Saturday, March 31, 2007

Number 6: John Quincy Adams

Years in office: 1825-1829
Pre-service occupations: minister to Berlin, U.S. senator, minister to Russia, peace delegate (Treaty of Ghent), minister to England, secretary of state (Monroe)
Key events during his administration: Erie Canal completed (1825); C&O Canal begun (1828); Tariff of 1828 (the “Tariff of Abominations”); treaties of Indian Springs (1825) and Washington (1826); Panama Congress (1826)

Presidential rating: Mostly unsuccessful, and unpopular


John Quincy Adams was literally groomed for great things.
He was the first relative of another president to hold the office. Like his father John, Adams was a brilliant, successful and driven man. Like his father, Adams would attain the nation’s highest office and be limited to one term. And like his father, he would be no more successful holding on to that office.

But unlike the elder Adams, the son’s solitary term was a struggle from the start, and arguably the first unsuccessful presidency.

John Quincy Adams was one of the most highly educated men to become president. JQA—as he often referred to himself—led what biographer Robert V. Remini terms “a privileged life.” His famed parents, John and Abigail Adams, literally raised him to achieve great things. His parents guided his life intensely: what to study, wear and eat; how to conduct himself in public; where to live; what to do with himself; when to marry, etc. It was relentless. You can read about the famed love and intellectual affair of John and Abigail in David McCulloch’s John Adams, but you’ll only get a hint of just how much they—especially she—controlled every single aspect of the son’s young life.

Youth, they drilled into his fertile mind, was for study, and his pleasures should be found in learning, not frivolity. Therefore his life revolved around education, prayer and learning how to be a proper man ready to carry fourth the good Adams name—and being ever watchful to never bring shame to that name. The instructions began early. For example, Abigail took the seven-year-old Johnny to watch the battle of Bunker Hill as it was being fought, so he could understand the price of liberty. Later, his father took him on his missions to the courts of Europe, which freed him from his mother’s physical presence but not her spiritual presence. She loomed large over his life, continually nagging him by letter, even robbing him of the one woman he passionately loved because Abigail said it wasn’t time for him to marry.

In other words, John and Abigail Adams raised a stern, highly self-critical man who was intensely curious, well-versed on most any subject, but gloomily resigned to follow a path not of his choosing. (Adams would treat his own sons worse, even going so far as to not invite two of them for Christmas one year because their grades at Harvard were poor.) He placed exacting standards on himself, keeping to his almost his entire life: He’d rise early to exercise and study, and work late. In another day and age, he’d be called a “square:” While his contemporaries on diplomatic missions engaged in cards and drinking, he retreated to books. He immersed in studies on the Bible, languages, sciences, mathematics, literature, philosophy, etc. You’d think that he’d make a fascinating dinner companion, but unlike Jefferson, Adams was a brooding and stiff character. Brilliant—but so personally demanding that it could paralyze him.

It was this man who became the sixth president of the United States.

Diplomat extraordinaire
Adams followed his father into the diplomatic arena at a young age. During Washington’s administration, he vigorously defended the president’s policy of neutrality. Consequently, Washington took note and appointed young Adams as minister to the Netherlands in 1794. As one of only six ministerial positions, it was a high honor. Adams, reluctant to leave America, nevertheless went at his parents’ behest. Adams storied diplomatic career was off.

He later served as minister to Berlin—in the meantime marrying the daughter of a British merchant in 1797—before being recalled by his father in 1801 in one of President John Adams’ last acts as president. Young Adams then served a term in the U.S. Senate, where he angered his Federalist allies by not opposing Jefferson’s embargo. Slowly moving in the direction of Republicanism, Adams won favor with the Madison administration and was appointed minister to Russia. He formed a strong friendship with Czar Alexander I and was present for Napoleon’s invasion and subsequent defeat.

In his greatest feat as a diplomat, he lead the commission that negotiated the end to the War of 1812, which essentially returned things to the status quo ante bellum.

He won much fame and friends at home and abroad as a diplomat, and subsequently James Monroe made him secretary of state, where he further burnished his credentials through the formation of the Monroe Doctrine and the Adams-Onis treaty.

As secretary of state, Adams was a natural choice for the next president. But he had competition—especially the formidable Andrew Jackson.

The “corrupt bargain”
The election of 1824 was, at first, a five-man contest between Adams, Jackson, Calhoun, Treasury Secretary Crawford and Speaker Henry Clay. Calhoun soon dropped out when he realized he’d never win, but he easily won the vice presidency. Crawford suffered a stroke but remained somewhat popular. When the electoral ballots were counted, Jackson had 99 (41% of the popular vote), Adams 84 (30.9% of the popular vote), Crawford 41 and Clay 37. No one had a majority, so the election went to the House—which meant that Clay, as the very powerful Speaker, would in effect decide the next president.

Since Clay had the fewest votes, he was dropped. That left Jackson, Adams and Crawford. The latter had the least support, and his mild stroke left questions of his ability to serve. So the question was Jackson or Adams. Jackson was clearly popular, but Clay detested the thought that someone whose only qualification was “killing 2,500 Englishmen” would become president.

Clay met with Adams, who, although opponents in some matters during Monroe’s terms, found some common ground. They apparently pledged mutual support; Adams also sought pledges of support from electors from other states to vote for him in return for favors.

Clay threw his support—and electors—to Adams, who was chosen on the first ballot on Feb. 9, 1825, shocking and outraging the Jacksonians, who believed that Jackson should be president based on his lead. A week later, Adams named Clay his secretary of state, the position Clay had sought eight years earlier. Jacksonians howled in protest, and immediately charged that a “corrupt bargain” had been made: If Clay would support Adams and make him president, Adams would make Clay secretary of state, still the surest route to the presidency.

It was a gigantic mistake.

In fact, “mistake” seems too tame a word. The “corrupt bargain” effectively ended Clay’s political career, and almost destroyed the Adams presidency before it started. It would be a long four years, with the Jacksonians hounding Adams every step of the way.

Was there a “corrupt bargain?” Not really, but on the surface—especially to those who wanted to see one—there definitely appeared to be one. But it’s easy to understand why Clay wanted Adams and not Jackson, and why Adams would chose the very capable Clay to lead State. However, Adams was completely politically tone deaf. He expected people to understand why he did things because of his superior intellect, and just never did understand how things looked politically. No matter what the reasoning, no matter the justification, the appearance of a “corrupt bargain” became the reality.

The end of the Republican party of Thomas Jefferson
The corrupt bargain essentially doomed Adams from the get-go. Like the 2000 Florida debacle, the Jacksonians vowed revenge and immediately began the 1828 presidential campaign. Every step they took in the Congress from Adams’ inauguration on was designed to undermine Adams and his administration. It’s no exaggeration. The Jacksonians, believing that they were the aggrieved party and had an election “stolen” from them, acted from spite and malice. They brought no credit upon themselves.

Some of their opposition to Adams’ programs was honest, and done from constitutional and philosophical grounds, but a lot of it had to do with how Adams gained office. Their actions were often petty and downright mean (especially those of old purist Republican John Randolph), but they formed the basis of the permanent split in the old party of Jefferson.

One of the hallmarks of the “Era of Good Feelings” during the Monroe administration was the absence of political party, as the Federalists were no longer a national party and the Republicans were in near complete control. But one-party rule was either an illusion or a temporary truce. Two camps formed: the National Republicans, loyal to Adams and Clay; and the Democratic-Republican party, true to the core of Jeffersonian republicanism. The opposition leader in the senate was Martin Van Buren, often called the architect of the Democratic party, and he moved to thwart Adams every way he could. The new Democrats’ de facto leader was of course Jackson, and included in its ranks supporters of John C. Calhoun—the vice president!—and former supporters of Henry Clay, who sealed his political fate by joining with Adams.

