Founders and the Constitution

James Madison (1751-1836)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of James Madison. They will learn about why he is called, “The Father of the Constitution”, his views on the Bill of Rights, his remedy for the problem of factions in a democratic republic, and much more.

Founding Principles

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Federalism image


The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. - James Madison (1787)


James Madison’s slight stature and reserved personality gave little indication of the keen intellect and shrewd nature of the man. Perhaps no other person of the Founding generation had as much influence as he in crafting, ratifying, and interpreting the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. A skilled political tactician, Madison proved instrumental in determining the form of the early American republic.

Madison’s political theory was founded upon a realistic view of human nature. He believed that men in society tended to form factions, defined as groups that promoted their own interest at the expense of the rest. Factions posed a special problem for democratic societies because a faction composed of the majority of the people could easily oppress the minority. To combat this, as he argued in Federalist Paper No. 51, power must be set against power, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Madison therefore favored the separation of powers within the central government and a division of power between the national and state governments. This latter concept, federalism, was a radical idea in the late eighteenth century. Few people at the time believed that power in a nation could be divided between two levels of government, each supreme in its own sphere.

Madison believed that safety lay in numbers. The more heterogeneous the society, the less chance there would be for any one group to combine with others to form a faction of the majority. Though ancient philosophers had argued that only small republics could survive for a long period of time, Madison believed the opposite. A large republic could encompass many different groups and different interests—economic, religious, and social— and thereby provide a safeguard against the tyranny of the majority.


In this lesson, students will learn about James Madison. They should first read as background homework Handout A—James Madison (1751–1836) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: James Madison on the Problem of Faction, in which Madison addresses the problem of faction in a democratic society. As a preface, there is Handout B— Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.

In order for the students to understand the role of factions in everyday life, the teacher should divide the students into groups based on food preference and ask each group to design a menu for the school cafeteria that is acceptable to a majority of the class. There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to list real-life factions that exist in their school and consider how these groups may infringe on the rights of others. Extensions provides opportunity for thought as students are asked to consider the role of special-interest groups in modern America.


Students will:

  • explain why Madison is often called “The Father of the Constitution”
  • understand Madison’s view of the Bill of Rights
  • explain what Madison meant by faction
  • understand Madison’s remedy for the problem of factions in a democratic republic
  • analyze the role of factions in their school


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—James Madison (1751–1836)
  • Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: James Madison on the Problem of Faction

Additional Teacher Resource

  • Answer Key


CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—James Madison (1751–1836) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of James Madison.

    James Madison is often called “The Father of the Constitution.” He was a leader in organizing the Constitutional Convention, and many of his ideas shaped the final document produced by the delegates. After the convention, Madison co-authored the Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper essays that defended the Constitution. He also took a leading role in support of the Constitution at the Virginia Ratifying Convention. As a member of the House of Representatives, he guided a bill of rights through Congress.

Context 5 min.

  1. Briefly review with students the main issues involved in the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. (The Federalists believed that the confederation would break up if the Constitution was not ratified. Anti-Federalists feared that a stronger central government would endanger the rights of the people.)
  2. Remind the students that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers as a series of newspaper essays to convince the people of New York of the need to ratify the Constitution. But the essays were read by many people across the country and played an influential role in the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate.

In His Own Words 25 min.

  1. Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions.
  2. Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: James Madison on the Problem of Faction. Be sure that the students understand the vocabulary and the “who, what, where, and when” of the document.
  3. Tell the students to imagine that they are in charge of determining the menu for the school cafeteria. Divide the class into two groups. The first group should consist of a clear majority of the class. Tell this group that they are meat eaters who do not mind having vegetarian dishes on the menu. The second group should consist of a clear minority of the class. Tell this group that they are vegetarians who desire to eliminate all meat from the cafeteria menu, despite the wishes of the meat-eating majority. Then have a student read Excerpt A to the entire class. Refer to the Answer Key for a scripted discussion of Handout C.

Wrap-up Discussion 5 min.

Ask students if a larger school would reduce the problem of faction, as Madison would have predicted. If so, why? If not, why not?
Answers will vary.

Follow-Up Homework Options

Have the students create a list of at least five factions at their school. They should also describe in one to three sentences how each faction infringes on or threatens the rights of other students/groups or undermines the ability of the school to educate students.


Some people today would argue that certain contemporary special-interest groups fulfill Madison’s definition of a faction. Some groups are listed below.

Recording Industry Association of America

National Rifle Association <>.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals <>.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State <>.

American Association of Retired Persons <>.

Christian Coalition <>.

People for the American Way <>.


  1. Ask the students to research one of the special-interest groups above and list its goals. They could then list how each of these goals could infringe upon the rights of other individuals/groups or the common good.
  2. Ask the students to make a list of other special-interest groups through Web searches. They could look for groups that promote similar interests, or they could find groups that are in opposition to each other.


Banning, Lance. The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison: A Biography. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990.
Matthews, Richard K. If Men Were Angels: James Madison and the Heartless Empire of Reason. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
McCoy, Drew. The Last of the Fathers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Rakove, Jack N. James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1990.

“The Federalist Papers.” The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. <>.
The James Madison Center at James Madison University Home Page. <>.
James Madison’s Montpelier. <>.
“Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.” The Avalon Project at Yale Law School. <>.
The Papers of James Madison. <>.

Selected Works

By James Madison

  • Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies (1786)
  • The Vices of the Political System of the United States (1787)
  • Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787
  • The Federalist Papers [with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay] (1787–1788)
  • The Virginia Resolutions (1798)

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