Friday, 10 January 2014

James Madison

James Madison (1751-1836), fourth president of the United States (1809-1817) and one of its founding fathers. In a distinguished public career that covered more than 40 years, he worked for American independence, helped to establish the government of the new nation, and went on to participate in that government as congressman, secretary of state, and ultimately president. Madison’s work on the Constitution of the United States gave him his best opportunity to exercise his great talents and is generally considered his most valuable contribution. His intense concern for religious and intellectual freedom led him to seek the strongest possible safeguards of individual liberty. More than any other person, Madison can be considered responsible for making the Bill of Rights part of the Constitution.
Madison was the eldest child of James and Eleanor Conway Madison. He later characterized his forebears in these terms: “In both the paternal and maternal line of ancestry [they were] planters and among the respectable though not the most opulent class.” He was born on March 16, 1751, in the home of his maternal grandmother and stepgrandfather, on the Rappahannock River near what is now Port Conway, Virginia. Shortly after the christening, his mother brought him to his father’s estate in nearby Orange County, Virginia, where he grew up. Madison later inherited his father’s estate, Montpelier, and lived there the rest of his life.
Like most plantation children of colonial times, young James received his earliest schooling at home, probably largely from his grandmother, Mrs. Frances Taylor Madison. When he was about 12, he was enrolled in the school of Donald Robertson in King and Queen County. After “three or four years” with Robertson, he studied for “a year or two” under the Reverend Thomas Martin and in 1769 enrolled in the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).
Already well prepared in the classics, Madison concentrated on the study of history, government, and public law. He found considerable revolutionary sentiment stirring at the college and became a leading member, although probably not a founder as is sometimes claimed, of the American Whig Society, a club greatly interested in discussing current public controversies. In 1771 he received his degree and, after some months of postgraduate study, returned home to Virginia.
From 1772 to 1775, Madison remained in his father’s home at Montpelier in poor health, convinced that he would not have a long life. It has been suggested that he suffered from hypochondria, a condition in which he experienced the symptoms of a disease but none was diagnosed. Uncertain about a career, he devoted his time to extensive reading in literature, theology, and law. Before long a growing interest in political and religious freedom led him into a serious study of public law and of the forms and principles of government. He wrote a friend early in 1774 of the change in his tastes. He used to have, he wrote, “too great a hankering after those amusing studies. Poetry, wit, and criticism, romances, plays, etc., captivated me much; but I begin to discover that they deserve but a small portion of a mortal’s time, and that something more substantial, more durable, more profitable, befits a riper age.”
By the spring of 1774, when the colonies were deep in protest against British domination, Madison was emerging from his long period of isolation and melancholy. He felt that his health was returning and with it a zest for taking part in the events that were absorbing so many able people of the time. His own position was already clear. He was committed to republican government and to separation of the American colonies from Great Britain.
In December 1774 Madison was elected a member of Orange County’s committee of safety, which exercised certain governmental functions as provided by the Continental Congress, a council of 12 of the 13 colonies. The committee was also responsible for local defense. Madison wrote at the time: “We are very busy at present in raising men and providing the necessaries for defending ourselves.”
In 1776 Madison was elected a delegate to the Virginia constitutional convention. Madison later wrote that, being young and inexperienced, he played only a small part in the proceedings. He was much too modest, for he served on the committee that prepared a declaration of rights and he drafted a plan of government for the new state. At this time he worked closely with Virginia legislator Thomas Jefferson in a great effort to establish religious freedom as a part of Virginia law. Madison wrote the article of the declaration of rights that asserted the right of all “to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” However, it was not until 1786 that, through Madison’s leadership, the Virginia legislature enacted Jefferson’s monumental Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.
When the Virginia constitution went into effect in June 1776, Madison, along with the other delegates to the convention, became a member of the legislature, the General Assembly. The following spring, however, he failed to be reelected by his Orange County constituents. His refusal to indulge the people’s expectation to be wooed with whiskey for their votes is generally blamed for Madison’s loss of the election.