The “National Republicans” would not last long, and would soon be replaced by another short-lived party—the Whigs.

Some true successes—but no credit
Adams’ presidency was full of ideas, but unfortunately for him, many of those ideas were stillborn because of the hostility toward his administration. The Jacksonian-controlled Congress rarely gave him a chance through adherence to Jeffersonian values and, sometimes, sheer spite. (Note: Jacksonian Democrats gained control of Congress midway through Adams’ term, but opposition to Adams started almost right away.)

Adams’ primary domestic program consisted of Henry Clay’s “American System,” which included a high tariff (protectionism) against foreign goods, support for internal improvements—which were critical for moving goods to markets and fostering greater industrialization in Pennsylvania, New York and other northern states—and support for the Second National Bank. Some of this actually succeeded in passing Congress, but the Jacksonians immediately squashed some of Adams’ more fanciful suggestions, such as a national observatory and a national university.

Although much derided by the Jackson Democrats, who believed in only a minimalist federal approach to economic affairs and internal improvements, the American System succeeded in creating some critical internal improvements. Among the successes were the beginning of the C&O Canal (to compete with the Erie Canal, completed and opened in 1825) and an extension of the Cumberland Road.

In addition, the Adams economy was actually pretty good. The debt from the War of 1812 was finally retired, manufactures expanded, shipping grew, industry grew, etc. The American System actually worked, and didn’t harm agriculture, such as cotton, as much as was feared. But Adams received little credit for it both because he wouldn’t propagate for himself and because the opposition was more vocal.

Another Adams success, enacted through Henry Clay, was the establishment of free trade with several nations—though again Adams received very little credit. One reason is because one nation ceased to exist by the time he left office, and, as usual, the Jackson Democrats derided his foreign policy attempts—especially the Panama Congress.

One political disaster after anotherBecause of intense hostility and Adams’ own political tin ear, his administration struggled continually. President Adams and Secretary Clay had wanted the United States to participate in the Panama Congress, organized in 1826 among Central and South American states to create a unified policy toward Spain. It was a forward-thinking policy—get America involved with her neighbors to the south; after all, hadn’t Adams and Monroe declared this part of the world was for the Americas only? Adams saw involvement with Simon Bolivar’s congress as the next step in American relations, but the U.S. Congress didn’t see it that way. Even though Congress had pressed for recognition of Latin countries during Monroe’s time, Congress—namely southerners—wanted nothing to do with the Panama Congress, especially because many Latin states had outlawed slavery.

Eventually, the foot-dragging Congress authorized a couple of delegates, but one died en-route and the other arrived after the Panama Congress concluded, much to Adams’ embarrassment.

A worse conundrum for Adams was what to do about the collection of tribes in western Georgia known as the Creeks. It’s a complicated matter, but in summary, a small selection of Creeks had made an agreement in 1825 called the treaty of Indian Springs. However, not all of the Creeks agreed to the treaty (a frequent problem with treaties) and killed the man who had made the treaty. President Adams declared the treaty void. He obtained a new treaty with a broad representation of Creeks, with many of the same stipulations of the prior treaty. But Georgia’s governor objected, claiming the first treaty was still in effect. Adams called out federal troops, while the governor countered with state militia. Fearing a civil war, Adams backed down.

The Creeks were the ones who got shafted, as the governor moved to seize all of their lands; by the end of the decade they were gone from Georgia entirely—and Adams’ stock fell even further in the South.

But the worst disaster for Adams was the 1828 Tariff, also called the Tariff of Abominations, which was part of the American System. What the 1828 tariff did was to create a protectionist program that essentially touched most aspects of American life, including shipping, manufacturing and agriculture. Southern states, especially South Carolina—home of John C. Calhoun—were hurt because of the reduced market for southern cotton in Europe. (Calhoun would later rage against the tariff during Jackson’s administration.)

The tariff split Adams’ cabinet, probably irreparably. Clay was of course all for it. But combined with Jackson’s popularity throughout the South, the tariff cost Adams any remaining support he had in that part of the country.

By election year, Adams was damaged goods—but that doesn’t mean his case was hopeless: the economy was mostly strong, the country was at peace. The only problem was that he was John Quincy Adams, and his opponent was the ever-popular Andrew Jackson—and Jackson’s supporters were fired up like no one had seen since the Revolution.

1828: the dirtiest, nastiest campaign ever
The 1828 presidential election was the nastiest, dirtiest, most disgusting and vile campaign in American history—and it had been going on for four years.
Over the previous four years, the Jacksonians had done ever
ything they could to destroy Adams politically because of the 1824 election—and it was working. Now, they turned their attention to Adams personally.

The two candidates stayed out of it directly, as was the custom. (Candidates never campaigned during that age, beyond occasional speeches. Surrogates did most of the work.) But their allies and partisan newspapers let fly with some of the most revolting crud imaginable. Issues really weren’t debated. Lies, insults, charges, imaginings, hyperbole, flights of fancy were hurled back and fourth, lies that brought neither honor nor glory to either candidate, because neither man distanced himself from the junk being said on his behalf.

Some of the charges made by Jackson’s Democrats, none of which were true:
  • Adams had “pimped” for Czar Alexander I when he was minister to Russia
  • Adams bilked the government for far more money than necessary for diplomatic missions
  • Adams used public money to buy “gambling devices” (they were a chess set and a billiards table, which he purchased with his own money)
  • Adams “criminally” cost America Texas in the Adams-Onis treaty
Charges made by Adams’ National Republicans, the first two which weren’t true:
  • Jackson married his wife, Rachel, before she was divorced, making her a bigamist. (The Jacksons said it was a clerical error, as they believed she was divorced.) She died shortly after Jackson was inaugurated, and Jackson never forgave Adams for not speaking out against the slur.
  • Jackson’s mother was a prostitute and he was the son of a mulatto
  • While a general, Jackson massacred Indians, was exuberant in using death sentences in courts martial and dueled excessively. These had some validity, but were seen in the context of a larger effort to smear Jackson, so they didn’t stick.

None of the charges against Jackson stuck, but the ones against Adams were poison. But what made my jaw hit the floor was the willingness of both sides to make up anything—anything—to slime the other side. It’s really sickening, and it’s no different than the garbage that the committed left has been doing to George W. Bush since 2000. (The truth doesn’t matter—only what they can throw at him that sticks.)

Inevitable defeat
Adams, already known as a poor public speaker, wouldn’t campaign on his own behalf, even when given the chance. On one occasion, a crowd of well-wishers wanted some comments from the president. He said hello and goodnight. That was it. Such was Adams’ public presence.

Even though his programs worked, America faced no true enemies, the economy was growing, America was expanding, Adams was in serious trouble. The National Republicans were unorganized, while the Jackson Democrats held meetings and ran clubs all over the south, west and north. The Jackson press was relentless, and the Adams press could hardly keep up. Even when the Adams newspapers took the high road and argued issues, they couldn’t keep up.

In the end, the lack of organization and a sour, uninviting incumbent weighed against a highly organized and dynamic challenger foretold the end of the Adams presidency. The public, already sour on Adams, booted him from office.

Jackson held Adams personally responsible for the slurs against his wife, so the general never paid a courtesy call on Adams. Adams detested this breech of decorum. This sealed Adams’ bitterness against Jackson. And so, like his father, Adams became the only other president to not attend the inauguration of his successor.

Post-presidential success
Personally, Adams was a wreck. His father had died during his presidency, so he was left to carry fourth the Adams legacy. His hard-driving ways helped drive two of his sons to alcoholism, and suicide. (That’s a hard thing to write.) Only his son Charles would live up to the father’s demanding expectations (Charles would be a diplomat during the Civil War, instrumental in keeping Europe neutral, and his own son, Henry, would of course become the famous man of letters at the end of the century).

