[Abridged] Presidential Histories

04.) James Madison 1809-1817

June 01, 2020 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
04.) James Madison 1809-1817
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
04.) James Madison 1809-1817
Jun 01, 2020
Kenny Ryan

James Madison is known as the father of the Constitution. Unfortunately, he's also the father of the War of 1812 and the Embargo act of 1807. The first was a disastrous conflict that burned down the White House, the second was a well-intentioned policy that totally failed and plunged the American economy into depression.

From his time helping create the modern American government to his year's building the Jeffersonian-Republican Party and his two terms in the (badly burnt) White House, we'll follow Madison as he does his best to advance the country with big, bold ideas, and only sometimes has them blow up in his face.

1. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
2. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
3. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
4. John Adams - David McCullough
5. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
6. Washington, A Life - Ron Chernow
7. Hamilton - Ron Chernow
8. The Life of Andrew Jackson - Robert V. Remin
9. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Show Notes Transcript

James Madison is known as the father of the Constitution. Unfortunately, he's also the father of the War of 1812 and the Embargo act of 1807. The first was a disastrous conflict that burned down the White House, the second was a well-intentioned policy that totally failed and plunged the American economy into depression.

From his time helping create the modern American government to his year's building the Jeffersonian-Republican Party and his two terms in the (badly burnt) White House, we'll follow Madison as he does his best to advance the country with big, bold ideas, and only sometimes has them blow up in his face.

1. James Madison - Richard Brookhiser
2. The Last Founding Father, James Monroe and A Nation’s Call to Greatness - Harlow G Unger
3. Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power - Jon Meacham
4. John Adams - David McCullough
5. John Quincy Adams - Harlow G Unger
6. Washington, A Life - Ron Chernow
7. Hamilton - Ron Chernow
8. The Life of Andrew Jackson - Robert V. Remin
9. The Presidents Fact Book - Roger Matuz

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)

Have you ever had to follow up someone else’s really good performance? Like, maybe you’re about to give a class presentation and you think what you have is good but then the person before you blows it out of the water and you’re left there sitting on deck thinking, “Oh my god. How am I going to follow THAT?”

That’s kind of the story of today’s president. James Madison. Who had the unenviable task of following the near-legendary Thomas Jefferson, who, as president, had doubled the size of the United States by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France.

I mean, how do you follow that up?

Maybe. Mayyybe you do it by conquering Canada?

When it comes to Madison, no event more defines his presidency than the disastrous war of 1812. A war that, well, kind of started as an opportunistic land grab aimed at Canada, but which immediately went sour. This is a war where the British won nearly every battle and burned down the White House, but that didn’t stop Madison from being the first president to totally botch a war only to declare “Mission accomplished!” At the end.

But to only mention the war of 1812 would be a disservice to Madison. He’s also known as the father of the constitution. And he had this crazy idea about using economic embargoes to get what you want in foreign policy through diplomacy instead of violence – today, economic sanctions are used all the time. But, unfortunately for Madison, this rudimentary embargo would turn out about as well as his war did.

But hey, the man tried! Let’s dive in.


James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, in Port Conway, Virginia. By all accounts, he had a very sickly childhood. At 5’ foot 4’ and 100 pounds, Madison is still the shortest president in the nation’s history. This slight stature and habit of being sick – or at least claiming he was sick –  meant Madison was never going to be a great frontiersman or military man. But it did mean his energies were focused on his books and his education – Madison needed just two years to get a four-year degree from Princeton. Madison is one of the more cerebral of the founding fathers. Someone who dreamed up big ideas, but didn’t know how to inspire others. A funny example of this is one of Madison’s first elections where he lost the race because he refused to buy whiskey for his supporters to encourage them to vote. His rival, who bought lots of whiskey for everyone, won the race. I mean, what kind of politician doesn’t buy his followers whiskey? Talk about amateur hour.