A year later, although he did not seek the office, he was returned to the assembly. In the meantime he had been appointed to the governor’s council. Madison gained valuable experience in practical government while he was serving on the council, although he characterized this administrative body as being “the grave of all useful talents.”
A Member of the Continental Congress
In December 1779 Madison was elected to the Continental Congress. He took his seat with the Virginia delegation in March 1780, just four days after his 29th birthday. He was not only the youngest man in Congress but at the beginning probably the least imposing. He was slight, reserved, and hesitant in taking the floor to speak. But these drawbacks did not prevent his making a speedy and accurate appraisal of the condition of the country, and after the first few months he assumed a leading role in Congress.
In 1781 major hostilities with Britain came to an end, and the independence of the United States was assured. However, there was still much to be decided regarding the new nation’s form of government and its relations with its neighbors. Madison favored strengthening the central government by giving it the power to enforce its financial requisitions on the states and to levy import duties. He led the fight in support of Virginia’s claims to western territories. In negotiations with Spain over navigational rights on the Mississippi River, he urged firmness against Spain’s demands for control of all shipping upon it. When Madison left Philadelphia at the end of 1783, he had established himself as an able and farsighted politician.
Before leaving Congress for home, Madison suffered a deep personal disappointment. He had fallen in love with Catherine Floyd, the young daughter of another congressional delegate. In April 1783 he wrote to Jefferson that he had “sufficiently ascertained her sentiments.” He hoped to be married at the end of the year. But Miss Floyd broke the engagement, and Madison returned to Montpelier for a solitary winter of reading and study.
B State Assemblyman
In the spring of 1784 Madison again ran for election to the Virginia assembly, and won. He served nearly three years there, pursuing the same objectives he had fought for in Congress. He advocated strengthening the federal government, which was an unpopular position in Virginia, as it was in most of the states. He consistently supported measures, at both state and national levels, that would best safeguard the rights of the individual. Madison also continued to oppose any connection between church and state. He wrote a brilliant objection against a proposed assessment for support of the Anglican Church in Virginia. He succeeded not only in defeating the assessment, but in winning passage of Jefferson’s bill for religious liberty, which had been rejected in 1779.
Madison was also greatly concerned about the problem of regulating commerce between the states. He was largely responsible for calling a conference between Maryland and Virginia to discuss navigation rules for the Potomac River, the border between the two states. The discussions failed because other states on the river were not represented. Madison and his supporters then proposed a resolution in the Virginia assembly inviting all the states to meet to discuss the question of uniform commercial regulations. The meeting was held in September 1786 in Annapolis, Maryland.
Madison saw a grave danger to national unity in the conflicting interests that dominated the different regions and states after the struggle against Britain. He believed that uniform rules should be established among the states to govern trade and commercial relations, and he felt that only the federal government could effectively enforce these rules. Madison and many others strongly believed that the Articles of Confederation, the legal framework under which the national government was operating, should be amended to expand the powers of Congress. But he was pessimistic about winning support for amending the Articles at the Annapolis Convention.
Madison attended the Annapolis Convention as a delegate from Virginia. Only four other states sent representatives. It was agreed to call another convention of all the states, this time to draw up a national constitution. The Virginia assembly unanimously approved the new convention, which was scheduled to be held in Philadelphia in May 1787, and Madison was named one of the delegates.
In February 1787 Madison returned briefly to Congress, primarily, he said, to preserve American access to the Mississippi River. He did help to halt the negotiations with Spain, which had taken a direction that would have led to the cession of American navigational rights which the United States had on the Mississippi.
C Father of the Constitution
C1 Constitutional Convention
Madison was one of the first delegates to arrive in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention, three weeks before the convention opened. He came equipped with two papers he had written earlier that spring, a Study of Ancient and Modern Confederacies; and Vices of the Political System of the United States, drawn from his comprehensive reading and his eleven years of experience in government. When his fellow delegates from Virginia arrived, Madison was ready to outline for them his plan of government.
Madison proposed a government with strong central powers, including a national judiciary and an elected national executive, and with authority to veto legislation of individual states. Primarily he sought to provide the central government “with positive and complete authority in all cases which require uniformity” and to prevent abuse of this authority by making the government responsible to the people. He favored a two-chamber legislature and a system of representation that would give the larger states an influence in proportion to their size.
