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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
1) James Madison, painting by Chester Harding
2) James Madison, official WhiteHouse.gov 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