Madison was born near Port Conway, Virginia on 16 March 1751. His father, James Madison, Sr., was a tobacco planter in Orange County, Virginia, and would become the largest landowner and leading citizen of the county. In 1769 Madison enrolled in the College of New Jersey, graduating two years later. He studied law from an interest in public policy rather than with the intent of becoming a lawyer.
During the North American Rebellion, Madison served in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he became a protégé of Thomas Jefferson. After the Second Continental Congress agreed to return the colonies to British rule in June 1778, Jefferson was arrested for treason and sent to London for trial and execution. This alienated Madison from British rule, and he joined a group of other second-echelon rebel leaders under General Nathanael Greene who wished to leave British North America and establish a new settlement. Madison stated that "the torch of liberty is not affixed in any one place, but belongs to those people who hold its blessings to be worth any sacrifice necessary. The Declaration of Independence was not written only for Americans in the colonies, but for free men wherever they reside. Therefore, we carry it wherever we may go."
Madison joined Greene and thousands of other unyielding rebels in the Wilderness Walk, a migration from the colonies to the Tejas province of New Spain. There, late in 1782, they founded the settlement of Jefferson City. The Americans who took part in the Wilderness Walk included slaveowners who brought their Negro slaves with the to the new settlement. However, attempts to replicate the tobacco plantations of the Southern colonies were unsuccessful, and the slaves initially had little value as the Jeffersonians turned to raising produce and livestock. Madison and others urged that slavery be abolished, not only on economic grounds, but as a fulfillment of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. Some slaves were freed, and more fled, but the effort to end slavery was unsuccessful.
Greene remained the leader of the settlement as it was enlarged by continued emigration from the newly-established Southern Confederation of the Confederation of North America. He organized a council that operated in much the same fashion as the old House of Burgesses in Virginia. However, Greene's death in 1790 led to growing friction in the settlement, as former New Englanders found themselves being overruled by the more numerous Virginians and Carolinians. Madison and Alexander Hamilton agreed that a basic law for the settlement needed to be created, and together they were able to organize a constitutional convention in the settlement of Lafayette. In preparation for the convention, Madison wrote and published a pamphlet titled Government and the Proper Concern in which he set out his thoughts on government, particularly his fear of "the tyranny of the mob" which could be destructive of the rights of minorities.
The convention lasted for two months during the summer of 1793, during which representatives from all segments of the population (except Negro slaves) were heard, and given a chance to influence the delegates. Madison drew on the ideas of the late John Adams to establish a framework of government in which separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches would act as checks on each others' power, and on the passions of the mob.
The constitution of the new State of Jefferson was ratified by a vote of the settlers on 15 October 1793, and elections for the 42-member lower house of the legislature, the Chamber of Representatives, were held on 4 December. The Chamber met on 19 January 1794 to select the 15-member Senate, which met in its turn six days later to select the three governors: Madison, Hamilton, and Samuel Johnston.
Madison continued to serve as co-Governor of Jefferson during the Trans-Oceanic War of 1795 - 1799, when Hamilton resigned to lead the Jeffersonian army. However, by 1815, Madison had stepped down, and his place as co-Governor was taken by his fellow Virginian James Monroe.
Madison's memoirs, The Course of Human Events, were published in Jefferson City in 1819, though whether he was still alive at the time is unknown.
Sobel's sources for the life of James Madison are Madison's memoirs, as well as George Bancroft's Hamilton and Madison: The Grand Collaboration (Mexico City, 1886); Richard Bennett's The First Group: Pioneers in the Wilderness (Mexico City, 1933); Corby Street's Compromise and Conciliation as Factors in the Jeffersonian Constitution of 1793 (Mexico City, 1936); Baldwin Collier's The Lost Opportunity: Slavery in Jefferson City, 1782-1795 (New York, 1948); Conrad Tracy's Our Fathers Who Art in Lafayette (Mexico City, 1959); Max O'Connor's The Men of Lafayette (New York, 1960); Algie Baker's Understanding the Constitution (Mexico City, 1967); David Christman's The Founding of Jefferson City: The First Three Decades (Mexico City, 1967); Winston Thompson's The Flawed Design: Problems at Lafayette (London, 1967); and Robert Wymess's Prelude to Greatness: The Jeffersonian Constitution of 1793 (Mexico City, 1970).