But much to his surprise and delight, Massachusetts in short order returned Adams to Washington as a congressman. It was there that Adams finally found his voice. The presidency was not his forte, but sparing in the well of the House was. Over the next two decades, Adams surprisingly became an antislavery champion, not because he was an abolitionist, but because he fought against the “gag” rules.

All Americans have the right to petition Congress, but Adams believed it a travesty that pro-slavery forces prevented slavery from even being discussed in Congress. From the time of his first election until 1844, Adams repeatedly railed against the gag rules (where petitions and motions on slavery were tabled and not discussed, hence “gagged”) until finally all gag rules were overturned.

Adams gained a popularity he never enjoyed while president. Biographer Remini suggests Adams did this partially to get back at everyone who treated him so roughly while he was president, and there seems to be some validity to it, but he also believed in what he was doing.

Adams, before never a great speaker, honed his speaking skills in Congress to such a great extent that he won the famous “Amistad” case at the Supreme Court in 1841. Africans kidnapped by Spanish traders
rebelled and killed most of the crew of the ship Amistad. The surviving crew members tricked the Africans into sailing to America. Spain declared the Africans to be slaves and demanded their return, but an initial trial held that they had been taken illegally and were therefore not slaves, but free.

The case went to the Supreme Court and Adams won—even though he hadn’t appeared before the court in more than 30 years. It was his finest hour.

Final Assessment

While reading about John Quincy Adams, I wondered if he was just a man ahead of his time. Many of the proposals he made in his first message to Congress—a national university, a national observatory, internal improvements, etc.—were things that would have found a much more receptive audience at a much later time.

Historians disagree on whether his presidency was a failure, or whether it was an unappreciated, qualified, partial success. Biographer Mary Hargreaves argues for the latter, with a lot of justification.

It’s not that Adams’ ideas or programs were bad. It’s that Adams himself was a political disaster—and that set him up for attack after attack, against which, by his own admission, he failed to respond. I’ve found that he had five things working against him that would make him a poor president no matter what the age:

  1. He was politically tone deaf—stone cold deaf. He could never appreciate the forces arrayed against him because of the arrangement that made him president.
  2. He refused to advocate for himself openly on the basis that it was beneath his dignity.
  3. He refused to dismiss people from the administration despite overwhelming evidence that they were actively working to undermine him.
  4. He had no understanding of politics and how it worked, despite being a diplomat and secretary of state. He didn’t learn this until he was a congressman. In this respect, having legislative experience would have greatly served Adams prior to being president.
  5. He wouldn’t fight back.
Personally, I’m glad to move on from Adams to Jackson. He wasn’t fun to read about until the end, in his Congressional career. Then I finally found something to cheer!

Final assessment: Mostly unsuccessful, and unpopular, but mainly because politically, he failed. (Had his programs not worked, I’d consider him a failure.)


A recognized authority on Andrew Jackson, Robert V. Remini, wrote The American Presidents entry on John Quincy Adams. He may seem a little partial to Jackson, but he understands Adams; while giving the brilliant statesman his due, Remini points out his numerous flaws and how they kept Adams from having what could have been a decent presidency.

Remini’s is a more personal account of Adams’ entire life. For a meatier account of Adams’ often overlooked presidency, read Mary W. M. Hargreaves, The Presidency of John Quincy Adams (1985) of the University of Kansas’ the American Presidency series. Hargreaves is kinder to Adams’ presidency than Remini.


1. John Quincy Adams, official White House portrait.

2. Adams sat for this portrait while in London at age 29. (Oil, 1796, by John Singleton Copley, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, from a gift of Mrs. Charles Francis Adams.)

3. A daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams, taken 20 years after he left the White House. Adams became
the first president to have his picture taken (but not while he was president). Public domain image.

4 and 5. Part of and an entire infamous “Coffin Handbill” from the 1828 election, used against Andrew Jackson. It was supposed to show how Jackson enthusiastically used executions in courts martial. Public domain image (U.S. only)

6. Composite of significant people in the Amistad story: (L to R) Margru, John Quincy Adams, Cinque and Roger Sherman Baldwin. Illustration courtesy of The Connecticut Historical Society.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Number 5: James Monroe

Years in office: 1817-1825
Pre-service occupations: soldier, diplomat, Confederation congressman, Virginia legislator and governor, U.S. senator, secretary of state (Madison), secretary of war (Madison)
Key events during his administration: acquisition of Florida (1819) and first Seminole war (1819); Missouri compromise (1820), Monroe Doctrine (1823); states admitted to the Union: Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), Alabama (1819), Maine (1820), Missouri (1821); Panic of 1819

Presidential rating:
Mostly successful and popular


On Christmas Day, 1776, George Washington led his army across the ice-clogged Delaware River to attack a Hessian force encamped at Trenton, New Jersey. The battle was more complicated than legend says—the Hessians weren’t caught in a drunken stupor—but Gen. Washington’s men achieved surprise and carried the day.

Only two Americans were wounded, both seriously. One was young Lieutenant James Monroe, shot in the shoulder while rushing an artillery battery. A doctor clamped his severed artery, which prevented his bleeding to death.

Lt. Monroe would return to the army in late 1777 in time to freeze at the infamous winter camp at Valley Forge. He would later fight in Washington’s solid victory at Monmouth Courthouse in 1778, and would leave the army for good as a colonel. Bitterly disappointed that he couldn’t obtain a field command, Monroe turned to politics in 1780, a path that lead him to the White House 36 years later.

James Monroe was the last man to become president as a hero of the
Revolution—as an officer of the line, not as a political, theoretical or rhetorical hero. But no other man connected with the Revolution itself—politician or soldier—ever attained the White House again.

Remembering Monroe
Monroe is the only president to be remembered primarily for a policy bearing his
name—a policy that is still in effect. The Monroe Doctrine, in biographer Gary Hart’s odd words, makes him our “first national security president.” But it’s by no means all there was to Monroe, or all that defines his era. Monroe lead the nation in a time that was mislabeled the “Era of Good Feelings” where westward expansion truly commenced, commerce started anew after the war—and the nation’s first economic depression set in following that war—and the nation shook with the first of many major convulsions over slavery.

It was a time when America first got cocky. After all, we had just defeated the world’s mightiest power—at least, we fooled ourselves into thinking that—and seemed, for a little while, invincible. The era did seem full of good feelings. And James Monroe seemed like the right man for the job to carry forward Democrat-Republican principles from the east coast to the ever-expanding west.

Congressional nomination
By 1816, James Monroe was one of the most qualified men in the country to be considered the next chief executive, if not the most. Governor, state legislator, congressman of the Confederation, senator, secretary of state, secretary of war, diplomat and foreign minister: he was indeed an amazingly well-rounded man. But the experience that counted most in men’s eyes was that prize of presidential appointments: secretary of state.

He was also well-known, thanks to his foreign adventures: he helped negotiate with Napoleon for Louisiana, and waged war and peace with Madison in the late conflict with England. But all was not well in his party. New Yorkers in particular weren’t keen at the thought of yet another Virginian becoming president. Purist Republican members of Congress held a caucus in early 1816, in hopes of choosing another candidate, but in another caucus among all Republican members a few days later, Monroe was selected. This had the dual effect of Monroe being selected by Congress to be the next president, thus “owing” his ascendancy to them, and also ensuring that Monroe would be the next president. The Federalist standard bearer, Rufus King, never actively campaigned, and Monroe swept to an easy victory.

A strong cabinet and one-party unity
Unlike his predecessor’s choices for officers, Monroe’s cabinet choices were superb. At state, he named John Quincy Adams of New England, a Federalist convert to Republicanism and famed not so much for his father but for his established skills as a diplomat. For war, he had asked Henry Clay, but Clay declined in a puff, mad that he wasn’t given State. (Clay would become his nemesis in Congress.) The post would go to John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. At treasury, Monroe retained Madison’s last secretary, William H. Crawford.

Monroe’s wish was to have a strong representative from each section of the nation in his cabinet, in part to have a voice from those sections—smart—but also because he wanted to continue Jefferson’s mission of burying the Federalists. Monroe wanted to return to the earliest days of America where there were no parties, and it seemed like an obtainable goal with the Federalists marginalized to New England.

Good feelings
The so-called “Era of Good Feelings” actually began shortly after Monroe’s inauguration. The new president embarked on an unprecedented—and never repeated—good-will tour around the Union. At first, he wanted to remain inconspicuous, and just visit coastal defenses as a pretext to building them up (a major hallmark of his presidency), but Republican well-wishers and ordinary citizens turned out wherever he went. Even Federalist New England received him well—a Connecticut newspaper editorialized that “The demon of [political] party for a time departed, and gave place for a general burst of National Feeling.” (Cunningham, p.36)

Monroe was not an eloquent speaker, or even a memorable one, unlike his predecessors in the presidency. But he could speak on the fly, and often responded with off-the-cuff or rapidly prepared speeches several times a week or even several times a day during his tour. He also became the first president to venture west of the Appalachians, traveling as far west as Detroit—which fit perfectly with his idea that the west was the future of America. (Keep in mind that, back then, the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys were the American west, with the Louisiana territory being considered the American desert.) The president visited the northeast and the northwest in 1817, and went on a second tour through the south and mid-western states and even the Cherokee nation in 1819. He was urged to make a third trip to visit New Orleans and western territories like Missouri, but the trips were exhausting, and he never went again.

Still, no other president has equaled Monroe’s goodwill travels, nor been so repeatedly enthusiastically received everywhere he went. (A president coming to town in those days was a once in a lifetime event, so naturally they were grand affairs.)

Headaches with General Jackson and Florida
The goodwill sparked by Monroe’s travels lasted for some time—even throughout the era, for there were no wars, and the major domestic political issues of the day were settled rather quickly when compared to the usual snail pace of matters in Washington. But the “Era of Good Feelings” masked some of the tensions of the period, which saw the smallest hint of a flexing of America’s muscle, now that she seemed, at last, free from the possibility of foreign interference.

Gen. Andrew Jackson, however, seemed determined to impose his will on the new president, Monroe’s policies be damned. Jackson, victor of the battle of New Orleans, commanded the southern department. Monroe and his secretary of war, James Calhoun, ordered Jackson to deal with the aggressive Seminole Indians in Florida. Florida was not yet a state and still belonged to Spain, except for a western segment that would eventually form the gulf segments of Alabama and Mississippi.

Jackson, however, “interpreted” his orders to pacify the Seminole to include eliminating those agitating the Indians: the Spanish. Against orders, Jackson advanced on and captured two Spanish forts and Spanish-held Pensacola, and executed two men he claimed were British agents. While Jackson’s actions actually did pacify upper Florida, they created an unwelcome diplomatic situation for the president. Jackson had already proven troublesome by refusing an order from the War Department until Monroe straitened out that matter; now he threatened to bring war with Spain.

Monroe and his party definitely wanted to add Florida to the Union (a goal of Jefferson’s, actually), but he wanted to do it legally and without war with Spain. Subsequent congressional investigations produced nothing. In a fascinating letter exchange between the president and Jackson, Monroe soften his dismay and rendered the matter a misunderstanding; Jackson, however, was miffed that he was even questioned. Monroe eventually dropped the matter because Jackson’s actions exposed Spain’s weakness in Florida and led directly to the Adams-Onis treaty (see the Monroe Doctrine below). Jackson, by the way, emerged more popular than ever.

Historians differ over who was at “fault” here: an ambiguous Monroe or an over-zealous Jackson. I’m inclined to think the latter, based on the letters exchanged between the two men, Monroe’s coolness and Jackson’s reputation for being a hothead.

An expedition into the wilderness
Florida was not the only region to lay in Monroe’s expansionist plans. He also looked to the west and upper west, and with the enthusiastic support of secretary of war Calhoun, he commissioned a joint military-scientific expedition to the mouth of the Missouri in 1819-1820. The idea was to both place a military presence in the Yellowstone region and begin mapping and recording the vast Louisiana territory beyond what Louis & Clark had done nearly 15 years earlier.

You’ve probably never heard of the Long expedition because things went wrong from the start: supply problems, steamboat troubles, money woes, death, and other concerns dogged the expedition so that in never came off as planned. In the end, the scientific arm of the expedition wound up reaching the mouth of the Platte, then cut south then back east. Despite being something of a fiasco, it nevertheless brought back a plethora of scientific data, maps, reports and diaries—and even excited the nation for a brief while. It’s a small feather in Monroe’s cap that has seemingly been lost to history.

The Panic of 1819 and presidential style
Monroe had a hands-on approach to his presidency, as proven by his involvement in the Long expedition (but not to the extent that Jefferson was in planning Lewis & Clark’s journey) and also in the written record of his communications with his department heads. Although Monroe was not brilliant like Jefferson or Madison, or commanding like Washington, he was able to have his way as president by seeking his cabinet’s opinion—or that of Congress—and then making his decision. Never one to act hastily, Monroe would gage all sides of an argument, often hearing contradictory advice from Adams, Calhoun and Crawford (his principle cabinet) and then acting. Although the Jeffersonian tradition was that the executive did not place direct pressure on Congress, Monroe’s department heads actually had a hand in writing legislation—which, of course, means that Monroe had a hand in moving Congress, however indirectly.

Sometimes, though, because of his style, he missed some of the signs. While the “era of good feelings” churned along, it was about to come to a crashing halt with the very first panic, or economic depression, in United States history. (There had been depressions in colonial history but this is the first for the nation itself.) President Monroe was caught somewhat off guard by this, as he either misread the warning signs while on his second tour in 1819, or was not fully informed by his cabinet officers of the seriousness of the situation. A scandal in the Second Bank of the United States was dealt with and that seemed to mitigate matters, but the Panic nevertheless came on in later 1819. It lasted into the next year, and interestingly enough, Monroe took little action to combat it other than to economize and make sure that the government remained fiscally solvent. (Can you imagine a president doing that today?)

Military crunch
Partially in response to the Panic of 1819 and partially because of the belief that America’s freedom was secure, Congress ordered a military cutback. Secretary of War Calhoun proved quite adept at meeting Congress’ demands, expertly crafting a military structure that was heavy on officers. His idea was that in time of war, the army would have plenty of officers, with only the easily trained private ranks needing to be filled.

Meanwhile, Monroe, based on his brief tenure as Madison’s secretary of war and perhaps his own army experience, was quite keen to build up America’s coastal fortifications. These projects were well underway until Congress cut off funding. Congress was less stingy with money for the navy, recognizing the need to protect American shipping from pirates, for example. Several major ships of the line and frigates were laid down during Monroe’s term.

The Compromise of 1820
The Panic of 1819 didn’t fully shatter the illusion of the Era of Good Feelings; something more sinister did. The admission of Missouri to the Union was proceeding normally until two northern congressmen introduced amendments stating that slavery be prohibited from any new state west of the Mississippi River. The issue of slavery, which had lay beneath open national discussion seemingly as part of a “gentleman’s agreement,” if you will, soon became the talk of the nation. For months, Congress considered no other business except Missouri, and discussion became incredibly heated.

