so you won a revolution. now what are you going to do?
the 1780s: not great.
the 1770s were all death to king george! no taxation without representation! give me liberty or give me death! we declare these truths to be self-evident!
and by the 1790s, we had a nation. a president that virtually everyone liked, some good trade agreements, and something that was, if not already so, on its way to being a stable currency.
in between, the 1780s happened. it's like the decade that america forgot, or would like to, and has been the hardest part to get through of every biography so far. so we won the war, which put us in massive debt. the states were being governed by the articles of confederation which, in a nutshell, said, "you're free! please behave yourselves." most of the luminaries of the revolution basically graduated out of legislative duty. some of them went to europe as diplomats, some retired, and some went home and said "i'm a hero! give me a state to run!" (read: patrick henry. good at sound bytes, bad at everything else, like running virginia.)
so when the first post-war congress convened, there were almost no big-name declaration signers there. just a bunch of talented younger guys, many of who had been active in state legislatures in voting for independence, but new to the national scene. and these guys had all the unexciting work to do. there were no more declarations to write, wars to win, philosophies to shout from the rooftops. there was inflation, debt, regional conflict, and state governments running wild with their independence. the main conflict of the 1780s went something like this:
congress: we owe several european nations millions of dollars, could you please tax your citizens?
states: do we have to?
congress: we'd like you to.
states: but we're free now! we hate tyranny!
congress: if we don't get some taxes we're going to become part of britain again.
states: stop oppressing me!
soon it became clear that the articles of confederation were based on way too much goodwill among the states, and a stronger central government was needed. the 1780s were a decade in which the states and the congress tested out their new government, found its flaws, started speeding towards self-implosion, and then tried to reshape the government from within the confines of the confederation. in short, it was the decade for james madison.
because james madison was a huge nerd. almost no description of him is ever written without getting to "man of learning" in the first few sentences. madison was part of the first post-war congress, and he became extremely frustrated with the weak national government. when his term was over, and he returned to virginia, he found himself without much to do, so he decided to embark on a course of study on how all governments had worked through the history of time. he made himself an expert on every republic, empire, monarchy, parliament, and senate that had ever ruled, and studied what worked and what didn't. he was doing his homework.
after a few years in the virginia legislature, madison went to serve in the federal convention where, basically, he walked that convention like a dog. many of the delegates were there with goals of protecting the private interests of their state. madison was there to create the most perfect government on the earth, and pretty soon he was running every debate.
madison was no idealist. unlike jefferson, his most particular friend, madison did not think that americans when left to their own devices would all decide to be virtuous farmers. but he did think a republican government was the only way to go. when the constitution was being ratified, madison and hamilton published a series of essays in its defense now known as the federalist papers. madison wrote, in the opening essay, "it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force."
a lot of these decisions and choices were made in the 1780s, by men whose states were going broke and who had very little reason to concede to each other. james madison is known as the father of the constitution because, during the very long and hot and miserable summer of 1787, he got them all to agree to fund a strong central government and start working for the greater good. he did this by merit of how blatantly smarter he was than everybody else in the room (and franklin was there). he was a huge nerd, and he was also a huge political genius. we should all be very glad we weren't alive in the 1780s, and we should be very glad that james madison was.
now if only the guy would get married.