for example);
    • became the principal author of the Bill of Rights while serving in the House of Representatives;
    • served as Secretary of State during Jefferson's administrations;
    • as Secretary of State, supported Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase;
    • co-founded the Democratic-Republican Party, which favored a strict interpretation of the Constitution and less power for the central government;
    • raised serious objections to the Alien and Sedition Acts in the Virginia Resolutions and elsewhere;
    • served as President during the War of 1812;
    • signed the act establishing the Second National Bank;
    • supported internal improvements, such as the Cumberland Road and the Erie Canal, but felt there should be a constitutional amendment making it clear that the central government had the authority to raise money for and administer such projects.

      The focus here is not an in-depth understanding of the specifics (such as the Virginia Resolutions), though many of those issues are covered in the related EDSITEment lessons listed above. This lesson asks students to understand how the Constitution has been applied and to appreciate the depth of Madison's involvement with that document and many controversies surrounding its interpretation.
  • There are a variety of ways in which this curriculum unit can be used. Lessons Two, Three, and Four each deal with a single event during Madison's presidency that raised constitutional questions—the chartering of the Second National Bank, the raising of an army for the War of 1812, and the need for the country to make internal improvements. You can complete all three lessons in a whole-class setting. You might choose only one for your class as an example of constitutional interpretation. Each lesson strives to raise the level of student appreciation for the relevance of the Constitution to the events in Madison's presidency and the importance of Madison's opinions, even though he did not always prevail. Each event raises constitutional issues of interest. Another option is to split the class into three or six groups, each of which takes on Lessons Two, Three, and Four and then reports back to the class.

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources