Ralph Ketcham. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
James Madison, was born on 16 March 1751 of a family that had been in Virginia since the mid-seventeenth century. Tradesmen and farmers at first, his forebears quickly acquired more lands and soon were among the “respectable though not the most opulent class,” as Madison himself described them. The family moved to Orange County in the Virginia Piedmont about 1730 and settled on a plantation that over the next century grew to five thousand acres, produced tobacco and grains, and was worked by perhaps a hundred slaves. Although Madison abhorred slavery, he nonetheless bore the burden of depending all his life on a slave system that he could never square with his republican beliefs.
Madison learned the fundamentals at home and then went to preparatory school before entering the College of New Jersey at Princeton. There he got a fine classical and Christian education, receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1771. He studied for six months more under President John Witherspoon, whose intellectual independence, practicality, and moral earnestness profoundly influenced him. Madison read John Locke, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, David Hume, Voltaire, and others whose Enlightenment world-view became his own. He considered becoming a clergyman or a lawyer but never entered either profession.
While Madison was small and unimpressive physically, he had bright blue eyes, a quiet strength of character, and a lively, humorous way in small groups that made him a welcome and influential colleague in many endeavors. He had some serious illnesses during his life, many bouts of a probably nervous disorder that left him exhausted and prostrate after periods of severe strain, and a hypochondriacal tendency to “fear the worst” from sickness, but he actually lived a long, healthy life free from the common scourges of his day and was capable of sustained, rigorous labors that would have overwhelmed many seemingly more robust men.
As the Revolution approached, Madison served on the Orange County Committee of Safety from 1774, and two years later he was elected to the Virginia convention that resolved for independence and drafted a new state constitution. There he sought successfully to change the clause guaranteeing religious “toleration” only to one proclaiming “liberty of conscience for all.” From 1777 to 1779 he served on the Virginia Council of State under two governors, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson.
Elected to the Continental Congress in 1780, Madison became one of the leaders of the so-called nationalist group, which saw fulfillment of the Revolution possible only under a strong central government. He thus supported the French alliance and worked persistently to strengthen the powers of Congress. When he retired from Congress in 1783, he was regarded as its best informed and most effective debater and legislator. Madison then served for three years in the Virginia legislature, where he worked to enact Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom and other reform measures. Six years of legislative experience, as well as his studies, increasingly convinced him that weak confederacies were prey to foreign intrigue and domestic instability.
Legislative and Executive Leader
Madison came to see that a vigorous, responsible executive officer, even within republican principles that generally emphasized legislative powers, might be essential to effective government by consent. Revolutionary hostility to the last royal governors, who had been the agents of British tyranny, further heightened American suspicions of executive authority. Yet, by 1787, Madison had also been given many lessons in the liabilities of executive impotence. As a member of the Virginia Council of State, he had observed a government in which the executive not only had very little power overall but was forbidden to act except with the approval of the eight-member council. The delays and inability to act in the exigencies of war eventually convinced Madison that this construction of the executive department was “the worst part of a bad Constitution.”
The same executive weakness existed in the Continental Congress. Standing committees conducted much of the executive business, plagued by uncertain authority, dispersed responsibility, rotating personnel, and spotty attendance. Madison supported the creation of “executive departments” of foreign affairs, finance, war, and marine in January and February 1781, and he sought to fill the new offices with able men.
Madison was never among those who suspected that any person given the power to do anything would invariably act badly. Such a proposition, when applied indiscriminately to officials deriving their election or appointment from the people, Madison later charged, “impeached the fundamental principle” of republican government by holding that officers chosen by the people “will immediately and infallibly betray the trust committed to them.” Despite this basic faith, in the years immediately preceding the Convention of 1787, Madison observed that in the Virginia and other state legislatures many unjust and unwise laws were passed by popularly elected assemblies.
The dilemma of finding the basic principle of republican government—majority rule—working against the even more fundamental need for just laws was for Madison especially difficult because the source of this malfunction was to be found not only in the tendency toward imprudence and corruption in the representatives but “more fatally [in] … the people themselves.” That is, a host of private interests, real and imagined, divided the people of the states into groups whose rivalry generally vitiated whatever virtuous motives might be expected to arise from “a prudent regard to their [the people’s] own good as involved in the general and permanent good of the community,” from a “respect for character,” or from religious conviction. Madison concluded that the states, when left to them, seemed invariably to trample on both private rights and the public good, despite the fact that the states more fully embodied the principle of legislative supremacy than any other governments in the world. To cope with this discouraging development, Madison argued that in “an extended republic,” on the continental scale of the United States, “a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions [would] check each other.” Thus, the general government would be less likely to act unjustly and should therefore have “a negative” on the laws of the states, a power he advocated throughout the federal convention. “The great desideratum,” he concluded, was “such a modification of the Sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions.” But neutrality meant for Madison a point of view that was impartial, disinterested, above party, such as “the prince … in absolute Monarchies” had in judging among his subjects.
At the convention, Madison met powerful advocates of restraint on executive power. Roger Sherman of Connecticut “considered the Executive Magistracy as nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the Legislature into effect.” The legislature, Sherman insisted, “was the depository of the supreme will of the Society” and was therefore “the best judge of the business which ought to be done by the Executive department.” Sherman sought definition of executive powers by the legislature, proposed various schemes for a plural executive and for its election by the legislature, and objected to an executive veto. Madison, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and others protested immediately and vigorously that such proposals strengthened, rather than diminished, the power of faction and of provincial interests in government. They admitted that any form of monarchy was out of the question in the United States, but they nonetheless sought somehow to retain the benefit of its ability to check legislative corruption and of its supposed nonpartisanship.
Madison revealed his train of thought to the convention when, defending executive veto, he noted the danger that a republic faced from diversity of interests, demagoguery, and the power of a selfish majority. “In this view,” Madison concluded, “a negative in the Executive is not only necessary for its own [protection], but for the safety of a minority … The independent condition of the Executive who has the eyes of all Nations on him will render him a just Judge.”