The issue literally threatened to rend the nation. Representatives of slave states argued that congress had no business telling a state whether it could or could not have slavery. Free state representatives argued that Congress could indeed decide the terms on which a state could enter the Union. Monroe, for his part, did not directly enter the debate—believing it not the executive’s place to do so—but worked through his son-in-law, George Hay, to publish “anonymous” letters expressing his opinion. And that opinion was that Congress could not impose restrictions on a state’s entry where none had been imposed on any other. Contrary to some opinions, Monroe actually did make his presence felt directly in the debate, particularly with his close, informal contact with members of Congress, especially the Virginia delegation.

The president committed to veto any bill that placed restrictions on Missouri’s admission, so when Congress finally voted on a compromise, Monroe embraced it publicly. Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and no slavery would be permitted north of 36 degrees 30’ latitude.

Monroe, himself a slave owner and destroyer of a slave rebellion in 1800 in Virginia, was not happy with this sectional hostility, and blamed Federalists and extreme Democrat-Republicans.

Second term
But the Missouri Compromise actually had little effect on the presidential election that year. With the Federalists shrinking ever closer to oblivion, the dominant party, in absence of real opposition, naturally began to fracture. By the time Monroe sailed to an easy re-election in 1820 (there was no one who offered a serious challenge and he won an electoral landslide) the fractures were apparent.

Some members of Congress, including his House nemesis, Henry Clay, considered his presidency to have ended as soon as his second term started. The contraction of funds for the military, a sign of Monroe’s weakness during his second term, iwas tself a sign of the weakening cohesion of the Republican party founded by Jefferson and Madison. The fractioning of the Republicans left Monroe without a solid party base from which to draw strength; factions were forming around possible successors to Monroe. Even his own cabinet contained three possible strong contenders: Adams, Calhoun and Crawford at Treasury (his vice president, Daniel Tompkins, was a non-entity).

The question of succession often left Monroe isolated: He was at odds with Congress over military funding, Indian affairs and internal improvements. Monroe vetoed measures by Congress geared toward internal improvements, e.g. roads. He felt that such improvements were more the purview of the states instead of the federal government. He was also at odds with COngress over foreign policy. Congress thought Monroe’s policies were too timid—but Monroe had the experience to back up his policies, and he had John Quincy Adams on his side.

The “Monroe Doctrine”
Of all the actions that Monroe took during his eight years in office, none has had more lasting impact than the doctrine that bears his name. Few presidents, in fact, could make claim to having so enduring a legacy that is practical in nature.

The Monroe Doctrine was partially the brainchild of Monroe’s secretary of state, the accomplished Adams, but Monroe deservs the credit. It sprang from a complicated set of circumstances in Latin and South America and the Russian-controlled segment of North America. Many colonies rebelled against Spanish control, and Congress, led by Henry Clay, was itching to recognize them. Monroe wasn’t, but not because he didn’t sympathize. He just wanted to do it when he felt the time was right. Monroe wanted to make sure that Spain would ratify the Adams-Onis treaty ceding Florida to the United States and establishing the boundaries between the U.S. and Spanish possessions to the west.

Spain ratified the treaty in 1820, and the U.S. signed it in 1821. With the treaty signed, Congress stepped up pressure to recognize the colonies. Fearing that the mislabeled “Holy Alliance” of Spain and a few other European nations would send troops to suppress the revolutions, England proposed, through diplomatic channels, an alliance with America to stop this move.

After much consultation with his cabinet and his mentor friends, Monroe decided on a position. With Adams’ help, Monroe delivered what became known as the Monroe Doctrine in his December 1823 message to Congress. He stated that the United States would consider any interference in any American state by a European nation as a hostile act, and that the American continents were closed to colonization.

Congress and the public hailed the message; Europe, on the other hand, figuratively laughed—but no “Holy Alliance” armies came to reclaim the colonies, more because of England’s fleet than the declaration of the upstart American president.

The “Monroe Doctrine” was not actually labeled as such until two decades after Monroe’s death in 1831. While hailed in 1823 as a seminal event, it quickly faded over the excitement of the 1824 presidential election.

Indian policy
One last aspect of Monroe’s presidency deserves mention. In his final report to Congress (note: the same thing as the modern State of the Union address), Monroe proposed removing all Indian tribes to the west bank of the Mississippi. Previously, Monroe had advocated removal only if tribes agreed to exchanging land for land. Throughout his entire term, he resisted Georgia’s call to remove by force the Cherokees who refused to leave.

Monroe changed his mind about removal—but made no official policy and took no official action—because he thought that forced removal to western lands, and the introduction of schools and other “civilized” practices, would prevent their extermination. In a way, he was right. But it would be many decades before the United States adopted a policy toward making Indians actual citizens.

Exit Monroe
I won’t go into the details here of the election of 1824 or the “corrupt bargain” that elevated John Quincy Adams to the presidency (that’s for the next entry), except to say that, given how close Monroe was to two of the top four candidates (Adams and Crawford, with Calhoun destined to easily win the vice presidency), Monroe bowed out of any kind of participation.

His exit was graceful, and many a state legislature voted their thanks for his half-century of service to the nation. He left office in a dire financial condition, with Congress actually recompensing him more than $29,000 of a requested $53,000 for various services rendered, including two diplomatic missions and refurbishing the White House from his own funds. It would be many, many years before Congress would authorize a pension for presidents.

Final Assessment

James Monroe is one of the easiest presidents to write about. An unassuming, inoffensive man, Monroe was not a brilliant theorist like John Adams or James Madison. He wasn’t a charismatic, luminary like Washington, nor was he a dazzling speaker, writer and personality like Jefferson. What he was, however, was a hard working man who was fully aware of his limitations and worked well within those boundaries. Once he set his mind to a task, he accomplished it.

He wasn’t afraid to surround himself with brilliant men (Crawford, J. Q. Adams, Calhoun), seek the advice of his mentor friends (Jefferson and Madison) and reject their advice when he made his decisions. He had the courage of his convictions, and never appeared wishy-washy on anything.

He had a strong grasp of the Constitution, his executive powers and limits, and an equally strong grasp of foreign affairs. He was an excellent communicator in that he kept on top of letters, correspondence, orders, bills, etc. As a public speaker, though, he was unmemorable. Reading his speeches and letters is something of a chore, as they contain none of the soaring prose of Jefferson or insights of Adams (but run-on sentences that anticipate Faulkner.)

On the downside, Monroe was such a workaholic that he could often miss the forest for the trees. When on his tour in 1819, people were telling him that things were starting to go sour, but he was seemingly blindsided when the Panic hit. And the desire to bury the Federalists and fulfill Jefferson’s dream of “we are all Federalists; we are all Republicans” had the unintended effect of leaving him without a party to lead, as the party fractured by his second term—leaving him more isolated than engaged as the hunt was on for his successor.

One final note: The Monroe Doctrine has of course long since outlived its creator, and has been cited many times by presidents to justify actions almost to the present day. Critics have decried its use, saying it is justification for United States hegemony over the Western Hemisphere.

Final assessment: Monroe was mostly successful in his endeavors (though definitly not entirely), and popular throughout his two terms.


I must admit that I was wary about reading The American Presidents volume on James Monroe, because it’s written by uber-liberal and failed presidential wannabe Gary Hart. I’d heard that Hart used this book to attack George W. Bush. Well, that proved to be true, but it was a small portion of Hart's book. But that's not why I dislike it. The volume is easily the weakest in The American Presidents series, because Hart goes to great pains to remind the reader that Monroe created the Monroe Doctrine—like, repeatedly, and several times, and over and over. What in the world possessed series editor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to commission Gary Hart to write this volume? If Hart wanted to write a book about just the Monroe Doctrine and the mind behind it, and make the case that Monroe was the first "national security president"—a notion I find intriging but somewhat forced—he succeed. But in the process of making his thesis he sidelines everything else in Monroe’s presidency.