Which is why it was a good thing Madison met Thomas Jefferson during the revolutionary war. The two first partnered together at a 1776 Virginia convention where they helped write a new constitution for the soon-to-be-independent colony. Jefferson and Madison formed a powerful friendship and political alliance where Jefferson provided the political skills and Madison provided the political ideas. 

And those ideas included some big, bold ideas. While working on that state constitution, Madison convinced the other delegates to provide “equal entitlement” to the practice of religion instead of the “tolerance” in the exercise of religion. This may seem small, but the 18th century was a world of state religions where nonbelievers were often second-class citizens. This was a significant stepping stone toward the freedom of religion that all Americans enjoy today.

Trying to come up with good governance for the post-war world was pretty much what Madison spent all his time doing during the revolutionary war. A great quote of his from this time is, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But Madison was well aware that men are not angels, so while other Americans were fighting, he was reading ancient histories about Greece and Rome and daydreaming about what form of government would best balance his countrymen’s liberty with their security. 

Which sets up the greatest accomplishments of James Madison’s life. By the mid 1780’s, after the war for independence had been won, it became clear that the articles of confederation, the first government of the United States, wasn’t working. Powerful states were pursuing their own state interests over national interests. Foreign powers found it easier to make commercial deals with individual states rather than the continental congress, and so the states competed with each other in a race to the bottom by offering foreign nations ever better deals for access to their markets. Some states even threatened to go to war with each other over boundary disputes. This all led to a call for the articles of confederation to be revised, and a convention was organized to amend them in 1787in Philadelphia. But, once assembled, this convention closed the doors, swore all members to secrecy, and set about writing a new constitution instead.

And who led the way in writing that new constitution? None other than James Madison, who was so giddy about the idea, he arrived in Philadelphia 11 days early to begin work as soon as possible. And Madison had reason to be giddy, because, after years of studying just about every form of government man had attempted, he had a blue print of what he thought would make the perfect federal government. And his ideas soon won influential supporters, like Alexander Hamilton, who would become the de-facto head of one of America’s first political parties, and the man presiding over the constitutional convention, George Washington. It helped that Madison was such a nerd for this stuff. Several of his contemporaries remarked that he was the most informed participant at every debate. For example, if someone suggested the government should consist of a senate that could elect an all-powerful dictator in times of great peril, Madison would say, “Rome tried that. It collapsed into permanent dictatorship,” and the debate would move on.

Madison ultimately presented an idea that was very similar to one John Adams had proposed before the war began. It called for a bicameral legislature with an upper senate and a lower house of representatives – which we have today. He argued for a government with different branches that check and balance each other – which we have today. The details may have evolved through debate, but much of our modern government structure came from Madison’s pen.

There was also one other big part of the constitution Madison influenced that’s going to have a massive impact on the first 70 years of the American presidency – the 3/5 clause.

When the convention’s delegates were trying to decide how many congressmen each state would get in the house of representatives and how many electors each state would get in the electoral college, they quickly agreed that the numbers should be decided by state populations. What they couldn’t agree on was whether slaves should count toward those state populations. 

The south thought slaves should count, because if they did, the south would have significantly more say in congress and more influence in electing president, because there were far more slaves in the south than in the north.

The north, obviously, wasn’t too hot on this idea.

Someone eventually remembered that, when a similar debate had come up a few years earlier, Madison had proposed that each slave count for 3/5 of a person when calculating population. The convention wrote this compromise into the constitution. According to research in Michael Conlin’s The constitutional origins of the American Civil War, the 3/5 clause resulted in roughly 10% more presidential electors hailing from the south instead of the north in every presidential election from the country’s founding to the civil war. So, take the election of 1800, Jefferson beat Adams 73-65 in the electoral college thanks in large part to southern electors. If the 3/5 clause hadn’t existed, Adams would have won reelection. This clause has a huge impact.

At the end of the convention, the constitution we live under today was announced to the country, which reacted with … shock? Surprise? A raised eyebrow? Remember, this convention had been called to revise the articles of confederation. Not throw them out and write something new. What was everyone supposed to think of this newly proposed government?

