Casebook: The War of 1812  
 Introduction 
 People 
 Battles 
 Documents 
 Articles 
 Press Reports 
 Timeline 
 Message Boards 
 Books 
 Events 
 Games & Diversions 
 Links 
 About the Casebook 



Casebook: The War of 1812
  home > people > president james madison
show all pages
  Go to: 1 

President James Madison
President James Madison
 President James Madison 
Madison, President James
b. March 16, 1751 - d. June 28, 1836

Nationality: American

Allegiance: American

Category: Statesmen

Summary:

   James Madison, fourth president of the United States, was elected to the office in 1808, succeeding his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson as president. He served as chief executive throughout the War of 1812 but displayed little understanding of military matters. It was while on his watch that the British burned the public buildings of Washington, D.C., on August 24-25, 1814, including the Presidential Mansion (now known as the White House) and the U.S. Capitol. In many ways, Madison can be blamed for this calamity, since he was highly influenced by his egotistical secretary of war, John Armstrong, who up until the last moment kept telling him that Washington could not be a target of the British.

James Madison was a shy, serious man who stood a mere five foot four inches high. In a famous quote, Washington Irving described the diminutive president as "but a withered little apple-John." Madison's popular First Lady, Dolley, made up for the lack of charm exhibited by her husband, who was more of an aesthete than a socialite. While her husband was in office, she hosted dinner parties and was renowned for her warmth and charm.

Born March 16, 1751, at Port Conway, Virginia, Madison was brought up in Orange County, Virginia, and attended Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey), completing the four-year course in two years. A student of history and government, and well read in law, he participated in the framing of the Virginia Constitution in 1776, served in the Continental Congress, and was a leader in the Virginia Assembly.

When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled at Philadelphia in 1787, Madison took an active part in the debates. He made a major contribution to the ratification of the Constitution and along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, authored the i{Federalist Papers}.

Like his friend, fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, he had little concept of the need for a strong military. As with a number of leaders in the early republic, he had a suspicion of a standing army. His early belief that a large standing army was dangerous to freedom was reinforced when in June 1783, mutinous American soldiers demanding pay threatened the halls of Congress. Drunken soldiers, he wrote in a memorandum of June 21, were "wantonly pointing their muskets to the windows of Congress."

While serving in Congress, Madison helped frame the Bill of Rights and enact the first revenue legislation. His opposition to Hamilton's financial proposals, which Madison feared would give too much power and wealth to the financiers of New England led to the creation of the Republican, or Jeffersonian, Party.

In 1794, Madison married Dorothea Payne Todd, a young Quaker widow, 16 years younger than her husband. Subsequently known as "Dolley," his wife was described by a contemporary as "vivacious and handsome."

As Secretary of State in the administration of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), Madison protested to the warring European powers France and Britain that their seizure of American ships broke international law. The unpopular Embargo Act of 1807 was an attempt by the Jefferson administration to make the belligerent nations change their ways. Instead, it caused a major depression in the United States.

Despite the failure of a number of policies of the governing Republican party, Madison was elected to succeed Jefferson as president in 1809, handily defeating C. C. Pinkney, George Clinton (who served as Madison's first vice president), and fellow Virginian James Monroe, who was named Madison's Secretary of State and later, in August 1814, Secretary of War, replacing the disgraced John Armstrong. Before Madison took office, the controversial Embargo Act was repealed.

During the first year of Madison's administration, the United States prohibited trade with both Britain and France. However, in May 1810, Congress authorized trade with both, directing the President, if either would accept America's view of neutral rights, to forbid trade with the other nation. Napoleon pretended to comply. Late in 1810, Madison proclaimed non-intercourse with Great Britain. In Congress, the War Hawks, led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, pressed the President toward war with Great Britain.

British impressment of American seamen and the seizure of cargoes in American-owned ships impelled Madison to give in to the pressure of the War Hawks. On June 1, 1812, he asked Congress to declare war, and the declaration of war was signed by him on June 18.

However, despite Britain's occupation with the war with France, it was an inopportune time to declare war. The United States was not prepared to fight. It had both a small navy and a small army. The U.S. Army commanders were elderly Revolutionary War veterans or political appointees or both, e.g., Major General Henry Dearborn. The U.S. Navy was in better shape in terms of commanders, which included men such as Commodore John Rodgers and Stephen Decatur, men who had gained valuable experience fighting in the Tripolitan War. Before the war, the Navy also been well organized by such men as Robert Smith, Secretary of the Navy under Jefferson. This explains why the U.S. Navy was able to score some significant successes against the British in ship-to-ship duels in the early months of the war while the army recorded a number of disastrous reversals.

The war began in 1812 with the British capture of Fort Michilimackinac within days of the declaration of war, and continued with the surrender of Detroit and the failure of American attempts to invade Canada. The next year, 1813, also proved one of mixed fortunes, with some American successes but also more reversals on land, including the failure of General James Wilkinson to capture Montreal in November.

The year 1814 saw a greater number of American successes, at the Battles of Chippawa, Lundy's Lane, and Fort Erie, Baltimore, and Plattsburg. However, Armstrong's weakness as Secretary of War and Madison's own lack of understanding of military matters led to the British victory at Bladensburg (August 24, 1814) and the subsequent sack of Washington, D.C.

The Madisons were ignominiously forced to flee the capital, journeying separately into Virginia. After the British evacuation, because the enemy had burned the Presidential Mansion, the first family were forced to live in the Octagon House.

Because of their reversals at Baltimore and Washington, the British decided it would be best to sue for peace. The War of 1812 was brought to a close by the Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814. However, because of the delay in getting news across the Atlantic in the day of sailing ships, news of the treaty did not reach the United States until February.

General Andrew Jackson's overwhelming victory over the British under General Edward Pakenham at New Orleans on January 8, 1815, has given us the mistaken impression that the United States won the war. In truth, the war was more of a stalemate.

Despite his poor record during the war, James Madison is remembered nevertheless for a war that gave the United States a new identity. Following the war, an upsurge of nationalism resulted. The New England Federalists who had opposed the war--and who had even talked secession--were repudiated to the extent that Federalist Party disappeared as a major national party. The nation also received a number of enduring symbols as a result of the war: the Star-Spangled Banner, "Don't Give Up the Ship," "Free Trade and Sailor's Rights, Perry and the victory on Lake Erie ("We have met the enemy and they are ours"), Andrew Jackson and New Orleans, and the U.S.S. Constitution, which won some famous victories in ship-to-ship battles and was later made immortal by Oliver Wendell Holmes as "Old Ironsides."

In retirement at Montpelier, his estate in Orange County, Virginia, Madison spoke out against the disruptive states' rights influences that by the 1830's threatened to shatter the Federal Union. In a memorandum found after his death, Madison wrote, "The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated." James Madison died on June 28, 1836. He is buried at his home, Montpelier, Virginia, on an estate that was patented by his ancestor, John Madison, in 1653.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Related pages:
  Madison, President James
       Documents: An Act Declaring War Between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland . . . and  
       Documents: An Act for the Safe Keeping and Accommodation of Prisoners of War 
       Documents: President Madison's Third State of Nation Address 

  home > people  > president james madison
Copyright © Christopher T. George, 2012