Monday, February 29, 2016

James Madison: Small Government, War President

James Madison was the fourth president to serve under the U.S. Constitution that he wrote, argued for, and saw adapted. So there was no president before him, nor since, who understood the Constitution better.
He was therefore an ardent defender of constitutional liberties.  He was also the first wartime president.

When Thomas Jefferson decided to step down after serving two terms as president, Madison, Jefferson's closest adviser and secretary of state, became the logical choice to replace him.  He was nominated by the Democratic-Republicans, and easily defeated Federalist Charles Pinckney in the election of 1808.

On March 4, 1809, he was 58 years old when he took the oath of office, becoming the 4th President of the United States.  Madison gave the appearance of a wise, worn-out and taciturn old man.  Yet the charming personality of his wife, Dolley Madison, more than made up for this.  She was the life of a huge inauguration party, and this set the stage for the Madison presidency.

During his presidency the opposition party, the Federalists, were a battered and broken down party.  This happened in part due to the tragic death of Alexander Hamilton, who was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.  The Federalists held only a few seats on Congress. So much of the opposition Madison faced was from members of his own party.

He inherited a recession, and, like Jefferson, he had to deal with tensions caused by war between the British and French.  Both French and British blockades (set up against each other) were impacting the American economy due to the inability to American ships to get by them.  Raising tensions was the fact that British and French ships were attacking American merchant ships.

British war ships took this a step further when they started to board American ships and take American sailors captive, claiming they were deserters from the British Navy.  The British also claimed lands south of the Great Lakes and had succeeded in convincing Indian tribes (and arming them) to to fight American settlers.

Not helping matters was that the British officials in Canada were encouraging Indians there to attack U.S. frontier settlements.

Many in Congress wanted to improve conditions in the country by going to war with Britain. The most eager were New England merchants who were were being hurt by the recession that was caused by ships not being able to deliver goods to Europe.  Madison was in favor of avoiding war, but after the midterm election of 1810, which saw many "war hawks" being elected, Madison was pressured to become the first war-time president.

Madison declared war against Britain in December of 1812, a war that would become known as the War of 1812, or the Second Revolutionary War.  It did not start out good for the Americans, although in the end, after two years of fighting, the war was ended in a draw when the Treaty of Ghent was signed in December of 1814. The person who negotiated the treaty was John Quincy Adams, the son of the president.

During the war Madison faced reelection.  He did not face much opposition from the fractured Federalists, although he did face opposition from within his own party, especially on the issue of war.  Also during the war, in August of 1814, the British landed just 35 miles from Washington, and Madison watched as they easily marched past American militia unites.  Madison fled to Virginia.

His wife Dolley, however, remained at the White House and watched events with her telescope.  When she observed British forces approaching the White House, she loaded her personal belongings onto her carriage. She also, at the last minute, took a famous painting of George Washington out of its frame and gave it to friends to keep safe.  Then she left for safety.

British Admiral George Cockburn and his troops entered Washington and burned down the executive mansion. They also burned down the Capitol and Library of Congress.  Madison may have taken a lot of heat for this.  However, three weeks later American troops were victorious when the British tried to capture Baltimore.  The Americans were then successful holding back British forces in northern New York who were marching south from Canada.  These last minute American victories made the war a draw.

Two weeks after the treaty of Ghent was signed , on January 8, 1815, the British attacked American forces that were lead by Andrew Jackson in New Orleans.  A major battle ensued, and in the end 192 British soldiers had died, 1,265 were injured, and 500 were missing.  The Americans suffered only 13 deaths, 13 wounded, and 19 missing.  The British retreated.

Then news of the Treaty of Ghent reached Washington: the war was over.  Peace returned to the land.  Euphoria in the States rose as news got out that the new nation had faced the world's mightiest military and won, not once but twice.  Madison became a very popular president.

The war was a disaster for the Federalist party.  New England Federalists adamantly opposed the war, and even met once to secede from the union.  Considering many Americans blamed them for holding back the war effort, the party simply faded away.

Now, no longer having to have to face the issues of war, Madison was able to focus his attention on domestic issues.  He proposed the building of roads and canals and a national university (an idea the George Washington came up with).

Still, while Madison was a small government person, the war had increased the size and scope of government at the expense of the states and natural liberties of individuals.  Perhaps, if he had been able to establish peace instead of war with Britain, he might have gone down in history as one of the better small government presidents.