And this is where Madison again stepped to the fore. He, Hamilton, and a man named John Jay wrote a series of articles known as The Federalist Papers that argued on behalf the constitution’s merits and answered popular questions being asked about the document. For example, who decides if a law is constitutional? Is it congress? The president? Or the courts? Federalist No. 78 provides the answer – the courts. 85 Federalist papers were written in all, 26 of which were written by Madison, and they would play a significant role winning support for the constitution. They’re also sometimes cited in court cases today.

But the federalist papers didn’t end the debate. Nine of the 13 states had to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect. This meant that Madison’s national fight now became a local one. A convention was called in Virginia to debate the matter and Madison attended as one of the delegates, and he met significant opposition. Virginia was the biggest, most powerful state in the union. Quite a few of the delegates liked being the biggest, most powerful state and didn’t want to surrender any of that power to the federal government. But with Madison, who knew the constitution inside and out, answering all questions and concerns, adoption was passed by slimmest of margins. Each other state adopted it as well – Virginia was the 10th to ratify – and the constitution as we know it today went into effect.

But work Still wasn’t done for the father of the constitution. One of the points Madison made again and again when arguing for the constitution was that it was a malleable document. A process for writing and implementing amendments was written right into the thing. And Madison had promised to immediately use this amendment process to implement the best suggestions that had been offered during the ratification process. When new government’s first congress was called in 1789, with Madison elected to serve in the first house of representatives, Madison led the way in writing the Bill of Rights – 10 amendments that guaranteed things like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to bear arms.  

So, good job, Madison. I’m sure none of that will ever become controversial in any way.

So that’s how Madison came to be known as the father of the constitution. All he had to do was write the constitution, write 26 articles defending it, and then write the first 10 amendments. Easy-peasy. 

With the constitution complete, Madison moved on to the next project of his life, working within that constitution to build a strong, prosperous United States. And here, everything started off hunky-dory. George Washington, who, remember, had presided over the constitutional convention, was elected the nation’s first president. Alexander Hamilton, who had helped Madison draft the constitution and write the federalist papers, was treasury secretary, and Jefferson, who Madison had been close to since the pair’s days in the Virginia state government, was secretary of state. Madison was probably the most well-connected man in Congress. He even wrote Washington’s Inaugural address, wrote Congress’ response to Washington’s inaugural address, and then wrote Washington’s response to Congress’ response to Washington’s inaugural address – basically, he spent the first few weeks of the new government writing letters back and forth to himself about what a great writer he was.

But … the good times would not last. Madison soon found that while he agreed with Washington and Hamilton on what the constitution should look like, he didn’t agree with them on much else. In the debates that dominated the Washington administration – whether to establish a national bank, which Madison opposed; whether to adopt the state’s war debts, which Madison opposed; where the future capital should be, Madison thought the south; and whether to support the French revolution’s wars against Europe, which Madison wanted to do, Madison was on the outs with Hamilton and Washington on every single issue.

But, if these positions sound familiar, well, they’re the same positions secretary of state Thomas Jefferson had taken on every single issue.

Which got the two old allies thinking, hey, maybe we should organize a party?

When Jefferson resigned from Washington’s cabinet to create the Jeffersonian-Republican party, Madison was right there doing the heavy lifting with him. It was often Madison’s pen and Madison’s ideas that fueled the Republican party’s growth as Jefferson brought his personal relationships and prestige to the cause. Remember, Madison had a lot of great ideas, but he was sickly, short, and still hadn’t really learned how to charm strangers or command loyalty the way the tall, healthy, affable Jefferson had. 

It was also around this time that Madison met and married is wife, Dolley Payne Todd. Dolley possessed all the social graces Madison lacked and would be very important to Madison’s career, helping him build the relationships that are the underpinnings of politics.

When John Adams beat Jefferson in the presidential election of 1796, and Jefferson finished second in electors to earn the Vice Presidency, Jefferson’s first instinct was to write a conciliatory letter to his old friend Adams to heal political wounds and come together for the good of the country. Madison talked Jefferson out of the idea. Arguing that if you make up with Adams now, you’ll never be president later, and you’ll never be able to implement our (read: my) ideas. And that would be terrible. So Jefferson tabled his friendly letter to Adams and started conspiring against Adams instead.

When the presidential election of 1800 rolled around, Madison helped pave the way for Jefferson by rewriting the rules in Virginia so the state’s delegates were awarded on a winner-takes-all basis. That’s right. You know how today we say the electoral college is dumb and the popular vote should decide elections? That was closer to reality back then in Virginia and some other states. In prior elections, if Jefferson won Virginia 60-40, he would get approximately 60% of the electors. But Madison helped change that so the winner of Virginia would get all the state’s electors. So. Thanks for that, Madison.

Thanks, in part, to Madison’s intrigues, Jefferson won the election of 1800 by the skin of his teeth over John Adams, which meant it was time for Madison to be awarded with a lofty prize. Secretary of state, the nation’s top diplomat, would do nicely.

So, what did secretary of state mean for James Madison? Well, opportunity. Being the nation’s top diplomat meant Madison was at the table when, out of the blue, France asked if the United States wanted to buy the vast Louisiana Territory for a bargain of a price. And then, when Jefferson got gun-shy about how the constitution might not allow the president to make such a purchase, Madison slapped him aside the head and said, “Who cares what the constitution says! This is a deal you can’t pass up. Buy. Buy. Buy. Buy. Buy.!” 

Which Jefferson did, to the immense pleasure of most Americans, and the great political benefit of James Madison.

But Madison’s tenure as secretary of state wasn’t all gravy. When France and Britain, who were fighting to the death in the Napoleonic wars, started attacking American merchant ships headed for each other’s ports, it was Madison’s job to make them stop. 

This is where Madison’s Embargo idea came to play.

Basically, the United states knew it was too weak to win a military conflict with anyone at this point, so it couldn’t declare war, but doing nothing would also make the United States look pathetic on the world stage and invite others to push it around. So Madison tried to split the difference and suggested the United States embargo all international trade instead. The idea being that if Britain and France couldn’t purchase American raw materials, industry in both nations would collapse and the out-of-work workers would demand their governments stop attacking American ships so trade could resume.

The thing is, it didn’t work. Like. Not only did it not work, but it backfired in a huge way. The British and French hardly noticed the drop in American imports, while the American economy went into a depression. Even with all the illegal smuggling that went on to try to get around the embargo, imports dropped by 60% and exports dropped 80%. In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that Madison won the 1808 presidential election at all with this embargo hanging around his neck. His opponent, Charles Pinckney, even invented the first political mascot to try and capitalize on the situation. The mascot was a turtle named OGrabMe, which is “Embargo” spelled backwards.

Pretty clever, eh?

But no mascot or embargo could overcome the power of the Jeffersonian-Republican party, the popularity of the Louisiana Purchase, or the cache of being the father of the constitution. Madison didn’t just win the election of 1808, he dominated with a 122-44 electoral college victory. I think that speaks to how much the federalist party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton had fallen. 

And so, on March 4, 1809, 57-year-old James Madison, the father of the constitution and secretary of state responsible for both the Louisiana Purchase and the Embargo Act, was sworn in as the fourth president of the united states of America. And he reported to the nation’s capital in Washington D.C. to get to work.

Ok. So what did the United States and the world look like when Madison became president? Well, things weren’t great. Domestically, the embargo had wrecked the American economy. Internationally, both Britain and France were still attacking American shipping, and uh I haven’t mentioned it yet in this episode, but if the British captured your vessel, they were probably also going to kidnap you and force you to serve in the Royal navy. Ostensibly, this policy was aimed at recapturing royal navy deserters who had joined the crews of American ships, but the royal navy needed a lot of sailors, so why not just kidnap all the Americans you can?

That was the state of play at sea. On land, Napoleon ruled an empire of European client states that stretched from the Spanish peninsula to the Russian frontier. Britain and France weren’t at war at the moment, but you just knew that wouldn’t last. And when war broke out again, Britain and France weren’t going to give a whit about American interests if they got in the way of total victory.

So at first, Madison played it pretty cautiously. The Embargo act had been repealed by Congress the day before his inauguration, but it had been replaced by the non-intercourse act, which doesn’t mean what it what it sounds like it means. While the embargo act banned international trade with everyone, the non-intercourse act banned trade only with Britain and France. Americans could resume trade with either of those two nations the moment they stopped attacking American merchant ships at sea.

But neither country cared about this change in American policy and the attacks on American shipping continued.

Then, one glorious day, Madison’s secretary of state rushed to the Whitehouse saying he’d just been talking to the British ambassador and the British were willing to end the conflict at sea if the Americans restored trade. Madison was relieved! Finally, his embargo / non-intercourse plan had worked! He told congress to reopen trade with England and waited for the attacks to end.

But... they didn’t end. The British ambassador had made this offer without running it by anyone in London and the Americans had leapt at the offer before getting confirmation that the British government would honor the deal. When the attacks didn’t let up and Madison learned of the mistake, he had to reverse course and re-introduce the ban trade with England after just one month of resumed trade. Americans across the country were furious he’d gotten their hopes up and he really did come off looking like a rookie, if not a fool. I mean, who resumes trade before confirming the British would hold up their end of the deal? We’re the United States of America, not the united states of dummies.

Combined with Madison’s natural hatred of Britain and favoritism toward France, this episode might have contributed to his growing desire to go to war with Great Britain – but we’re not there quite yet.

Because before Madison could pull the trigger on the war of 1812, he was faced with a decision over what to do with the Bank of The United States.

Remember back in the early days of the Washington administration when Madison and Jefferson were feuding with Hamilton over the establishment of a national bank, and Hamilton won? Well, that bank had been established with a 20-year charter in 1791. Which meant in 1811, that charter was coming to an end. If it wasn’t renewed, the bank would die.

Not for the first nor the last time in American history, the decision of whether to charter or recharter a national bank would be a massive political battle. Madison and the rest of the Jeffersonian-Republican party could trace their political origins to campaigning against the national bank, and they now held a solid majority in congress, so you’d think this rechartering thing would be a quick and easy death for the bank. But, well, Madison and some republicans had come to realize the bank was actually doing a really good job at growing the economy by providing credit that state governments and large businesses needed to grow. One of the biggest early fears about the bank had been that surely it and Hamilton were corrupt, but when Jefferson’s secretary of treasury, a man named Gallitin, was ordered to investigate the bank, Gallitin instead reported that, quote, “I have found the most perfect system ever formed.”

So now you’re thinking, ok, if everyone has realized the bank isn’t corrupt and it’s helping the nation grow, surely they’ll renew the charter by a wide margin, right?

Well, No. And the reason why is politics. Madison didn’t want to look like a flip flopper, so he stayed silent and refused to publicly support either side of the rechartering issue. Gallitin, who Madison had retained as Secretary of Treasury, had to lobby for its existence all on his own. The house of representatives became so entangled with the issue that they ended up voting to just do whatever the senate did, so all eyes were on the senate, where 7 republicans and 10 federalists voted to renew the bank’s charter, and 17 republicans voted to let it end. A 17-17 tie.

And when a senate vote ends in a tie, it falls to the vice president to cast the deciding vote. Vice President George Clinton – no relation to Bill Clinton – cast the deciding vote against the bank. And he cited Madison’s 20-year-old arguments on why to kill the bank when he did it.

And so, the First Bank of the United States died.

And that’s about to become really important because, on June 1, 1812, Madison is going to ask Congress to declare war on Great Britain, and without a national bank, he’s going to have a hard time finding a way to pay for it.

The War of 1812 has finally arrived.

Ok. So, why the war? In his address to Congress, Madison laid out three central reasons for the war: British impressment of American sailors, British attacks on American merchant ships, and raids by Britain’s Native American allies on the American west.

Congress voted to declare that war by what’s still the narrowest margin for a declaration of war in American history – 79-49 in the house and 17-13 in the senate. But, well, it’s hard not to think the real reason for the war has more to do with Napoleon and Canada.

By the summer of 1812, France and Great Britain were at war again and France appeared to have Britain on the ropes. In fact, Britain’s last major ally on the continent, Russia, had just been invaded by Napoleon’s million-man Grande armee and pretty much everyone was just waiting for word of his impending victory to come back from the East. With Britain so distracted, Madison might have looked at British Canada and thought this would be a great time to conquer it. Such a victory would remove a foreign power from his northern border and surely make him the greatest of America’s founding fathers. What could possibly go wrong?

Well. How about everything?

First off, let’s revisit the bank. Back in 1812, the Federal government had three major sources of money: Bank loans, tariffs, and commodity taxes on things like whiskey. But the bank of the united states had been allowed to expire, so there wasn’t anywhere to go for large loans; the non-intercourse act had reducing trade to virtually zero, so there wasn’t anything to tariff; and the Jeffersonian Republicans were staunchly anti-tax, so he couldn’t easily raise taxes. In short, the American Government was going to war without any money to pay for it.

Which still might have worked out ok if the war was a quick one, and indeed most Jeffersonian Republicans thought it would be. Just a few months earlier, Madison had approved an invasion of Spanish Florida that captured the area from roughly Mobile Alabama to new Orleans – which, yeah, that all used to be Florida. And the Spanish hardly put up a fight. Maybe British Canada would be just as easy a target? Jefferson wrote in a letter that conquering Canada up to Quebec would be, “a mere matter of marching.” But Jefferson was wrong. Madison was wrong. They were all wrong. The British were no the Spanish and the American invasion forces were defeated on every front. What’s worse, the British even managed to launch counter attacks that conquered territory in Illinois and Indiana.

And then word came from Europe that Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was over, and I hope I’m not spoiling anything when I say it ended in disaster. It’s estimated that of the more than 600,000 men who invaded Russia, only 112,000 made it out alive. France’s client states and reluctant allies broke free of their yolks and turned on the retreating emperor. By 1814, Britain and its allies had successfully invaded France and forced Napoleon’s abdication. And that meant 14,000 battle-hardened British veterans were now free to sail for America, where the United States, which had hoped to pull a fast one on a distracted Britain, was suddenly facing the full might of the British empire.

And things kept getting worse. Because, while the British empire was now fully focused on America, the United States were increasingly beginning to fracture. The war had never been popular in New England, where federalists called it “Mr. Madison’s war.” State militiamen in New York had refused to cross into Canada and support the army by fighting on Canadian soil. The British fed into this factionalism by blockading only southern ports and treating new England with kid gloves, even trading with and buying supplies from the New England states. It got so bad, the more extreme members of the federalist party called a convention to discuss seceding.

And, ready for more bad news? In 1814, 4,500 of those Napoleonic war veterans launched a naval invasion of the Chesapeake bay and marched on Washington D.C. When 9,000 American militia were hastily called to try and oppose them at a place called Bladensburg, the well-disciplined British put the Americans to flight so quickly that the battle became known as the “Bladensburg races.” D.C. evacuated in a hurry as British troops entered the city and torched the capital and the White house – revenge for a fleeting American victory in Canada that had resulted in the burning of Toronto’s civil administration buildings. 

But. Fear not. Our plucky American ancestors are about to notch a couple of wins. First, the British army that attacked Washington was repelled by the fortifications at Baltimore, where poet Francis Scott Key, who watched the battle from a ship, was inspired to write the poem “Star Spangled Banner.”

Then, in January, 1815, a militia general named Andrew Jackson won a stunning victory over a British army twice his size outside New Orleans. 2,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or captured to just 13 American dead, 39 wounded, and 19 MIA – perhaps the most lopsided victory in American history.

And then, on the heels of that victory, the best news of all came. Peace! 

For much of the past year, American and British diplomats had been working in Ghent, Belgium, to negotiate an end to the fighting. The team, led by John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, and a congressman you’ll hear a LOT more about in future episodes named Henry Clay, signed a deal just before that climactic battle at New Orleans – word just wouldn’t reach North America until after the battle’s end. 

The terms of this peace deal were surprisingly benevolent toward the Americans, all things considered. You’d think the British, having won most of the fighting – and not yet knowing about their pending loss at New Orleans – would have demanded territory or even brought the full might of the empire to bear to reconquer the colonies, but the Americans were helped when Britain’s most famous Napoleonic war hero basically said America wasn’t worth the effort to subdue, so peace was pursued instead. The Treaty of Ghent called for a return to status quo before the war began. No territory was lost, and none was gained. But Britain did end its attacks on American shipping and its impressment of American sailors – with the Napoleonic wars were over, so such actions were no longer needed.

James Madison did his best to hold the treaty high and declare “Mission accomplished!” But, well, was it really?

So that’s the war of 1812. It was a war started by the United States because we thought Britain had its hands full with Napoleon, it didn’t go anywhere near according as planned, and it ended with a pair of American victories and a lenient treaty that allowed the United States to pretend for generations that we kind of, sort of, somehow won.

One of my favorite takes on the War of 1812 was written by Winfield Scott, a young Lt. Col. in the war of 1812 who we’ll from again in the 1840’s when he’s a major military leader during the Mexican-American war.

“The old officers had, very generally, sunk into either sloth, ignorance, Or habits of intemperate drinking. (Newer officers were) coarse and ignorant men … swaggerers, dependents, decayed gentlemen, and others fit for nothing else. How infinitely unwise, then, in a republic to trust its safety and honor in battles ... to imbeciles and ignoramuses!”

Sounds about right.

The war of 1812 would, however, boost the profiles of several men. 

A General named William Henry Harrison won some battles in the Indiana and Ohio territories, including a place called Tippecanoe, against the British and a confederation of Native Americans tribes led by a Chief named Tecumseh. In 25 years, he’ll parlay that fame into a presidency. 

Andrew Jackson, who was now known as the “Hero of New Orleans,” Would also use his fame to reach the white house. In his case, it would take 12 years to get there.

In the more immediate future, James Monroe, who had started the war as Madison’s Secretary of State and who had filled in as secretary of war for the final year of fighting, would become Madison’s immediate successor to the presidency. Monroe was the one who had dispatched the peace delegation that ended the war, and he was the one who had sent Jackson down to New Orleans just ahead of that stunning victory, so he got a lot of the credit for what went right, and escaped much of the blame for what went wrong.

The war of 1812 would also have a big impact on Jeffersonian Republican politics. Many in the party realized that not having a national bank to help fund the war had almost led to America’s defeat, and so the party did something that had been unthinkable just four years before – it chartered another national bank. In fact, the party realized that more than one of its policies had almost lost the war, so the soon-to-be-president Monroe led the Jeffersonian-Republicans toward adopting some of the most popular and sensible Federalist policies. We’ll get more into that in Monroe’s episode when we discuss “The Era of Good feelings.”

As for Madison, well, no matter how loudly he kept saying we’d quote-unquote “Won the war,” it sure felt like we’d lost it. Nearly 2,000 Americans were dead, 4,000 were wounded, millions of dollars had been spent, the capital and white house had been burned, and the war hadn’t even accomplished any of its aims. We gained no territory and the war did nothing to change British maritime policy. Only the defeat of Napoleon did that.