Madison’s ideas were presented to the convention by Virginia’s Governor Edmund Randolph, in the so-called Virginia Plan or Large-State Plan. The Small-State Plan, urging equal representation in Congress for all states regardless of population, was proposed by New Jersey. Madison became the leading spokesman for the Virginia Plan and, despite strong opposition, for the Virginia delegation also.
The convention compromised between the Virginia and New Jersey plans: the states would be represented according to size in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, but would have equal voting power in the upper chamber, the Senate. This represented a defeat for Madison. He feared government by a minority and foresaw that the small states would be able to wield disproportionate power.
Madison kept a detailed journal of the convention’s proceedings. He had been in constant attendance, and this Journal of the Federal Convention, published in 1840, is the most complete record of the historic meeting. “It happened,” he remarked, “that I was not absent a single day, nor more than a fraction of an hour in any day, so that I could not have lost a single speech unless a very short one.” His purpose was to preserve “the history of a Constitution on which would be staked the happiness of a people great even in its infancy, and possibly the cause of liberty throughout the world.”
In the year following the Constitutional Convention, Madison worked to get the new Constitution accepted. In Congress his efforts helped defeat attempts to amend the Constitution and speeded its referral to the states for ratification. Also, while in New York with the Congress, Madison made plans with fellow constitutional supporters Alexander Hamilton and John Jay for a series of articles explaining and defending the Constitution. These were published in the newspapers with the aim of counteracting the attacks that had been launched against the Constitution in the nation’s press.
C2 The Federalist
The first of these articles, later known collectively as The Federalist, was published in October 1787. Over the next ten months, the first 77 of the 85 separate essays appeared in newspapers in New York and other localities over the signature “a Citizen of New York” and, later, “Publius.” Madison is usually credited with the authorship of at least 26 of them.
The tenth essay of the series is perhaps the best known of those written by Madison. In it he explains the proper relationship of government to the many varied and conflicting interests that characterize a democratic society, and he analyzes the origin of these differences. He believed that political differences grew primarily out of varying economic interests and that the basic cause of the friction among the American states was not the differences in size but the conflicts between slave and free states, between plantation and merchant states, between debtor and creditor states. This view of society made Madison a forerunner of the so-called economic-interpretation school of history that became dominant in the 20th century. However, he believed that a strong Constitution could help to reduce such conflicts and prevent economic exploitation.
C3 Fight for Ratification in Virginia
Madison had not planned to participate in Virginia’s ratification convention. But opposition to the new Constitution had mounted in the state, and Madison’s friends urged him to assist in the fight for adoption. In the spring of 1788 Madison left New York for Virginia. He ran for delegate from Orange County and was elected to the June convention.
At the convention, Madison found some of the most powerful and most eloquent of Virginia’s statesmen opposed to the Constitution, including Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Monroe. But, as in Philadelphia, Madison had come well prepared. He knew every article of the proposed Constitution and was familiar with all the arguments used against it. When point-by-point examination of the Constitution began, Madison spoke constantly in its defense and offered full explanations.
Though ill, Madison took the floor 35 times in the first four days of this examination. His arguments were those of The Federalist. His manner of speaking was restrained, while that of Patrick Henry, his chief adversary, was flamboyant. Madison spoke always to the point, with the pertinent facts at hand.
It was Madison’s thorough acquaintance with the affairs of Congress that overwhelmed Henry’s final attempt to block ratification. When his opponent warned the convention that the treaty powers under the proposed Constitution would result in the loss of the Mississippi River to Spain, Madison replied that a majority of the states were already committed to retaining American navigation rights. By this disclosure, Madison reassured the delegates from the western territories of Virginia and obtained their support for the Constitution. In the final tally the convention approved ratification by a vote of 89 to 79.
After the convention adjourned, the Virginia assembly returned Madison to Congress, then in its final session under the Articles of Confederation. However, largely through the efforts of Patrick Henry, Madison failed to win a seat in the new U.S. Senate. He thereupon ran for election to the House of Representatives from his home district. He was opposed by James Monroe. However, in February 1789, Madison was easily elected to the first of the four consecutive terms that he served in the House.
D United States Congressman
The eight years of Madison’s service in Congress saw the beginning of the two-party system in the United States. The chief causes of the split between the founding fathers were relations with Britain and differing views on the powers to be granted the federal government. Hamilton headed the Federalist group (later the Federalist Party), mostly Northerners, who favored accommodation with Britain and a strong central government. Jefferson was the chief spokesman for those who opposed friendship with Britain and sought to limit the power of the federal government. Madison began his career in Congress as leader for Hamilton’s administrative program. However, as Hamilton’s financial schemes became more obviously pro-Northern and pro-industrial, Madison opposed these plans. By the end of his congressional career, he was a leader of the anti-Federalists, or Democratic-Republican Party, in Congress.
Madison automatically assumed a role of leadership. In the first term of the new Congress, he introduced its first piece of business, a measure to raise revenues for paying off the national debt. He successfully defended the measure, which imposed a series of import taxes, against vigorous opposition by representatives who proposed changing the measure to benefit local interests. Madison emphasized that the import taxes were desirable as a means of raising money, not of regulating the flow of goods. He believed that “commercial shackles are generally unjust, oppressive and impolitic.”
Soon after passage of the revenue bill, Madison advanced and fought for two other important measures in the House. The first proposed to set up executive departments of the government. The second, introduced on June 8, 1789, presented a series of nine amendments to strengthen the Constitution. These were largely designed to guarantee personal liberty, including religious freedom and freedom of the press. Madison led the debate for his amendments and saw most of them approved. They formed, with the Tenth Amendment, the Bill of Rights of the Constitution.
D1 Split with the Federalists
In the 1790 session of Congress, Madison began to be alienated from the Federalists. He took issue with portions of Hamilton’s plan for securing the country’s credit. He urged that any profits made by present holders of notes or certificates of the nation’s indebtedness be shared with the original holders of such bills, that is, those who actually loaned the money. Otherwise, people who purchased these bills from the original creditors could make a large profit. Madison strongly, and probably rightly, feared the possibility of large gains to speculators who would buy the bills on news of a federal funding. However, he was defeated on this point.
Madison also fought Hamilton’s proposal that the federal government assume the states’ debts incurred during the revolution. Although he had advocated a similar measure in 1783, Madison now would not accept it. He felt that certain states, among them Virginia, that had retired a large part of their wartime debt would be made to pay more than their share. He also feared the consequences of concentrating financial power in one place. But before long he conceded that “I suspect that it will yet be unavoidable to admit the evil in some qualified shape.” The assumption bill was soon passed. The South’s support was won by the promise, agreed to by Jefferson, if not Madison, that the national capital would be located in the South. The establishment of the capital in Washington, D.C., was the result of this compromise.
The breach between Hamilton and Madison soon widened further. When Hamilton introduced a bill to charter a national bank, early in 1791, Madison organized and led the opposition to it. He also objected to new tariff (import tax) measures proposed by Hamilton, always taking the position that the Constitution did not sanction the powers that Hamilton’s followers assumed. In fact, Hamilton’s measures hardly went beyond what Madison himself had proposed in the Continental Congress. But now Madison feared that Hamilton’s program would enhance the power of the North. The national spirit that had inspired many American statesmen, including Madison, during the revolution and the formation of the new government was beginning to yield to regional allegiances.
D2 Collaboration With Jefferson
Madison’s parting with his former Federalist friends was complete by 1792, when the second American presidential election was held. Madison did not support John Adams for the vice presidency. In fact, all the electoral votes of Virginia, then the largest of all the states, were cast for an anti-Federalist candidate. From this time on, Madison joined his political life to that of Thomas Jefferson and became openly and bitterly critical of Hamilton and his views. Relations between President George Washington and Madison now grew cool, though the president had regularly consulted Madison on basic policies during his first term.