Superior resources to Hart’s misplaced volume are Noble E. Cunningham’s The Presidency of James Monroe (1996) of the University of Kansas’ presidents series—this was my primary resource—and Harry Ammon’s James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity (1990).


1. James Monroe painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1817, while on his first tour of the Union. (public domain image)

2. Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by Emanuel Leutze. Original in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In this highly fanciful painting, James Monroe is depicted holding the flag right behind George Washington. (public domain image)

3. James Monroe painted by Samuel F.B. Morse. Official White House Collection (White House Historical Association)

4. Map of the Adams-Onis Treaty. See here for rights for the map.

5. Monroe lies in state in the House of Representatives, the same place where he was sworn into office in 1821. (Library of Congress image)

6. Monroe’s final resting place in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va. Originally he was buried with family in New York, but was moved here in 1858. (Library of Congress image)

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Number 4: James Madison

Years in office: 1809-1817
Pre-service occupations:
Virginia state legislator, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, U.S. Congressman, Secretary of State (Jefferson administration)
Key events during his administration: War of 1812 (1812-1815), battle of Tippecanoe (1811), Second Barbary Pirate War (1815), Bank of the United States re-chartered (1816), Louisiana (1811) and Indiana (1816) admitted to the Union, annexation of western Florida (1810)

Presidential rating:
Mixed (but ultimately successful on the war), and mixed on popularity


Oh, say can you see
By the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed
By the twilight’s last gleaming…

Most people undoubtedly don’t realize it, but every time they sing the national anthem, they’re invoking the war that James Madison started and nearly lost—a war that, if it had been lost, would have meant the end of the United States of America before its 30th birthday.

But the war was won, and James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” brilliant constitutional defender amid a trio of anonymous authors, and drafter of the Bill of Rights, has gone down in history as a great man instead of a great failure. It’s fascinating to behold how Madison was so book smart, but when it came to putting theory into practice, he very nearly lost the country he helped create.

However, looking at Madison that way fashions a two-dimensional portrait of brilliant thinker/incompetent president. But he wasn’t incompetent. It’s just that being president wasn’t quite his forte.

Early political career
Naturally, most Americans associate James Madison with the Constitution, The Federalist and the Bill of Rights. His presidency seems to have taken second place—or even have been forgotten. And the War of 1812 is remembered primarily for Francis Scott Key’s poem and its accompanying, hard-to-sing drinking song, and for the battle Andrew Jackson fought after the war had ended. It’s unfortunate, too, because his presidency, while in of itself was nothing spectacular, was critical to the nation because of that war.

But let’s look first at Madison’s early career. Biographer Gary Wills zeros in on specific points that would later play key roles in his presidency. For example, Madison was a terrific organizer, having observed his father’s diligent and careful planning and organizational skills while master of his Virginia plantation. When Madison was elected to the chaotic 2nd Constitutional Congress (after a stint in the Virginia legislature), he brought calm and collected order of the likes they hadn’t seen before.

Following the war, Madison joined with “conspirators” to “amend” the weak Articles of the Confederation. He was instrumental in securing George Washington’s participation, which lent the secret Constitutional Convention its air of authenticity. Madison brought his exceptional mind and organizational skills to the convention, and later, he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton in a brilliant series of essays to convince New Yorkers to accept the Constitution. Those anonymous essays, when joined with John Jay’s pieces, would constitute The Federalist, still the most powerful defense of the Constitution.

A curious bit about Madison’s ideas is that he wanted the federal government to have the authority to veto any state’s law. This never got out of the starting gate, and Madison was adamant, for personal reasons, that his proposal remained secret until he was dead. But it’s interesting to see how in modern America, Madison’s proposal has pretty much come to fruition—sometimes through Congress, and sometimes through the Supreme Court. (Does anyone doubt that Roe v. Wade was a “veto” of all state laws concerning abortion?)

The wishful thinker
Madison would soon fall out with Hamilton and later Washington and fell in with Jefferson. And when I say “fell in,” he became party to Jefferson’s monarch scare, believing Hamilton, Adams and the arch-Federalists as seeking to bring about a new monarchy in America. It’s a pity, really, because it lead Madison to reverse himself on his constitutional arguments simply to thwart first Washington and later the Federalists.

And herein lay Madison’s biggest problem, one that would cause him much grief as president. Madison was prone to pounce on events that verified what he wanted to happen, or thought were happening, without first verifying that they were in fact happening. In other words, Madison had a bad case of wishful thinking.

Madison—brilliant legislator, excellent theorist, skillful defender of the government he was instrumental in creating—was nevertheless naïve when it came to dealing with political and international opponents. He was more prone to believe what should be than what was, the fiction over the reality, the proposed over the accepted, the fantasy over the fact.

More than any other factor, wishful thinking sadly explains why the United States went to war with England in 1812. (Historians don’t fully agree, but I find Wills’ explanation persuasive.)

The heir apparent
In modern America, the surest path to the White House is first through a state house. Four of the last five presidents have been governors (Carter in Georgia, Reagan in California, Clinton in Arkansas and G. W. Bush in Texas). But in the first several decades of the Republic, the office of the secretary of state was seen as the path to the presidency. Jefferson was Adams VP but he was also Washington’s secretary of state. Madison was Jefferson’s man at State. Later in Madison’s presidency, Monroe would serve at State (and also for a time at War); Monroe’s successor at State would also be his presidential successor, John Quincy Adams.

By serving as secretary of state throughout Jefferson’s entire presidency, Madison all but guaranteed he would become the next president. That’s not to say that he and Jefferson agreed on everything; but the two were of mind enough that Madison sailed to an easy election victory in 1808, despite the failure of the embargo.

The embargo imbroglio and a bad start
The troubles with the British Empire didn’t end in 1783. They simmered throughout the first three administrations. Rather than resort to war over impressments of American sailors, President Jefferson accepted Secretary of State Madison’s advice to place an embargo on all exports to Europe on the theory that European markets would suffer without American raw materials. The embargo largely backfired: Europe hardly noticed, while American markets suffered.

Jefferson, and more importantly, Madison, stubbornly clung to the policy, even convincing themselves that it was working. It was hugely unpopular, especially in Federalist-controlled New England. Jefferson even had to resort to using the army and navy to enforce the embargo. Toward the end of his term, when Jefferson figuratively walked away from his presidency, Madison still maintained hope that the embargo would make England come to her senses. But Congress had other ideas, and lifted the embargo on all but England and France at the end of Jefferson’s presidency.

The new president still believed that this non-confrontational approach would win the day against England—and that he could avoid resorting to guns. Coupled with fights within the Republican party, and his belief that he could use commerce to force England to back down, Madison made uninspired cabinet choices at State, War and Navy. All three were, in fact, dangerously incompetent. The only top-notch high cabinet member was his real choice for state, Albert Gallatin, who went to Treasury instead.

In addition to his lousy cabinet choices, he was encumbered with an opposition vice president during his first term: George Clinton, a purist Democrat-Republican and ally of Randolph, who had broken with Jefferson over the latter’s “overbearing” uses of executive power. Clinton would work against Madison; in the Senate, when a tie-breaking vote was needed, he would vote against the administration. In addition, the split in the Republican party meant that Gallatin was left in the Treasury while a compromise man, the hapless Robert Smith, bungled through State (until he was succeeded by the much superior James Monroe in 1811).

To make matters worse, Madison balked on the army’s senior officer, a scoundrel named James Wilkinson, who had been a thorn in Jefferson’s side and supposedly a plotter with Aaron Burr to form a new country in the west. Gen. Wilkinson was not competent, and would cause much grief for America when the war came. But Madison bears much blame because when even though he ordered Wilkinson’s court martial in 1811 for dereliction of duty, he wound up exonerating the general in part because of favors he and Jefferson owed him from the previous administration during the trial of Burr!

