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
American union, 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 in 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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
Member of the
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Father of the
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The first of
these articles, later known collectively as The Federalist, or the Federalist
Papers, was published in October 1787. Over the next ten months, 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.
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
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
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
ill, Madison took the floor 35 times in the first four days of this examination.
His arguments were those of the Federalist Papers. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Split with the
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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 Great Britain, the Federalists’ sympathies were with Great
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.”
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 Great 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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 Great 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.
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 Great Britain or France, it eventually had to be abandoned.
Harassment of American shipping continued into Madison’s own administration.
the United States
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
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.
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.
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 Great 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 Great Britain. But if one of them dropped its
restrictions on American shipping, Madison was authorized to again prohibit
trade with the other.
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 Great 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 Great Britain Congress ought to declare war before
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.
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 Great Britain a
state of war against the United States, and on the side of the United States a
state of peace toward Great 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.
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.
War of 1812
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.
efforts were also hampered by opposition to the war from various quarters. The
Federalists had been against war with Great 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 Great Britain.
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.
Second Term as
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.
Progress of 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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
Last Years of
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.
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 in 1836.