The friendship of Madison and Jefferson was one of the most remarkable in American history. They first met in the Virginia legislature in 1776. But, according to the unassuming Madison, this meeting was “rendered slight by the disparity between us,” and he did not become closely acquainted with Jefferson until 1779, when Jefferson was governor of Virginia. From about 1782 on, they met frequently and corresponded on a wide variety of subjects. But until 1789 they were still, wrote Madison, “for the most part separated by different walks in public and private life.”
Beginning about 1790, however, Madison’s political career closely followed Jefferson’s. In their personalities and modes of thinking they were very different, but they complemented one another. Statesman Henry Clay said that he preferred Madison and thought him the nation’s most distinguished political writer and, after Washington, its greatest statesman. Clay regarded Jefferson as having greater genius; Madison, greater judgment and common sense. He considered Jefferson “a visionary and theorist, often betrayed by his enthusiasm into rash and imprudent and impractical measures,” while he viewed Madison as “cool, dispassionate—practical, safe.”
D3 Foreign Affairs
The antagonism between Federalists and anti-Federalists became sharpest in the realm of foreign affairs. Like Jefferson, Madison was sympathetic to the French Revolution (1789-1799). Hamilton, on the other hand, mistrusted it. Throughout the wars between France and Britain, the Federalists’ sympathies were with Britain, while those of Jefferson and Madison were with France. In 1793 President Washington firmly declared America’s intention of remaining neutral in the foreign war. Madison saw this position as a “most unfortunate error” and a sign of the pro-British tilt of the administration’s foreign policy. In a series of five letters published in the Gazette of the United States, Madison, under the name Helvidius, assailed Hamilton’s defense of neutrality. U.S. neutrality made it impossible to carry out certain provisions of the U.S. treaty with France signed during the American Revolution. Referring to Hamilton’s views, published previously in the Gazette, Madison wrote with greater anger than was his habit: “Several pieces...lately published...have been read with singular pleasure and applause by the foreigners and degenerate citizens among us, who hate our republican government and the French Revolution.”
Instead of neutrality, Madison urged a policy of retaliation with “commercial weapons” against any interference with American shipping and foreign commerce. Jay’s Treaty with Britain, negotiated late in 1794 to agree on shipping rights, did not satisfy Madison. It allowed liberal trading rights to Britain without making changes to the British regulations that limited American trade to Britain. He opposed the legislation necessary to implement it.
The issue of the U.S. position in the conflict between France and Britain was to dominate much of Madison’s future political career, first as secretary of state and later as president. However, in his last term in Congress the Federalist Party was firmly in control, and Madison wielded little influence. In fact, Madison did not seek reelection in 1796.
D4 Marriage
During his third term in Congress, at the age of 43, Madison married a young widow, Dolley Payne Todd. Both had lived in Philadelphia for several years and certainly knew each other, but their friendship did not begin until the spring of 1794. Madison sought a formal introduction, and Dolley excitedly wrote to a friend, “Thou must come to me. Aaron Burr [then a U.S. senator] says that the great little Madison has asked to be brought to see me this evening.” Their marriage took place on September 15 of the same year.
Though childless, the marriage was a happy one. Dolley was a woman of great personal warmth and social ease. She made domestic life so attractive that Madison even contemplated permanent retirement from politics. In fact, at the end of the congressional session in 1797, he returned to Montpelier, intending to devote his life to farming.
But Madison’s retirement lasted only two years, after which he was once more elected to the Virginia legislature. He had continued to observe the affairs of government with keen and partisan interest, and he was in frequent touch with his political friends. With Jefferson serving as vice president and broadening the influence of the Republican Party, as the anti-Federalists by then were known, Madison’s involvement was unlikely to diminish.
D5 Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions
In 1798 Madison joined Jefferson in opposing the Alien and Sedition Acts passed under President John Adams’s Federalist administration. He regarded these acts, which were adopted to restrain partisans and sympathizers of the French Revolution, as unconstitutional and a grave threat to civil liberties. With Jefferson and other Republicans, Madison agreed to combat the acts. He drew up the Virginia Resolutions, condemning the Alien and Sedition Acts as infractions of the federal government’s constitutional powers. Jefferson composed a similar though more extreme set of resolutions, asserting that a state could refuse to apply such laws, for the legislature of Kentucky. Both states adopted their respective resolutions, later known as the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. But they took no action on them, and no similar action was taken by other states.