In fact, his presidency seemed to drift along for the first two years, from 1809-1810, while he searched for a non-violent solution to British and French meddling in American shipping—including reviving some version of the embargo.

National bank blues

The bank of the United States was set to expire in 1811, a fact that actually upset both Madison and Gallatin—though you wouldn’t think that about Madison, considering he was a Republican and had become so in part over opposition to Hamilton, creator of the fiscal policies that the Jeffersonians so abhorred. Jefferson and his fellow Republicans, including Madison at that time, adamantly argued that a federal bank was unconstitutional. But President Madison privately said—rather lamely—his sound arguments had been rendered inapplicable by long usage (see Wills, p. 76; Madison’s reasoning promoted this acid remark from Wills: Unconstitutional things become constitutional if accepted as such?”)

It was a curious and odd reversal for Madison; perhaps he finally understood the wisdom of having a central bank instead of having the government borrow from several state institutions. Gallatin was a supporter, but, again, oddly, when the secretary went to Congress seeking re-authorization, Madison failed to publicly support him. The national bank died—and would be sorely missed when the war came. Gallatin and his successor tried and eventually succeeded in getting Congress to recreate a national bank, but such an institution would not become a permanent fixture until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

Instigating the War of 1812: Madison, Congress or the people?

It’s not my intention to re-fight the War of 1812. An excellent summary of the course of the war can be found here. For book readers, I recommend the recently released 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman. I’m more interested in why Madison got into this war and how it was ended.

Historians disagree on this point. Some Madison scholars, like Robert Allen Rutland (The Presidency of James Madison, 1990), conclude that Madison was riding the currents of popular war sentiment among the public and Congress and couldn’t stop it even if he wanted to. Not so, says Wills, who argues that Madison, through a combination of his own naivety and mechanizations with his new secretary of state, James Monroe, and Rep. Henry Clay, brought on the war with England. I find Wills more persuasive.

There are, ultimately, two things that brought on this war. The first was bungled diplomacy and Madison’s being suckered by Napoleon. The second was the lure of the prize of Canada.

Diplomatic conundrum and Bonaparte’s sucker punch

The Jefferson-Madison embargo had failed, but Madison still had faith in it. England’s minister to America gave the new president a mistaken impression that it had in fact worked. Madison pursued a policy of “nonintercourse” with England and France until 1810, when Congress passed a truly strange act (Macon Act 2), which stated that America would resume trading with England and France until one country or the other recognized America’s neutrality. At that time, America would trade exclusively with that country alone and be hostile with the other!

Napoleon tricked Madison into believing that he was accepting the offer, even though he was doing no such thing. Madison rescinded nonintercourse against France and resumed it against England, while England had actually revoked the Order of Councils against America. Madison had pounced on the first inkling of a solution rather than waiting for the situation to develop. Napoleon, whose “continental system” forbade any trade with England, would have no problem with another belligerent against England—even though his ships still helped themselves to American vessels. But England, which was actually smarting because of the tremendous pressures from Napoleon and the loss (until after 1812) of timber from Spain and Russia, decided getting at Napoleon through America wasn’t worth it.

But by the time England had rescinded its Orders of Council in the summer of 1811, Madison had already turned his thoughts to war. In November, Madison asked Congress to prepare for war, and Congress responded by authorizing a 25,000-man army but (much to Jefferson’s delight) no increase in the Navy.

England’s newest minister to America, however, arrived that winter and warned Madison that if nonintercourse continued, England would retaliate commercially. But Madison soon droped a bombshell: letters from a Canadian “spy” that supposedly proved Canada was inciting a rebellion in New England. The letters were later proven false, but the damage was done. War fever grew against England—and also France, which continued to go after American shipping.

But Madison has his sights set on England, and in the summer of 1812, asked Congress to declare war. Even one final tepid try at an embargo couldn’t stop this war.

Oh, Canada!
Historians have long argued whether we actually sought to conquer Canada to add it to the Union. As far as Madison was concerned, though, he eyed Canada as a bargaining chip: take the “weakly defended” Canada then dangle it before England. This was actually a stark reversal for Madison. Throughout the Jefferson embargo and his own presidency’s attempts, Madison deliberately downplayed Canada’s importance to England. But now, he reasoned that the empire, fighting for its life against Napoleon, would cease the outrages against American ships in order to once more get raw goods from America and Canada.

At least, that was the idea.

The American invasion of Canada went badly. Without getting into details, the incompetence of American generals such as Wilkinson, Dearborn and others was stunning. The belief that Canada was a low-lying fruit ripe for plucking, reliance on untrained and squabbling militia, widely scattered U.S. forces, and lack of a coherent plan doomed the U.S. effort. Madison wanted Canada taken in 1812. Instead, Britain’s Canadian and Indian forces delivered one humiliating defeat after another — when American generals weren’t busy defeating themselves.

The only bright spot for America in 1812 was the exploits of the Navy’s handful of frigates—the very ships that Jefferson and Madison had opposed during Washington and Adams’ administrations—which delivered spectacular victories. (For example, the USS Constitution earned her moniker, Old Ironsides, while taking out the HMS Guerriere.)

England decided to adopt a defensive stance in America in 1812-13 because of Napoleon. Utterly. That held off American defeat, as well as American actions on the Great Lakes, especially Oliver Hazard Perry’s Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813, and William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson’s land battles in the west in 1813-14.

The regular U.S. army finally came into its own in 1814 and reversed the humiliations of the early defeats. Better generals, including Winfield Scott and Jacob Brown, trained and led armies to standoffs or outright victories in upper New York and the Niagara region, so much so that the British were worried enough to send a diversionary force—to the American capital.

Capital humiliation

Aug. 24, 1814, for some reason, is not a day of infamy in American
history. Few people, it seems, remember it. Far more people unwittingly remember the bombardment the following month of Fort McHenry protecting Baltimore, thanks to our national anthem, than they do the sacking and burning of our nation’s capital.

Why did Washington burn? Why did Madison ultimately fail to protect Washington? It’s not simple, and to fully explain it would take several scroll-down pages of text. But I’ll use Gary Wills’ four points to summarize the reasons:

1. Lack of (military) intelligence. When your commanding general and secretary of war are themselves scouting enemy positions, you have a serious problem.

2. Lack of a clear command structure. This actually had been plaguing the entire war effort from the start, and the fault was squarely Madison’s and his first hapless secretary of war, Eustis.

3. Military appointments made based on politics, not merit. In other words, the Jeffersonian aversion to a standing, professional army that was not beholden to politics hut us badly in this war.

4. Over-reliance on militias. We romanticize militias coming at the beck and call when danger arises, but when these untrained farmers and clerks faced a hardened British force that had been fighting Napoleon for more than a decade, they fled—fast.

By contrast, Baltimore had none of these problems, and used engineers trained at the new West Point academy. That’s why Washington fell and Baltimore didn’t. It’s why things started going much better in Canada in 1814, and Washington was a disaster.

The problem is, across the Atlantic Ocean, not all of this was clear yet.

Peace commission

A weakened President Madison won re-election in 1812 despite the debacles in Canada. His challenger was DeWitt Clinton, an arch-Republican and relative of his late vice president, who had died that spring. (Federalists didn’t even bother with a candidate and threw support behind Clinton.)

Perhaps the failures in Canada unnerved him, perhaps he was having serious second thoughts, but Madison authorized a peace commission, sponsored by Russia, to negotiate with England. Albert Gallatin (now no longer secretary of Treasury) and James A. Bayard joined John Quincy Adams, then minister to Russia, to begin mediated negotiations in St. Petersburg. The trouble was that because of the failure of Canada, and the fact that America had no fleet to speak of, England was the stronger party.