Madison even sought some way to combine the judiciary with the executive in the veto power to increase the sense of wisdom and respectability in this vital restraint on a legislature presumed to be factious. Two days later he noted the difficulty of finding in a republic a source of power that, like “an hereditary magistrate,” would have a “personal interest against betraying the national interest.” He urged further that the executive have the power to appoint federal judges because he would be “a national officer, acting for and equally sympathizing with every part of the United States.” Throughout the debates, Madison sought consistently to protect the executive department from the factious legislature, and insofar as that independence was secure, he was willing to grant wide powers to the executive.
In fact, responding to Wilsons’ reasoning, Madison came to see increasingly that in a republic where even executive power rested, directly or indirectly, on the people, there might be less to fear in its exercise than under a monarchy. The more clearly the executive was held responsible to the people, Wilson argued, the more power he could safely be given. This view suited Madison’s sober optimism that a self-governing system could be devised that would exercise power wisely and his sense of the need for vigor and responsibility in government. Thus, he supported a single executive, his power to appoint officials in his department, his powers as commander in chief and in foreign affairs, his long term in office, and his eligibility for reelection.
Election of the executive posed a seemingly insoluble problem. Madison shared some of George Mason’s fear that to allow election directly by the people was like referring “a trial of colours to a blind man,” and Gouverneur Morris’ fear that if a legislative body chose the executive “it will be like the election of a pope by a conclave of cardinals.” Madison eventually supported the idea of an electoral college as a hedge against both dangers. Altogether, then, the definition of executive power as it emerged from the convention suited Madison as a reasonable compromise between the needs of authority and the need to limit the power of government. He defended the new constitution in his contributions to The Federalist Papers in 1787-1788 and as a delegate to the Virginia Ratification Convention in June 1788.
Everything depended, of course, upon the early precedents established and the conduct of the first presidents. Washington’s vast prestige gave crucial support to the dignity and authority of the office, most of which Madison supported. In fact, as Washington’s chief adviser in the critical years 1788-1789, Madison had a large role in the organization of the executive branch, its etiquette, and its relations with the other branches.
Especially critical was Madison’s defense (in the House of Representatives, where he served from 1789 to 1797) of the president’s inherent power to remove his appointees from office. Madison scorned arguments that the president should be denied such power because he would infallibly abuse it by removing faithful public servants; such fears, and the consequent denials of power, would hopelessly hamstring governments. Rather, he insisted upon the more basic, self-regulating “principle of unity and responsibility in the Executive department, which was intended for the security of liberty and the public good. If the President alone should possess the power of removal from office, those employed in the execution of the law will be in their proper situation, and the chain of dependence therefore terminates in the supreme body, namely, in the people.” That is, the president needed to have the power of removal for profoundly republican reasons: the people would then be able to hold him responsible for the malfeasance of his appointees and could then be justified in refusing him reelection (or in extreme cases, even impeaching him) for inefficiency or corruption in his department. By 1789, Madison had achieved a maturing idea of what it meant to exercise executive power in a republican government.
Yet, despite his admiration for President Washington, Madison was first amazed and then appalled at what the executive branch became under Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s guidance during the 1790s. Madison’s desire for a vigorous executive, an efficient civil service, and a sound public credit led him to support many of Hamilton’s proposals taken by them, but it was the totality of his program that the Virginian opposed.
The growth of the executive branch, especially the Treasury Department, allowed its secretary to take the initiative. To this power Hamilton quite candidly added the force and support he could derive from granting privilege to bankers and merchants. Sharing the largesse and financial prospects with congressmen and their friends, furthermore, gave him great influence in the legislature. These consolidating moves, mobilized under the doctrine of loose construction, devised to legitimize the Bank of the United States, instituted, in Madison’s view, a veritable “phalanx.” Far from shaping an executive who took his lead in policy from the legislature and was the executor of its will, as republican theory required, Hamilton had created a machine to lead and dominate the nation. The parallel with the means that George III and his ministers had used to control Parliament in the 1770s and Hamilton’s conception of himself as a proconsul or prime minister on the order of Richelieu, Colbert, or the elder Pitt were all too apparent. The ease and speed with which Hamilton achieved this model of the executive, under the Constitution, was a sobering lesson for Madison. Phrases about separation of power, and even what he thought were explicit limitations, seemed to mean little when confronted by someone of Hamilton’s energy, wile, and brilliance.
Federalist response to the renewal of war between France and Great Britain in 1793—arguments that the president, not Congress, could “proclaim” neutrality (the counterpart, after all, to declaring war) and calls for a buildup of the armed forces, special diplomatic missions, higher taxes, and so on—frightened Madison because the “needs” of war so perfectly promoted the executive tendencies Hamilton had already set in motion. It seemed to him that American “monocrats” (as Jeffersonian Republicans increasingly, although unfairly, termed the Federalists) used shrill accounts of the excesses of the French revolutionary government in 1793-1794 to slander republicanism generally and to strengthen ties with England that would draw American government and society closer to its aristocratic, imperial model.
When Hamilton urged Washington to gather an army in the fall of 1794 to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, Madison saw in the making “a formidable attempt … to establish the principle that a standing army was necessary for enforcing the laws.” After Hamilton had persuaded Washington to criticize publicly the “democratic societies” or “Jacobin clubs,” which had mushroomed in opposition to Federalist policies in 1794, Madison retorted that “in the nature of republican government the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.”
During John Adams’ administration, Madison continued to fret and fume over executive excess. He saw in the president’s florid addresses in the war crisis of 1798 only “violent passions and heretical politics,” and he labeled the Alien Enemies Act “a monster that must forever disgrace its parents.” He wrote Jefferson, “Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger real or pretended from abroad.” In the “Report on the [Virginia] Resolutions of 1798” (1800), Madison scored an enlargement of the executive by “excessive augmentation of … offices, honors, and emoluments” that seemed bent on “the transformation of the republican system of the United States into a monarchy.” Thus, by 1801, Madison had witnessed the Constitution he had helped draft and had enthusiastically recommended to his countrymen used—indeed, abused—in ways he was sure would destroy the whole notion of free self-government. The chief engine for this ruin, moreover, built by Hamilton from a domestic coalition of mercantile, anti-republican forces and a consolidation of the powers of government spurred by foreign danger, was the executive branch.
Service as secretary of state in Jefferson’s cabinet (1801-1809), though, had the not surprising effect of reviving Madison’s sense of the legitimate use of executive power—so much so, in fact, that more doctrinaire Republicans such as John Randolph of Roanoke saw him as a dangerous “crypto-Federalist” betraying Jeffersonian principles. Madison, however, was discriminating. He agreed thoroughly with Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin that a prime Republican responsibility was to reduce the apparatus of federal government and especially of the executive branch. But, as Jefferson stated in his first inaugural address, among the “essential principles of our government [is] … the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor.”
Madison undertook his own campaign for “mild” government by firing one of the eight clerks in the State Department (its entire personnel in 1801) and by abandoning virtually all ceremony in conducting his office. He approved Republican measures to reduce the diplomatic establishment, lower the number of federal employees, put the national debt “on the road to extinction,” diminish the military, reduce taxes, and repeal the Federalist Judiciary Act of 1801. He agreed, though, that Federalist institutions that had proved useful, such as the Bank of the United States, should remain undisturbed, and he participated willingly in the informal leadership Jefferson exercised through his influence over key members of Congress.
In two major events of Jefferson’s presidency, the Louisiana Purchase and the embargo of 1807-1809, Madison showed his willingness to use executive power to achieve important republican ends. He agreed with Gallatin that the Louisiana Purchase was constitutional because “the existence of the United States as a nation presupposes the power enjoyed by every nation of extending their territory by treaties” and that the Constitution clearly gave the executive the authority to conduct such treaties. The critically important republicanizing results of the purchase—the doubling of agricultural lands, the removal of great power rivalry from the Mississippi Valley, and the reduction thus permitted in defense expenditures—more than compensated for a departure from the letter of Jefferson’s self-imposed strict constructionism.
The embargo was a similarly bold effort to achieve a momentous republican breakthrough—nothing less than the substitution of economic pressure for war in international relations—by the orderly processes of a law passed by Congress and its faithful administration by the executive. Jefferson and Madison underestimated the sectional inequity of the measure and the consequent unwillingness of the nation to accept the required sacrifices, and overestimated the dependence of international trade (especially Britain’s) on American exports. Thus, enforcement of the embargo, and the apparent need for its long-range continuance, soon entailed a considerable extension of executive power.
At this point, the Republican leaders—Madison most reluctantly—made a revealing decision: they gave up a policy proven ineffective in its intended objective and, even worse, sure to erode seriously their republican values if maintained in the face of widespread public opposition. They resisted the temptations to prove determination and “creditability” by enlarging executive authority and to overpower rather than conciliate deeply felt opposition. There was a critical need, in Madison’s mind, to balance the positive uses of executive power against the constant danger of that power becoming oppressive.
Madison as President: The Road to War
Having long pondered the complex question of how to provide leadership in a system of government deriving its “just powers from the consent of the governed” and having gained wide experience in public office, Madison became president on 4 March 1809. Although painful intraparty opposition by his long-time friend James Monroe and by Vice President George Clinton, as well as by a Federalist party revived by anger at the embargo, denied him the political domination enjoyed by Jefferson, Madison nonetheless won comfortably with 122 votes in the electoral college to 47 for Federalist Charles C. Pinckney, 6 for Clinton, and none for Monroe.
Trying to adjust to his diminished political position and perhaps too little inclined to exert his will on Congress, Madison accepted one of the weakest cabinets in American history. Thwarted by the Senate from moving Gallatin to the State Department, Madison instead appointed affable but incompetent Robert Smith, who, through alliance with a group of hostile senators led by his brother, Samuel Smith of Maryland, became a center of disaffection within the cabinet. Madison endured this disloyalty and covered up for Robert Smith’s incompetence by in effect continuing to do the work of the secretary of state himself for two years, but he finally had to replace Smith in a storm of factional invective in April 1811.
The new secretaries of war and the navy, William Eustis of Massachusetts and Paul Hamilton of South Carolina, were second or third choices for their posts and were appointed largely to achieve regional balance. Eustis proved utterly unsuited to the administrative needs of the War Department, while Hamilton became an alcoholic, ordinarily unable to perform any duties after noontime. Even Gallatin, although a most able secretary of the treasury and entirely loyal, was restive, resentful, and politically damaged at being barred by the Senate from the State Department.
Two men carried over from Jefferson’s administration in offices not yet accorded cabinet status were scarcely better: Attorney General Caesar Rodney was seldom in the capital, while Postmaster General Gideon Granger, because of disputes over appointments, was increasingly estranged from, and hostile to, the president. Madison began his presidency, then, laboring under severe political difficulties and surrounded by less-than-ideal colleagues.
The ill effects of these appointments might have been avoided in normal times, but Madison faced the climactic years of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain and France were locked in a life-and-death combat that made neutrality difficult and infringed the rights of nonbelligerents. Both great powers plundered American vessels on the high seas, issued arbitrary decrees to damage American commerce, and otherwise took what advantage they could of the scorned and unarmed upstart nation. But it was Britain—with warships that ruled the seas; arrogant naval officers who ruthlessly impressed American sailors; sharp-dealing merchants who were eager to keep the former colonies in a state of economic dependence; and a fleet that could harass, blockade, and bombard the American coast with impunity—that could, and did, most injure and offend the United States. Thus, Madison saw Britain as the principal threat to the nation and came increasingly to feel that standing up to her might require a “second War of Independence.”
The tangled diplomacy and stop-and-start legislation to impose economic sanctions on one or both of the belligerents that preoccupied Madison during his first three years as president—the signing and repudiation of the Erskine Agreement, the two Macon bills, protests of British orders-in-council and Napoleonic decrees, and so on—all failed because both France and Britain, fighting for survival, were prepared to use any means to win any advantage they could.
In the summer of 1811, Madison, by then ably supported by James Monroe, who had replaced Robert Smith as secretary of state, and buttressed in Congress by energetic young members soon dubbed War Hawks (Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun foremost among them), decided that if final efforts at favorable diplomatic settlement with each belligerent failed, war with the worst offender (almost sure to be Britain) would be necessary. In the spring of 1812, as Madison, Monroe, and their congressional allies pushed war preparations, intransigent dispatches arrived from Europe, so on 1 June, Madison asked Congress to declare war on the former mother country. With Federalists (dominant only in New England) solidly in opposition, the House of Representatives voted for hostilities (seventy-nine to forty-nine) and the Senate followed suit (nineteen to thirteen); on 18 June, Madison signed the declaration of war.
Madison viewed the declaration with sadness and regret, although he had for nearly a year been working with his cabinet and with Clay and others in Congress to prepare the country for battle. In reviewing the course toward war, Madison observed that Britain’s notice of July 1811 that it would require humiliating concessions before withdrawing orders-in-council had made hostilities virtually inevitable. Writing to antiwar John Taylor “of Caroline” even before the final declaration, Monroe had explained that upon joining the cabinet in April 1811, he had found erroneous his conviction that Britain would make concessions if properly approached. Nothing, he added, “would satisfy the present Ministry of England short of unconditional submission which it was impossible to make.” Thus, after July 1811, “the only remaining alternative was to get ready for fighting, and to begin as soon as we were ready. This was the plan of the administration when Congress met [in November 1811]; the President’s message announced it; and every step taken by the administration since had led to it.”
Asked to assess Madison’s state of mind as the war approached, his private secretary, Edward Coles, noted that “it was congenial alike to the life and character of Mr. Madison that he should be reluctant to go to war, … this savage and brutal manner of settling disputes between nations,” while diplomacy afforded any peaceful hopes at all. Coles agreed with Monroe that Britain’s notice of July 1811 “closed the door to peace in Mr. Madison’s opinion” and observed further that during the long session of Congress from November 1811 to July 1812, “a class of irritable men, … hotspurs of the day,” declaimed for war, heedless of the need for preparation and scornful of “sound, prudent and patriotic men” who wanted delay and further diplomatic initiatives. Madison stood in the middle, Coles said, trying “to moderate the zeal and impatience of the ultra belligerent men, and to stimulate the more moderate and forbearing. To check those who were anxious to rush on hastily to extreme measures without due preparation and to urge those who lagged too far behind.” The president restrained his own determination to go to war to bring to his side “tardy and over cautious members of Congress” and thus be able to declare war “by a large and influential majority.”
Viewed in this perspective, Madison’s course during the year preceding the war declaration and even during the whole seven-year period following full-scale resumption of the Napoleonic Wars in 1805, appears straight and consistent, if not always wise and well executed. He thought throughout that his goal, a genuine republican independence for the United States, found its worst menace in the commercial and maritime arrogance and power of Great Britain. To have submitted to her unilateral decrees, her discriminatory trade regulations, or her naval outrages would have restored the colonial dependence Madison had fought for half a century. It would, moreover, have ratified unjust principles of international law and emboldened antirepublican forces in Britain and the United States, thereby threatening, in Madison’s opinion, the survival of free government anywhere in the world.
War was deemed so corrosive to republican principles that only the direst emergency could condone it. Thus, Madison tried every conceivable and even some inconceivable ways of peaceful resistance until many men less patient, less subtle, and less earnestly republican than he thought him hopelessly irresolute or a tool of Napoleon. Madison pronounced this latter charge “as foolish as it is false.” If the war coincided with the views of the enemy of Great Britain and was favored by Napoleon’s operations against the British, he observed coolly,
that assuredly could be no sound objection to the time chosen for extorting justice from her. On the contrary, the coincidence, though it happened not to be the moving consideration, would have been a rational one; especially as it is not pretended that the United States acted in concert with [Napoleon], or precluded themselves from making peace without any understanding with him; or even from making war on France, in the event of peace with her enemy, and her continued violation of our neutral rights.
Although in retrospect it may seem Madison underestimated Napoleon’s global ambitions, he had no illusions about the French tyrant. Britain’s greater capacity to injure the United States was the steady, realistic base of Madison’s policy.
Less defensible is Madison’s relentless, sometimes innocently implausible reliance on peaceful coercion—such as embargo, selective trading with the belligerents, or alliances with other neutral nations—which instead of persuading the belligerents to deal honorably with the United States, only convinced them they had nothing to fear from it. Thus, insult followed depredation, year after year. Shifting from one kind of nonviolent coercion to another and offering the carrot and then the stick first to one belligerent and then to the other, instead of persuading either of them to accept American support in exchange for commercial justice, led each country to think it could, by intrigue and maneuver, get all it wanted while granting nothing. As a result, by 1812 the United States was neither trusted nor respected by the warring powers. At home, Madison’s patient, subtle efforts to unite the country behind him often had the doubly debilitating effect of disgusting those impatient for war and encouraging those opposed to it to think he would ultimately flinch from hostilities. Although, even in retrospect, better alternatives are not readily apparent, Madison’s course seldom had the effect he intended.
Least defensible of all is the unfitness of the nation for war in June 1812. In response to those who charged that Britain, not the United States, had to fight at long distance and therefore would benefit from delay and warning, Madison insisted that “it was, in fact, not the suddenness of war as an Executive policy, but the tardiness of legislative provision” that left the nation unprepared. He had, he pointed out, recommended a military buildup in early November 1811, and it was more than two months before Congress took even ill-conceived steps. Although Congress did indeed hang back in this and many other ways during the twelve years of Republican rule, Madison seldom did more than call vaguely for “attention to the nation’s defenses,” and Secretary Gallatin insisted repeatedly that military expenditures be limited by his plans to discharge the national debt. From 1805 on, while Madison talked loudly and unyieldingly of neutral rights, the chasm widened between the obvious military peril of the European war and the pitiful state of the country’s armed forces. He often spoke loudly and carried no stick at all.
Madison correctly pointed out the host of difficulties he faced in placing the nation on a war footing. Officers for the army had to be chosen from among “survivors of the Revolutionary band,” many of whom “were disqualified by age or infirmities,” or from among those untried on the battlefield. Furthermore, to appoint any executive officer, “an eye must be had to his political principles and connections, his personal temper and habits, his relations … towards those with whom he is to be associated, and the quarter of the Union to which he belongs.” Add to this, Madison concluded, “the necessary sanction of the Senate” (often denied) and the large “number of refusals” of office by the most qualified prospects, and the reasons for a poorly staffed register were painfully obvious. Madison did not lack will, or understanding of what needed to be done, or courage to face war, but rather, as his own apologies verify, the capacity to disentangle himself from republican pieties, political crosscurrents, and organizational weaknesses.
Calhoun wrote a friend in April 1812 that “our President tho a man of amiable manners and great talents, has not I fear those commanding talents, which are necessary to controul those about him. He permits division in his cabinet. He reluctantly gives up the system of peace.” The South Carolinian observed further that “this is the first war that the country has ever been engaged in; there is a great want of military knowledge; and the whole of our system has to be commenced and organized.” Eight months later, after disasters caused by “errors and mismanagement … of most incompetent men,” Calhoun noted that the difficulties “lie deep; and are coeval with the existence of Mr. Jefferson’s administration.”
Jeffersonian republicanism, with its hostility to economic regulation, deficit financing, and militarism, simply was not a vehicle designed for effective travel down the road to war. What Clay, Calhoun, and other War Hawks did in 1811 and 1812 was not browbeat the president into war or give the impulse to it from their expansionist predilections but rather to provide the legislative leadership in Congress, the effective attention to preparedness, and the sharp propaganda sense needed to arouse the country. Madison saw too clearly all the variables of a complex situation, knew too well the traps awaiting him in every direction, and understood too profoundly the anti-republican tendencies of arming for war to accept readily the reckless and unsubtle needs of girding for battle. What undermined Madison’s policy of upholding American rights by peaceful means was, first and foremost, the absence of effective armed force, which again and again prevented him from being able to confront his opponents with a plausible threat and made skeptics on both sides of the Atlantic doubt he could have any ultimate intention of going to war. Second, an impression of irresolution grew from the shifting terms of his policies of commercial retaliation and peaceful coercion—embargo, nonintercourse, nonimportation, and so on—which often, at the very moment of effective pressure, freed trade long enough for Britain to fill its warehouses. Madison underestimated, too, the flexibility of international trade, the endurance of the belligerents, and the amount of damage some of his policies inflicted on the United States. Thus, the nation, especially New England, saw no credible and effective policy around which to rally. Although Madison, striving for domestic unity, both tempered his policy and manipulated his channels of communication, his stance was inevitably regarded as unwarlike.
Reflecting on the causes of the war, Republican Congressman Jonathan Roberts wrote that “there had all along been an idea cherished by the opposition, that the majority would not have nerve enough to meet war. This I believe, mainly induced Britain to persist in her aggressions. If she could have been made to believe … that we were a united people, and would act as such, war might have been avoided.” As the London Independent Chronicle pointed out, “in every measure of government, the [Federalist] faction have rallied in opposition, and urged the British Ministry to persist in their Orders. They forced the United States to the alternative, either to surrender their independence, or maintain it by War.”
Thus, although these misjudgments, too subtle policies, and republican predilections may paradoxically have made more likely the war that Madison tried to avoid and certainly left the nation dangerously unprepared, he was perfectly clear, as he stated in his first wartime message to Congress, on the basic cause and ultimate need for hostilities:
The war in which we are actually engaged is a war neither of ambition nor of vainglory… It is waged not in violation of the rights of others, but in maintenance of our own … To have shrunk [from it] … would have struck us from the high rank where the virtuous struggles of our fathers had placed us, and have betrayed the magnificent legacy which we hold in trust for future generations. It would have acknowledged that on [water] .. where all independent nations have equal and common rights, the American people were not an independent people but colonists and vassals.
Madison as Wartime President
Madison and his advisers hoped that American zeal for the war (especially in the West), and the vulnerability of Canada as Britain strained its resources in the climax of the desperate struggle with Napoleon, would lead swiftly to American victory. He therefore ordered an American invasion of Canada at Detroit and an assault on the lightly defended borders at Niagara and in the direction of Montreal, with the intent of gaining advantages that could then be traded for British concessions on the high seas and along the Atlantic coast, where its naval power was overwhelming. Disaster ensued, for on 16 August one poorly led and ill-trained American army surrendered to a much smaller British and Indian force at Detroit and on 13 October another was badly beaten at Queenston Heights opposite Buffalo. A third army, commanded by an old, tired, timid, fumbling Revolutionary War general, William Dearborn, hampered by near-treasonable avoidance of duty by New England militia, retreated to winter quarters near Albany without even attempting to cut the vital, undefended British supply lines strung out westward from Montreal. Spectacular but isolated victories by the Constitution and other frigates boosted American morale but did not challenge overall British command of the seas.
These reversals made it necessary (and possible) for Madison to appoint new leaders for the Navy and War departments and to begin finding younger, more able, and more vigorous commanders for the army. His choice for the Navy Department, William Jones, turned out to be able and loyal, serving with distinction until the end of the war, but the War Department “solution” was more problematic. Madison finally settled on General John Armstrong, a New York politician who had wide military and administrative experience but was quarrelsome, imperious, and almost sure to be disloyal politically, especially to a Virginia-led administration. The president was well aware of the liabilities but hoped Armstrong’s “known talents” and military experience, together with “a proper mixture of conciliating confidence and interposing control would render objectionable peculiarities less in practice than in prospect.” Political considerations seemed still to compel appointment of some incompetent commanders in the army, but a move toward improvement was made by putting William Henry Harrison in command in the Northwest Territory and by promoting Winfield Scott, Jacob Brown, and Andrew Jackson to posts of enlarged responsibility.
In the election of 1812, Madison survived a political challenge from De Witt Clinton, who gathered support from a motley collection of Federalists and discontented Republicans, some of whom wanted a more vigorous and some a less vigorous prosecution of the war. After a scurrilous, even disgraceful campaign, Clinton carried all of New England except Vermont, as well as New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, but Madison’s strength elsewhere gave him a 128-89 victory in the electoral college.
Two years of anxiety, frustration, and defeat still faced Madison. Financial and diplomatic headaches increased throughout 1813 as Britain felt emboldened by the effects of Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow, and American armies continued to flounder in the swamps west of Lake Erie. Only toward the end of the year did prospects for successful campaigns against Canada arise, following Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory on Lake Erie on 10 September and Harrison’s defeat of a British and Indian army on the Thames River, north of the lake, on 5 October.
Meanwhile, another inept campaign in New York State and bold excursions by British naval forces in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast left the nation frustrated and apparently defenseless. Disheartened, Madison suffered a near-fatal illness in the summer of 1813, provoking tactless political enemies to wonder how he could “appear at the bar of Immortal Justice” with the “bloody crime” of an unnecessary war on his hands and to hope publicly that the vice president, “scant-patterned old skeleton” Elbridge Gerry, as one Federalist labeled him, would soon follow the “lingering incumbent” to the grave so that a Federalist president of the Senate might rescue the country from its woes. (Gerry did indeed die in November 1814.)
News of Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig and of Wellington’s victories in Spain, reaching Washington late in 1813, made it certain, moreover, that Britain would soon have thousands of battle-hardened troops free to assault and punish its former colonies, which, British leaders felt, had attacked treacherously when England was in desperate struggle against the French tyrant. British transports soon brought a fresh army to Canada, and another one appeared in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1814 accompanied by an awesome naval force. An issue of the Times of London that arrived in Washington in June 1814 threatened, “Oh, may no false liberality, no mistaken lenity, no weak and cowardly policy, interpose to save the United States from the blow! Strike! Chastize the savages, for such they are! With Madison and his perjured set no treaty can be made … Our demands may be couched in a single word—Submission!” The French minister to Washington wrote, “The Cabinet is frightened … It has a consciousness of its weakness and of the full strength of its enemy.”
Madison tried to organize the defense of the capital, but Secretary Armstrong refused either to heed the president’s suggestions or to formulate alternate plans. To make matters worse, the army commander in the region, General William Winder, although earnest and loyal, was inexperienced and incompetent. When British forces landed near Washington on 19 August 1814, Madison, Monroe, and Winder sought to muster and position the untested, largely militia forces. The Americans were outmaneuvered, fought a losing battle at Bladensburg on 24 August, and gave up the capital that afternoon.
The Madisons packed what state papers, valuables, and belongings they could and fled on horseback to Virginia as the British force burned the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings. For seventy-two hours the exhausted president roamed the Virginia and Maryland countryside, searching for his family, sleeping wherever he could, and trying desperately to keep his army and government in being. He was personally courageous during the crisis and exerted a steadying influence on those around him. For a man of sixty-three, in uncertain health, his physical exertions were remarkable if not foolhardy or heroic.
The British, having humiliated the American government and not intent on permanent occupation, soon withdrew, and Madison returned to the charred and dispirited city on 27 August. He at once, quite properly, dismissed Armstrong and Winder for their serious unfitness in the crisis, and although his own shortcomings were not always those his detractors have charged against him, he does bear ultimate responsibility for the disaster. Sooner than any of his advisers, he warned of the likely motivation for, and place of, the British attack. As Monroe later observed, Washington “might have been saved, had the measures proposed by the President to the heads of departments on the first of July, and advised by them, and ordered by him, been carried into effect.”
Madison’s faults of conception lay mainly in supposing the militia could be mustered effectively after the British forces appeared and in trusting military command to Winder. A Jackson or a Winfield Scott would almost certainly have foiled the hesitant, poorly executed British campaign against the capital. Madison must bear the blame for Winder’s unfortunate appointment as well as for the retention of Armstrong during a period of crisis. Whatever uproar might have followed dismissal of the politically powerful secretary of war, it would have been preferable to his vitiating presence.
Furthermore, if, as is generally warranted by the record, Madison knew that the preparations he deemed essential to the defense of Washington were not being made, he failed as commander in chief in not correcting the situation by whatever means necessary. The dangers and liabilities of almost any course of action likely to lead to correction were as grave as Madison supposed, but it was nevertheless incumbent on him to do something. The events of the summer of 1814 illustrate all too well the inadequacy in wartime of Madison’s habitual caution and tendency to let complexities remain unresolved when no clear course of action was available. Although such inclinations are ordinarily virtues, in crises they are calamitous.
Madison’s fault was more profound than personal predisposition or the accident of being in the wrong position at the wrong time. Shortly after the president’s return to Washington, Navy Secretary Jones, who had worked with him closely for a year and a half and had been with him almost constantly during the preparations, attack, and flight, observed, “The President is virtuous, able and patriotic, but … he finds difficulty in accommodating to the crisis some of those political axioms which he has so long indulged, because they have their foundation in virtue, but which from the vicious nature of the times and the absolute necessity of the case require some relaxation.” That is, it was, ironically, Madison’s very republican virtue that in part unsuited him to be a wartime president.
Madison’s understanding of executive conduct did not require or even allow him single-handedly to make up for the reluctance of the people to be ready to defend themselves, for the hesitations of the states to adopt forthright measures, for the ineffectiveness of other executive officers, or for the failure of Congress to authorize and pay for a sufficient war machine. To have done so would, according to Madison’s “political axioms,” have corroded every virtue necessary to republican government: a responsible citizenry, vital state governments, self-reliant public servants, and respect for legislative leadership. It was, of course, impossible for him to be a Caesar or a Cromwell, but it was also against his nature and deeply held principles to become even a William Pitt or a Hamilton.
Earnest congressmen such as Nathaniel Macon, former President Jefferson, and even, in a lesser way, Gallatin himself managed, with good luck and without becoming gravely irresponsible, to evade the confrontation of republican pieties with the hounds of war thrust painfully and unavoidably on Madison by British arms in the summer of 1814. Madison believed, with much justification, that he could not conduct a war to validate a republican independence in the manner of an imperial proconsul without destroying that cause in the process. Had he done that, his failure would have been a moral one, permanently disastrous to the country. As it was, he only failed, pathetically in many ways, to find the proper blend, discerned by Washington and Lincoln, of stern, vigorous leadership and of republican deference necessary in wartime. The result was a merely temporary anxiety and destruction, perhaps a small price to pay to save the vital political character of the nation.
Although the repossession of the capital, the repulse of British forces before Baltimore (where Madison’s prisoner—exchange envoy, Francis Scott Key, saw “by the dawn’s early light” on 14 September that “the star-spangled banner yet waved” over Fort McHenry), hard-fought battles on the Niagara frontier, and, most important, the defeat of a British land-and-water invasion of the Champlain Valley on 11 September cheered and heartened Americans, and in fact would eventually cause Britain to seek an end to the war, months were to pass before Madison knew the crisis was over. American commissioners were in Europe with instructions for seeking peace, but in the summer and fall of 1814, British diplomats were still insisting on harsh terms. In the meantime, as another powerful British force gathered in the Gulf of Mexico menacing New Orleans, an enlarged war seemed likely amid heightened domestic difficulties.
Although some Federalists in Congress gave loyal if grudging support of the war effort, extremists, still vociferous and strong, reacted differently. To one plea for support of the administration, a leading Federalist retorted:
How often, in the name of God, will you agree to be cheated? What are you to gain by giving Mr. Madison Men and Money? … An union of the commercial states to take care of themselves, leaving the War, its expense and its debts to those choice spirits so ready to declare and so eager to carry it on, seems to be now the only rational course.
Not surprisingly, one visitor in Washington found Madison’s thoughts and conversation “full of the New England sedition.” To an old friend he wrote:
You are not mistaken in viewing the conduct of the Eastern States as the source of our greatest difficulties in carrying on the war; as it is certainly the greatest, if not the sole, inducement with the enemy to persevere in it. The greater part of the people in that quarter have been brought by their leaders, aided by their priests, under a delusion scarcely exceeded by that recorded in the period of witchcraft; and the leaders are daily becoming more desperate in the use they make of it. Their object is power. If they could obtain it by menaces, their efforts would stop there. These failing, they are ready to go to every length.
In this atmosphere Madison faced more New England resistance to war measures. Massachusetts refused to send militia to meet a British invasion of Maine; Vermont smugglers drove herds of cattle into Canada to feed British troops; Connecticut Federalists talked of a New England army free from federal control; and the Massachusetts legislature called for a convention to plan regional “self-defense” and to decide whether “to lay the foundation for a radical reform in the national compact,” a resolution that led to the Hartford Convention of December 1814.
Acting Secretary of War James Monroe found these moves so threatening that he sent the hero of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, Colonel Thomas Jesup, to Hartford, ostensibly as a recruiting officer but actually as a federal agent to watch for possible treason and rebellion. Jesup’s unreassuring reports caused Monroe to authorize New York’s Governor Daniel D. Tompkins and General Robert Swartwout to send in loyal troops in case of a New England uprising. Only the triumph of relative moderates at the Hartford Convention persuaded Monroe and Madison to relax from a posture of armed preparedness against potential domestic insurrection.
All this watchful concern by the administration occurred without whipping up the public against the dissenters, without attempting to interfere with the Hartford Convention, and without any special declarations of emergency or other measures that might have led to detentions, strictures on the press, threats to public meetings, or other curtailments of civil liberties. It might be argued, of course, that to praise such restraint is to make a virtue of necessity, since the degree of disaffection in New England was such that Madison could not have coerced the home territory of Daniel Shays even if he had tried. At the very least some stiff fighting might have ensued, but the temptation and perhaps the force for a repressive policy existed.
For the time being at least, British forces in Canada were discouraged and quiescent as attention focused on New Orleans, so the veterans of Plattsburg and the Niagara frontier, now battle-tested and under vigorous, young leadership, were available for service. A few regiments marched to Hartford, Springfield, or even Boston might have cowed the dissidents and emboldened national sentiment in the region. Furthermore, politically the Republicans might have relished an opportunity to brand their foes as traitors and perhaps discredit them for a generation. Again one need only imagine what Hamilton, who had mobilized an army against the whiskey rebels, might have done in New England in 1814 to see the point.
On 4 February 1815 long-delayed news of climactic events that had happened thousands of miles away finally reached the gloomy, anxious capital. First came word of an astonishing American victory on 8 January at New Orleans: Andrew Jackson’s frontier army, drawn up behind breastworks and ably prepared and commanded, had destroyed a battle-hardened British army that advanced courageously but fruitlessly against the American lines. The British lost seven hundred killed, fourteen hundred wounded, and five hundred captured, to American casualties of seven killed and six wounded. Then, on 14 February, came news that a peace treaty with Britain had in fact been signed at Ghent, Belgium, on Christmas Eve, 1814.
For Madison, these events were immensely gratifying. Jackson’s victory not only rescued the nation from a sense of military inferiority but also achieved a goal Madison had sought for thirty-five years: secure American possession of New Orleans and the great valley it controlled. Now, with Spain prostrate, France conquered, and Britain utterly defeated at the very gates of New Orleans itself, a century and a half of strife and changing control had ended; the red sea of British dead created by the fire of Jackson’s men dramatically and finally underscored American possession of the western empire. Madison knew the cheering throngs that filled the streets of Washington were celebrating the most important triumph of American arms since Yorktown.
The Treaty of Ghent contained not one of the humiliating conditions insisted upon by the British the previous August and thus restored all American territory occupied by British forces; recognized American rights on the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, and the Newfoundland fishing banks; placed the two countries on equal grounds commercially; and, by neither confirming nor denying impressment and other maritime rights, left these matters to the almost surely benign consequences of peace. Thus, although the treaty in one way seemed to settle nothing, merely restoring the status quo antebellum, ignoring the maritime grievances so often proclaimed as the cause of the war, and leaving many disputed matters to be settled later by commissions, in fact the United States, by standing up to Britain, had won a second war of independence.
The Senate ratified the treaty unanimously, and on 17 February, Madison declared the conflict ended. Celebrations again resounded throughout the nation, as not only were its independence and honor rescued but, with dazzling trade prospects opened, an era of growth and prosperity seemed assured. Furthermore, these glorious events, coming as they did when internal dissension and financial chaos threatened but before the Madison administration had to take repressive steps, seemed to vindicate the whole republican concept of government. This, of course, was Madison’s only real war aim and the crowning achievement of his public life.
Madison as National Leader and Elder Statesman
With the return of peace, Madison sought out policies that would allow the nation to fulfill its potential. He gave top civilian and military appointments to able and proven colleagues—Monroe, Gallatin, John Quincy Adams, Commodores John Rodgers and David Porter, and Generals Jackson and Winfield Scott, for example—in whom the whole nation took pride. He also provided leadership to Congress in his annual message of December 1815, recommending a rechartered Bank of the United States, an equitable commercial treaty with Great Britain, a mildly protective tariff, a small but high-quality defense establishment, a national university, and a program of internal improvements authorized by a constitutional amendment.
This broad, national program was for Madison a propitious return to the high hopes he had shared with Jefferson and Gallatin in 1801-1804, before the ten-year hiatus forced on the nation by the traumatic, nearly overwhelming effects of the Napoleonic Wars. With the Hamiltonian engine in part restrained or dismantled and the nation’s republican institutions validated and strengthened by their wartime testing, it was possible to use them for the public interest, and it was the responsibility of the president to articulate that interest. Although it was the task of Congress to legislate, the need for both practical and symbolic leadership was still crucial. Madison thus furnished steady, principled guidance during two years of national euphoria.
Viewed in this light, Henry Adams’ often repeated criticism that Madison found himself forced to become a federalist in order to govern properly becomes a half-truth. He was, as Jefferson had claimed for himself, a federalist in that he saw virtue in active national leadership and other federalist principles, but Madison neither abandoned republican precepts nor sought to embrace federalism in its partisan guise. Rather, he intended to eliminate party itself from public life. It was not only safe but essential in 1815 to provide presidential leadership, within widely acknowledged republican guidelines, for the nation as a whole; and in order to do this, the president would have, as much as possible, to rise above partisanship.
Madison (and the other pre-Jackson presidents), rather than supposing it was necessary for the chief executive, even in the White House, to be a vigorous, unabashed party leader, accepted the view that good leadership had to be nonpartisan. Madison knew, of course, that no human being can entirely transcend a partial view, but he would also have insisted that, especially in executive office, it is important to deemphasize party and faction and neutralize them as much as possible, as he had argued in The Federalist (paper no. 10). He further recognized there that special-interest, pluralist politics were “sown in the nature of man” and were “nourished” by the very air of free government. But Madison also believed that the serious intention and the obvious stance of the president to subordinate party (partial) interests and needs, if consistently kept in mind and in public view, would make a difference both in how he acted and in how the nation responded to him. Such an intention and such a stance, moreover, were especially important in a republic because they might influence public perceptions of the presidency and thus affect the range and character of leadership possible in the nation.
Madison’s realism about the irrepressible causes of faction led him, in framing the Constitution, to guard against their influence and against any concentration of power that would allow greed and ambition to be dangerous to liberty. But he also regarded virtuous (that is, nonpartisan) leadership as vital to the public good, and he was willing, indeed determined, to encourage such leadership even if it meant putting some restraint on direct, popular government. In so acting, moreover, Madison believed not that he showed hostility to self-government but rather that he was being a wise and creative democrat. As his collaborator Jefferson said so clearly and so often, the true test of a republic was whether or not it cultivated talent and virtue. Neither he nor Madison, furthermore, ever doubted that wise leadership, above party, could provide critical assistance in meeting that test. Such, at any rate, was the aspiration, the republican commitment, and the conception of the presidency that guided Madison as he first devised and later filled the office that for two centuries has focused the hopes as well as the forebodings of the American people.
In retirement at Montpelier, his plantation in Orange County, Virginia, Madison and his vivacious, supremely sociable wife, Dolley, enjoyed twenty years of happy visiting with family, old friends, and semiofficial guests (most notably, the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824) who wanted to see and talk with the sage soon to be known as the Father of the Constitution. Madison remained active politically both as an adviser to public officials and as a participant in some especially favored activities. As long as Monroe was president, Madison wrote and conferred with him regularly, especially on the intricate and momentous settlements in foreign policy with Europe and Latin America that culminated in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.
Letters exchanged and visits enjoyed with Gallatin, Richard Rush, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren kept Madison in close touch with the nation’s affairs well into the Jacksonian era. Most important, he took a leading role in combating the nullification movement, especially in denying, directly and authoritatively, that the Virginia Resolutions of 1798 had advocated that doctrine.
He continued a lifelong interest in scientific farming as president of the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, served for a time as president of the antislavery American Colonization Society, and attended the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829, where he sought both to diminish the power of Tide-water slaveholders and to extend the franchise. His most sustained public service, however, was to assist Jefferson in founding the University of Virginia and then to serve as its rector for eight years following Jefferson’s death in 1826.
Although for ten years or so after his retirement Madison’s health remained good enough to allow him to supervise his own farm daily and to make journeys to see many Virginia friends (including semiannual visits with Jefferson and Monroe near Charlottesville, twenty-five miles away), rheumatism and stomach disorders gradually confined him to Montpelier. There he spent most of his time arranging his voluminous papers and especially preparing his full and uniquely valuable notes on the debates of the Convention of 1787 for posthumous publication (published in three volumes in 1839, they became the leading source for understanding that signal event). In wide correspondence and frequent visits with dozens of historians and scholars, the learned, well-informed former president exerted a profound and judicious influence on the recording of the early history of the United States. In 1833 and 1834 his health failed seriously and he was confined to the fireside of his sitting room, where he died quietly on 28 June 1836, the last survivor of those who had played a leading role in the founding of the Republic.