E Secretary of State
When Jefferson became president in 1801, he appointed Madison to the highest post in his Cabinet. From 1801 to 1809, Madison served as both secretary of state and chief adviser to his old friend.
The extent to which Madison personally formulated American foreign policy is not clear. Jefferson generated many ideas, and began some actions himself. For example, Jefferson, working with ambassadors reporting directly to him, managed the Louisiana Purchase, which finally assured the United States access to the Mississippi. Yet Madison was more than secretary of state to the president. The two men exchanged views on all subjects and were always in essential agreement.
When Madison took over the Department of State, its staff numbered fewer than a dozen, and his administrative duties were not extensive. However, the international problems confronting him were formidable. They concerned primarily America’s relations with the warring nations of Europe.
Since the beginning of hostilities between France and Great Britain, American shippers had been transporting much of the seaborne trade of those countries, particularly between Europe and the French and British islands of the West Indies. However, Britain and France had declared a blockade against each other’s ports. American ships headed to or from those ports were often stopped by the British or French navy and their cargoes confiscated. Further, sailors on American vessels were frequently removed and forcibly inducted, or impressed, into service with the British navy (see Impressment and Search).
While Madison was secretary of state, both sides increased their interference with American shipping. For a variety of reasons the British were regarded as the greater offenders, and many people in the United States urged an aggressive policy, even to declaring war on Britain. Others favored negotiations in the hope that an accommodation could be reached.
In 1803 Madison began writing a series of letters to French and, more often, British authorities, protesting against illegal interference with American shipping. This “diplomacy by correspondence,” though well grounded in theory and legal argument, had little effect. Madison’s efforts were ridiculed by Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke as a “shilling pamphlet hurled against eight hundred ships of war.” Attempts to negotiate failed to stop the impressment of American sailors or the confiscation of American cargoes.
Finally, still determined not to be provoked into war, Madison and Jefferson introduced the Embargo Act of 1807, which ordered all trade into and out of American ports to be halted. Since this ban was difficult to enforce and in any event did not intimidate either Britain or France, it eventually had to be abandoned. Harassment of American shipping continued into Madison’s own administration.
A Election of 1808
It was no surprise that Madison’s party named him to succeed Jefferson. A dissident faction called the Quids opposed him and nominated James Monroe. But Madison kept the support of all but a small group of the Republicans and easily defeated the Federalist candidate, diplomat Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina. He received 122 electoral votes to Pinckney’s 47. George Clinton, vice president under Jefferson, had 6 votes. Clinton also became Madison’s vice president.
Madison was sworn into office by Chief Justice John Marshall on March 4, 1809. A great inaugural ball, the first of its kind, celebrated his assumption of the presidency. Though elated by his triumph and the honor accorded him, Madison felt greatly the responsibility that had fallen on him.
An observer wrote that Madison was “extremely pale and trembled excessively” as he began his inaugural address, “but soon gained confidence and spoke audibly.” His remarks reflected the “peculiar solemnity” of the “existing period.” He stressed that “the present situation of the world is indeed without a parallel and that of our own country full of difficulties.” Madison’s address emphasized his ardent desire for peace, but made it clear that he would not tolerate continued foreign interference. Its tone foreshadowed the course he would follow in dealing with such interference.
B Relations With Britain and France
The eight years of Madison’s presidency were dominated by continuing and growing tensions between the United States and the governments of France and Britain, and finally by open warfare with Britain. When Madison took office, the Embargo Act of 1807 had been replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act, which reopened trade with countries other than France and Britain. By 1810 it was apparent to Madison that the American trade boycott was having no effect. American ships were being seized at a greater rate, if anything, by both countries. In May 1810, therefore, the Non-Intercourse Act was repealed, and the United States resumed trade with both France and Britain. But if one of them dropped its restrictions on American shipping, Madison was authorized to again prohibit trade with the other.