Those negotiations fell through, but they got a second life in Ghent, Belgium, and included Henry Clay and Jonathon Russell, and no longer had a mediator. Meanwhile, in late 1813, Madison once more re-instated his favorite weapon: an embargo against all imports and exports of all products of British origin—from anywhere.

New England sits out the war
In the current war on Islamic terror, liberals have all but opted out. They derisively label the war—especially Iraq—as Bush’s war. This isn’t without precedent.

During Madison’s time, an entire section of the nation refused to participate. New England never sent any militia. Massachusetts city councils condemned the war. In October 1814, a council of New England states met to air grievances against the federal government, mainly the president, because it was their livelihood more than anyone else’s that was being severely hurt by the war and successive embargos. Not for nothing was the War of 1812 also dubbed “Mr. Madison’s War.”

The conventioneers even talked of seceding from the Union, but it never went beyond agitated talk. Eventually, the Hartford Convention sent a list of watered-down grievances to President Madison that nevertheless drew scorn from the rest of the nation and further sealed the fate of the already-dwindling Federalists.

Peace and Madison resurgent

When the allied forces finally knocked out Napoleon in 1814 (albeit temporarily), both England and Madison knew that the empire could turn greater attention to America.

England’s ministers’ initial peace proposal at Ghent was an arrogant affair that, at first, it seemed, America was in no position to debate: give up a buffer zone between the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, sealing America from those waterways, and surrender a large portion of t he Northwest to create an Indian nation. But England’s Lord Castlereagh fortunately softened the terms, recognizing rightly that England was incredibly tired of war.

What’s more, when word arrived of American successes in New York, Niagara and the west, Wellington, brilliant victor of the long and incredibly tough war on the Iberian peninsula (and in a year, over Napoleon himself), declared that further fighting there would be fruitless.

Better terms were arranged—this times with Americans giving in—and the Treaty of Ghent was signed in December of 1814. Of course, as any good student of American history knows, Andrew Jackson won the famous battle of New Orleans in January 1815 after the war ended but a few weeks before word of the treaty reached America.

Despite the sourness of New England and the ashes of Washington, Madison was riding high on the successful conclusion of the war. Successful, in that the United States survived, and British (and French) impressments finally ceased.

Canada never entered the American fold in any way, shape or form; but western Florida did. And in the west and southwest, William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson had defeated, respectively, Tecumseh and the Creeks, further securing lands to the west. Jackson also completed the “conquest” of west Florida, which had begun before the war.

The war’s ultimate outcome and Madison’s legacy
What had been gained? One major unintended, but critical consequence: a major sense of national identity emerged from the war. America felt a rush of power—largely illusionary, to be sure—at having beaten, at least on paper, the world’s greatest power (now that Napoleon was gone). The next 10 years was the so-called “Era of Good Feelings,” which began with the euphoria of the war’s end. Even the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which heralded the beginning of the next great crisis that wasn’t to end until the great civil war, couldn’t dampen the newfound spirit.

Republican Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, 0a Madison appointee, argued that the war was a triumph for Republicanism. The war certainly made it seem that way, as Madison enjoyed a smooth final year in office, for once unmarred by fighting in his cabinet. He was popular, and his chosen successor, James Monroe, easily squashed his challenger in the election of 1816.

But the war was by no means a triumph of pure Jeffersonian principles. The central government was strengthened. A standing army and navy were both greatly strengthened, and the national bank once more became reality. American manufacturing became more critical—making war supplies, of course—and took deeper root in the nation’s fabric. America had struck against a powerful foreign adversary not through diplomacy but through force of arms. Madison was calling for a national system of roads to connect all regions of the country. And the Federalists, even though they should have agreed with those developments in spirit, shrank even further to oblivion.

Thus is Madison’s legacy—none of which was a stated objective for going to war with England, of course. But there’s another part of his legacy that must be recognized. Madison was an excellent wartime president as far as the Constitution was concerned. When compared to Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Madison did nothing that seriously stretched the Constitution or violated civil liberties (I’m reserving judgment on George W. Bush for later). For example, when New England states refused to fight, Madison didn’t make them. He also carefully followed the Constitution prescription for war, making sure that Congress declared war and that he himself didn’t force it on Congress.

Finally, Madison also probably never realized it, but the American mainland would not be seriously threatened by an enemy for more than 150 years. The oceans would keep us “safe” until one fiery September day.

Dolley Madison
I’d be remiss in talking about James Madison if I failed to mention his extraordinary wife, Dolley. She’s generally thought of as the first first lady. More so than Martha Washington or Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison created the role of White House hostess, even though the title of first lady was not widely used until much later in the century. She served as unofficial hostess for the widowed President Jefferson then fulfilled the role for her own husband.

When British marines closed in on Washington, Dolley Madison secured precious state documents, including the unfinished Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and the official diary of the Constitutional Convention.

(Note: It’s a common mistake, but Dolley Madison was the first lady; Dolly Madison is the pastry brand.)

Final Assessment
Writing about James Madison the president is not an easy thing to do. Most of the troubles of Madison’s presidency came from the president himself, including his naïve wishful thinking and his tendency to seek an intellectual solution rather than a realistic one. The uninspired and unfocused first two years of his presidency—the lousy cabinet choices, pressing for another embargo, etc.—coupled with his personality quirks help set the nation up for a war it was not prepared for.

Madison wasn’t that great of a president, but he was a steady one. The president was certainly culpable for those incompetent cabinet choices—more importantly, keeping them on, once the battle was joined—and the utter lack of real direction in the early stages of the war. But Madison rose to the occasion, and corrected his deficiencies. He never panicked.

He merits a successful rating because of the simple fact that the War of 1812 was won—amazingly so—and the United States emerged a stronger nation because of it. Madison himself left office quite popular. Historians generally rank Madison right in the middle: average.

But Madison probably wouldn’t care what kind of ranking I or anyone else put on him, as long as we acknowledged that he accomplished what he set out to do with every public office he held: union. Biographer Rutland explains:

“As president, Madison labored—as he had when he first entered the Continental Congress in 1789—to maintain the spark of freedom he had first seen lit in 1775. His first duty as president, he believed, was to maintain the Union, for national unity was essential if liberty’s flame was to be kept burning.”

Indeed. And in that regard, President Madison performed admirably. Even though we don’t remember him for his presidency or “Mr. Madison’s War,” but as the Father of the Constitution, President Madison faithfully fulfilled his oath of office to defend the nation and preserve the very Constitution he helped create.


Surprisingly, there aren’t too many modern, full-length biographies on Madison. The best remains Ralph Ketchem’s James Madison: A Biography (1971), still considered the standard on his entire life.

Also highly useful is Gary Wills’ entry on James Madison in The American Presidents series. It was quite good, because Wills examined key themes from Madison’s pre-presidential career in Virginia, the Continental Congress, the constitutional convention and the three previous administrations as to how they related to his own presidency. Another good resource is The Presidency of James Madison (1990) by Robert Allen Rutland, from the University of Kansas’ The American Presidency series.

You can also read Henry Adams’ classic The History of the United States: During the Administrations of Madison (1889-1891), which has held up rather well, although Adams, a fan of Jefferson, portrays Madison as a weak and vacillating president who was not up to the task.

Illustration credits:
1) James Madison, painting by Chester Harding
2) James Madison, official portrait
3) A Boxing Match, or Another Bloody Nose for John Bull, contemporary cartoon, Library of Congress collection
4) Battle of Lake Erie by William Henry Powell, United States Senate collection
5) Contemporary print of the burned Presidential Mansion, 1814, Library of Congress collection
6) Dolley Madison print, Library of Congress collection