James Madison: The Fourth Retrospective (1809 – 1817)
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
James Madison was Thomas Jefferson‘s Secretary of State, best friend; and in many ways an extension of Jeffersonian Democracy. He was a veteran of the revolution and author of the Constitution. Madison faced an incredible amount of bitching due to his presiding over a debacle of a war that he started. He will not be the last President this would happen to.
Although James Madison knew slavery was wrong, he remained a large slaveholder throughout his adult life owning as many as 118 slaves at one point.
In private letters, Madison referred to slavery as a “dreadful calamity” and a “sad blot on our free Country,” and he wrote to Frances Wright on September 1, 1825:
The magnitude of this evil among us is so deeply felt, and so universally acknowledged, that no merit could be greater than that of devising a satisfactory remedy for it.
Yet Madison never emancipated his slaves (despite a promise he made to do so), and he advocated sending Black people to Africa rather than abolishing slavery. Of freeing slaves in America, Madison wrote on October 20, 1789:
Neither the good of the Society, nor the happiness of the individuals restored to freedom is promoted by such a change in their condition.
In a written response to questions posed by Jedediah Morse in 1823, Madison described free Blacks as “Generally idle and depraved; appearing to retain the bad qualities of the slaves with whom they continue to associate, without acquiring any of the good ones of the whites.” Elsewhere, Madison wrote that Black people were marked “by Physical & lasting peculiarities” and that they had a “natural and habitual repugnance to labour.”
To extract slave labor, Madison instructed his overseer to “treat the Negroes with all the humanity and kindness consistent with their necessary subordination and work.” The amount of work must have been high, for Madison told a British visitor that he could make $257 per Negro annually for only $12-13 in upkeep.
Perhaps most regrettable of all, Madison did not oppose the enslavement of children. For example, when Madison was informed that a French visitor had “procured a Negro girl, and only wants a boy in order that they may breed,” he arranged for funds to purchase a “Negro boy.”
Landmark Supreme Court Cases
In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia’s voiding of a 1795 land grant was invalid because it violated a clause of the U.S. Constitution forbidding states to pass laws interfering with contracts. The decision in Fletcher v. Peck expanded the parameters of judicial review, as it marked the first time the Supreme Court struck down a state law as unconstitutional.
In Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816), the Court established that the United States Supreme Court has jurisdiction and authority over state courts regarding federal issues. This is the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.
War of 1812
The War of 1812 defined Madison’s Presidency. At the time, half the country wanted to go to war with England and the other half wanted to go to war with France.
Madison was more or less pushed into war with England. Shortly after his inauguration, the British began seizing American ships and impressing American merchants and seamen doing business. Madison’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the matter were ineffective.
Madison became the first president to ask Congress for a declaration of war on June 18, 1812. Think about that. We declared war on Great Britain. They didn’t declare war on us. The British had an army that just defeated Napoleon. We had a small militia. At that time, we had a small navy of about twenty ships. The English had a huge navy of about 1,000 ships. In fact, Madison even suggested that we stop building ships and just rent the Portuguese navy because the disparity was so large.
Needless to say, this was a disaster. We lost humiliating engagements in Detroit (1813) and in upstate New York. In August 1814, the British raided Washington and burned the White House down making Madison the only sitting president to face enemy fire. After being chased from the White House, Madison personally took command of a militia battery, but was forced to retreat.
People who thought or think America has never lost a war are sadly mistaken. We definitely lost the War of 1812. We were defeated both on land and at sea, and the capital was burned to the ground.
There was almost a civil war in December 1814 as New England threatened to secede. That’s right, New England wanted to leave the union. Their life blood was commerce and shipping and this war, which the President declared, was absolutely terrible for business.
Treaty of Ghent
Madison sent James Monroe to negotiate peace with the British. The war officially ended in December 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent. Before word got back to Washington, in January 1815 we won the Battle of New Orleans. A hero would emerge from the battle, Andrew Jackson, who we will be covering very shortly.
The victory did little to subside the bitching Madison received from… well everyone. We only remember his presidency for the Star Spangled Banner, and Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington.
Madison was a victim of the politics of international diplomacy. In the real world, foreign issues could no longer be ignored. The War of 1812 was largely the result of world politics in which we were now involved. America was now a mature country on the world stage, and the President must play a role in the world as a symbol of where we stand. Politics is often not about the individual, but the unforeseen events that define the individual.
It turns out that people who detest declaring war on nations that don’t directly attack us were prevalent during the “warmongering” Madison administration. People who moan about the economics of war (both for and against) appeared here with the first of many threatened dissolution of our union being over economic interests abroad effecting us here. Yes, the global economy affected domestic politics 200 years ago. No, there isn’t any way we can avoid that by ignoring what happens abroad; nevertheless, the bitching continued.
James Monroe (1817-1825) would follow him
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) preceded him
It all started with George Washington (1789-1797)