C Worsening of Relations
U.S.-British relations deteriorated further when the president received what he was led to regard as complete assurance that France was renouncing its policy of intercepting American ships. Unaware that he was being tricked by France, Madison declared in November 1810 that trade with Britain was to be halted. Although negotiations with British ambassadors continued in hope of a peaceable settlement, they were now almost certainly doomed to fail.
By April 1811 Madison had sufficiently mended his relations with Monroe, his rival in the 1808 election, to obtain Monroe’s services as secretary of state. He placed Monroe in charge of negotiations with Britain. A number of issues were discussed, but to Madison the crucial one was that Britain drop its restrictions on American shipping. The talks proceeded with some success over the next year. But in his third annual message, in November 1811, Madison asked Congress to put the United States “into an armour and an attitude demanded by the crisis.”
War had now become likely with Britain. This was due, however, as much to the American ambition to expand U.S. territory into British-held lands in the West, into Canada, and into Spanish Florida as to the controversy over shipping rights. Madison’s annexation of a part of Florida is believed to have strengthened these ambitions. The most prominent members of the expansionist movement were Henry Clay, then a congressman from Kentucky, and John C. Calhoun, a congressman from South Carolina. They were the leaders of the war hawks, as the militant expansionist and anti-British forces in Congress were called. They accused Britain of provoking Native American attacks on American frontier communities. In November 1811 American troops under Indiana Governor William Henry Harrison fought the Shawnee nation at the Battle of Tippecanoe near the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers. Although Madison had not personally authorized the use of troops, he used the occasion to rally support in Congress for military preparations. War with Britain then became all but certain.
In March 1812 some American ships bound for Lisbon, Portugal, were destroyed by French frigates. But Madison’s action against British trade interference had gathered too much momentum. “Let it not be said,” Madison reasoned, “that the misconduct of France neutralizes in the least that of Britain.” He made it clear that nothing but revocation of Britain’s restrictions on trade could now alter his policy. On March 31 he was quoted as saying “that without an accommodation with Britain Congress ought to declare war before adjourning.”
Early in April, Madison learned that no concession toward settlement was forthcoming from Britain. He promptly asked Congress to place an embargo against Britain and implied that if American grievances were not satisfied during the embargo period, stronger measures would be employed.
C1 Declaration of War
Madison’s demand was interpreted as a prelude to war. The embargo was passed promptly by Congress, and it expired on June 1. On that date, no satisfactory solution having been offered, Madison addressed his war message to Congress. He told Congress that “our commerce has been plundered in every sea,” that Britain was intent on destroying American commerce “not as supplying the wants of her enemies, which she herself supplies; but as interfering with the monopoly which she covets for her own commerce and navigation.” Madison also made an allusion to British participation in recent Native American uprisings and to other “injuries and indignities ... heaped on our country.” He also condemned the hostile acts of France, but recommended that action on these be postponed for the moment. Madison concluded: “We behold ... on the side of Britain a state of war against the United States, and on the side of the United States a state of peace toward Britain.” He asked Congress to decide whether the United States should remain at peace under these circumstances as “a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the government.” On June 18 Madison signed a declaration of war passed by both houses of Congress.
Ironically, and unknown to Madison, Britain had in fact revoked its restrictions on American shipping on June 16. The action had come after France’s public repeal of its decrees restricting American trade, which had supposedly been effected more than a year before.
C2 War of 1812
When the long-anticipated war with Britain came, the United States was ill prepared. Madison’s warning to put the nation “into an armour” had not been heeded. The president did not possess the qualities necessary for organizing an effective war machine, and he did not quickly enough find those who did. His attempts to take a personal role in conducting the affairs of the War and Navy departments led only to ridicule.
Madison’s efforts were also hampered by opposition to the war from various quarters. The Federalists had been against war with Britain from the start. Northerners generally showed no enthusiasm for taking over Spanish Florida. Southerners similarly regarded a conquest of Canada as merely adding to the strength of the North. Throughout the war the New England states balked at contributing their financial and military share. Northern opposition resulted in the so-called Hartford Convention, where representatives of the northeastern states seriously discussed a separate peace with Britain.
