Perhaps Madison’s schooling and precocity both were confirmed by his sliding through the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in two years, where he added Hebrew to his arsenal of languages. This curriculum, typical of the time for a college man, was also nicely tailored for a man out to enter the ministry, though Madison felt no vocation to preach (as with Jefferson, his religious commitments were mysterious) and decided to stay on after his formal work came to an end to read and think further, with no particular goal in mind. He studied law, but like many graduates of law school today, he never went on to practice it. What engaged him most came to be the ardent and comprehensive study of men and manners in time: history, assuredly, but history with a purpose. Like all humanists of his era, he wished his knowledge both to enhance his own life and to serve the betterment of the world, and so he was determined to spend whatever talents he possessed for public service.
Witnessing with dismay the clash among warring religious factions when the (state) Anglican church embarked upon a persecution of Baptist — and therefore unauthorized — preachers in his native Orange County, Madison took up the active work of standing for religious liberty in Virginia, and five years after leaving college he was a member of the state legislature. It was in the autumn of 1776 that Madison met Thomas Jefferson and casually formed with him what was to become one of the most consequential political alliances of the next 50 years. From the beginning of their acquaintance, Madison gladly deferred to Jefferson, eight years his senior, as to a superior in culture and accomplishment; Jefferson appreciated the younger man’s steady judgment and what he called “the rich resources of his luminous and discriminating mind.”
Madison consigned himself to the imperative drudgery of legislative work during the long Revolutionary War years that followed and, by 1783, he was both a seasoned thinker and a practical politician who had served in both his state legislature and Congress. As Jefferson prepared to leave for France on a diplomatic mission, the two friends avidly hashed over the trials of the new nation and especially the making of constitutions — namely, the new constitutions being debated and adopted by the various states. These talks were not idle ones; the two men were trying, Brookhiser says, “to define the freedom they had helped win,” a freedom whose boundaries had yet to be drawn precisely. Jefferson finally departed with a list of books of history and political theory, ancient and modern, to procure for himself and Madison. Those books might, Jefferson thought, come in handy during any turbulent years to come.
Their help came sooner than either man had expected. The nation had been laboring under the strains placed on it by the Articles of Confederation, the pact for union entered into by all the states during the war, but the constraints of which had left the government hamstrung in peacetime; Congress under the Articles, to take the major infirmity, lacked the power to tax, and so putting to bed the national debt incurred during the war became impossible. The convention putatively called to “revise” the Articles gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787, and it was there, over the next four months, that the new Constitution was hammered out. Madison spoke often and eloquently as he offered delegates the benefit of his wide reading and deep understanding of the follies that had come of other efforts at republic-building in the past whenever reforming minds had refused to reckon on the true nature of man. Book learning has rarely been put to better use.