So, after eight years that featured a disastrous embargo and a disastrous war, few shed a tear when Madison announced he wouldn’t run for another term in 1816.

So how had the country changed in the eight years of the Madison administration? Territory-wise, there were small gains. He did pick up that stretch of western Florida that’s now part of Alabama and Mississippi, and two new states were added. Louisiana became a state in 1812 and Indiana became a state in 1816.  There was also a boom in westward migration after the war ended. The Americans might not have defeated the British, but they had defeated Britain’s Native American allies, and the American Midwest was now safe, or defenseless, pending how you look at it, for white settlement.

On the technology front, Dental floss was invented by New Orleans Dentist Levi Spear Parmly in 1815! Back then, dental floss took the form of a silk floss.

But the biggest change that happened during Madison’s presidency was international. Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo came in 1815, and war-weary Europe settled into a far more peaceful era that, while not devoid of war, wouldn’t see anyone dramatically upsetting the balance of power until German Unification began in the 1860s. Peace in Europe was a big deal for the united states. The previous 20 years of foreign policy had been dominated by the debate of which side to support in those European wars, or how to protect American neutrality. Now, it would be a moot point. Peace would allow a boom in transatlantic trade and American fortunes that following presidents would greatly benefit from.

Madison lived another 20 years after retiring from the presidency. He supported Thomas Jefferson’s establishment of the University of Virginia and also weighed in on the slavery debate with some pretty loony ideas. First, he argued that slavery would somehow grow weaker as it spread, and second, he argued that the federal government should buy all the country’s slaves, but some African territory, and resettle them in Africa.

Then, on June 28, 1836, Madison died while eating breakfast at home with his family. He was seated at the table that morning when he realized he couldn’t swallow. A niece asked him, “What is the matter, Uncle James?” and he answered, “Northing more than a change of mind, my dear.” Then his head dropped down and he ceased breathing quietly. He was 85 years old.

Madison’s final act would come after death when the copious notes he’d taken during the constitutional convention way back in the 1780’s were published posthumously. Madison had journaled every day of the convention, but stayed true to his vow of silence and only published the notes after his death. Today Madison’s convention journal offers a wealth of insight to historians studying how our government came to be, and they offer a final say on his greatest legacy, the designing of the American government.

I also want to make one last note on Madison’s widow, Dolley Madison. Dolley was 17 years younger than James, so she survived him and lived to 1849. In the rest of her long life, she mentored a generation of first ladies and helped them acclimate to life in Washington D.C. Many a first lady was thankful for Dolley’s hospitality and generosity in making their lives easier during those hectic years in the nation’s capital.

So, you might have noticed, I don’t consider Madison to be a very successful president. 

By calling for the war of 1812 without building stronger national support, he not only nearly lost the war, but nearly lost the nation when radical federalist called for New England secession – something that only fizzled when the war ended. And, I didn’t get much into it while recapping the war, but a good deal of the struggles in that conflict were because Madison didn’t have a good relationship with his initial secretary of war, who was a rather inept. The secretary of war kept wanting to leave DC to personally lead an invasion of Canada to further his own political career. He had insisted DC was safe from the British right up until they entered the city and torched the capital building. It took this moment, the burning of Washington, for Madison to finally fire an inept secretary and place the very competent James Monroe in charge. It was Monroe who strengthened the defenses of the Chesapeake to prevent further invasion and it was Monroe who dispatched General Andrew Jackson to defend New Orleans, where Jackson won his fantastic victory.

So, if there’s a lesson from Madison’s presidency, it’s don’t be slow in firing the bad seeds and don’t be hasty in making important hires you just might have to go to war with.

Thank you for joining today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

The primary biography for today’s episode was James Madison, by Richard Brookhiser.

In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of James Monroe – a man who dropped out of college to fight in the revolution, who helped save the nation from the War of 1812, and who destroyed the federalist party to usher in a period of one-party rule known as the “Era of good feelings.”

That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.