C3 Election of 1812
The widespread lack of enthusiasm for the war, combined with early military reverses, made the presidential election of 1812 an especially hard-fought one. Madison was opposed by Governor De Witt Clinton of New York. Clinton, though a Republican, drew his support from the Federalists and from dissident members of Madison’s own party. The war was the primary issue of the campaign. Madison was criticized for carrying on the war and was also condemned for not pursuing it more successfully. He replied by expressing a desire for peace but asking the country’s support in a “just and necessary” war.
Although his support was less than in 1808, Madison was reelected: 128 electoral votes to 89 for Clinton. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts served as Madison’s vice president in his second term.
A Progress of the War
Meanwhile the War of 1812, which New England Federalists bitterly called “Mr. Madison’s War,” proceeded. The U.S. Navy fought valiantly in the first year of the war, winning several notable victories. In 1813, however, the superior British navy captured many American ships and prevented those remaining from leaving port.
Until 1814 American land forces had only one victory, led by General Harrison, of Tippecanoe fame. His troops forced the British back into Canada after they had occupied the city of Detroit. Toward the middle of 1814 the American army began to show some competence and won several battles. American troops successfully defended Fort McHenry, outside Baltimore, in September of that year. That battle inspired American lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key to write a poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which would years later become the national anthem. On January 8, 1815, after the war had officially ended, General Andrew Jackson won a decisive victory over British forces at New Orleans.
During the war, however, the British occupied large areas of the Midwest. They also took the city of Washington and burned the White House. On August 24, 1814, Madison joined his armies retreating from the capital. For four days the president rode about the countryside near Washington, endeavoring to maintain contact with the commanders of his forces. On August 27 he returned to the capital, which had been devastated and abandoned by the British.
Meanwhile, in the summer of 1814, Madison had dispatched Henry Clay, along with statesmen John Quincy Adams and Albert Gallatin, to hold peace talks with the British at Ghent (Gent), Belgium. On his instructions they negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814. The primary concession Madison won was surrender by Britain of American territory captured during the war.
“Mr. Madison’s War” did not accomplish its purposes. Impressment of American sailors and the rights of neutral shipping were not discussed in the peace treaty. No new territories were gained. But fighting the war created among the people a new awareness of the United States as a national entity. Madison had convinced the country that the United States could declare war and negotiate peace with another sovereign nation, and that American warriors and ships could hold their own against those of a great power. Madison was widely honored for seeing the nation through this test.
B Last Years of Madison’s Administration
The final two years of Madison’s presidency were marked by a growing prosperity and a spirit of expansion in the United States. Madison himself appeared to be swept along by the nationalistic feeling of the times. Although he persisted in a strict interpretation of federal powers under the Constitution, he felt it appropriate now to sign into law several pieces of legislation he had vigorously fought against in earlier years. Among these were a bill creating a national bank and a tariff act designed to protect American industries from foreign competition. Thus, at the end of his political career, Madison became reconciled to some of the measures over which he and Hamilton had so strongly differed years before.
The conclusion of his second term marked the end of Madison’s long years of service in the federal government. In the years that remained to him, Madison emerged from the privacy of family life in Montpelier on only a few occasions. At the age of 78 he participated in the Virginia convention to write a new state constitution. He also consistently supported Jefferson’s work in founding the University of Virginia. A member of its board until Jefferson’s death in 1826, Madison succeeded his friend as the university’s rector. When South Carolina objected to a new tariff and threatened to nullify it within its borders, Madison spoke out vigorously, denying that the Constitution allowed any state to exclude itself from laws passed by the U.S. Congress. Although the proponents of nullification based their doctrine on the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, Madison particularly disavowed any applicability of his own arguments in the Virginia Resolutions to the present situation.
Madison’s final years were troubled with chronic illness, but the quickness of his mind was unimpaired. His interest and concern for the nation he had helped to found continued undiminished. The deaths of Jefferson and Monroe, the longtime friends and associates of both his private and public life, saddened his old age. During his last years, Madison was confined to his home, where he died on June 28, 1836.

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