James Madison (1809-1817): The burning of the American capital, thanks be to he

James Madison is a giant in American history and deserves to be. His blueprint of the Constitution makes him one of the most important founding fathers. But as a president he wasn’t so towering. Good in some ways, bad in others, and in this sense reminiscent of his predecessor Thomas Jefferson.

The worst thing he did was to take the new and weak nation into war with Britain — a war that was unnecessary and avoidable. Because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in its 240-year history (aside from 9/11). Washington DC was burned, and when the war was over, little had been solved. It’s called “The War of 1812” for a reason; when you name a war by its year, it’s because there really wasn’t much, in the end, to say about it.

Most historians focus on impressment (impressed sailors) as the cause of the war: the British practice of sending its naval officers to board American ships and seize sailors accused of being deserters from British ships. There were large numbers of British fugitives due to the inhumane discipline and horrendous living conditions in the British Royal Navy. Most American officers rolled over and allowed the British to do their thing when they came on board; it got to the point that Britain wasn’t taking American independence seriously. Sometimes it even resulted in Americans being captured along with the British fugitives, as in the outrageous Chesapeake-Leopold Affair of 1807.

Thomas Jefferson had responded to that affair with the Embargo Act of 1807 (which punished Americans, not the British). Jefferson had known that America was in no position to go to war against the British Royal Navy, but his alternative solution was just as foolish. Americans starved thanks to Jefferson. Five years later James Madison finally took America into war. But impressment was only his nominal reason for doing so. The real reason was reprehensible.

The War of 1812 was in fact instigated by a “war hawk” Congress hell bent on snatching Canada (a possession of Britain) and western Indian lands. It was led (of course) by Henry Clay and John Calhoun, who came up with the propagandist slogan “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights”. No one was fooled by their rhetoric. The war hawks were all from southern and western regions, and they cared about territorial aggrandizement, not sailors’ rights. They threatened to abandon Madison in his bid for a second term if he didn’t declare war, and so Madison capitulated. The Northeast was furious, and refused to provide soldiers to fight against the British. New England actually almost seceded from the union, and had I been living in New Hampshire then as I am today, I may very well have advocated secession myself.

When the war ended two and a half years later, in February 1815, the capital had been burned, and a treaty signed that did nothing to bring the British to terms; America was lucky to get off without making loads of concessions. The treaty didn’t even mention impressment (the nominal cause of the war) and contained no suggestion that America had achieved anything of note. It simply provided for a return to the status quo. It turned out that impressment of sailors did stop after the war, but that had more to do with the Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo four months later (June 1815), not the War of 1812 itself. Waterloo is what brought a final close to the Napoleonic Wars, and ended the danger of attacks on American shipping (by either French or British forces). The only thing of lasting legacy that America got out of the War of 1812 was the Star-Spangled Banner (not the best national anthem, if I may say).

In short, James Madison failed as commander in chief. As Ivan Eland notes (in Recarving Rushmore), there were alternatives to war that Madison could have pursued:

1. He could have smoothed things over with Britain by making it harder for defecting British sailors to get U.S. naturalization papers, and by stopping the laundering of French trade through U.S. ports. Britain might then have less cause to impress sailors aboard U.S. ships and violate neutral U.S. shipping rights.

2. Or he could have used the French violations of U.S. neutrality to form a temporary alliance with Britain. If the U.S. had agreed to trade only with Britain and not France, then Britain would have taken a more benign policy towards the U.S. While not an ideal solution, it’s a plain reality that weak nations sometimes have to make pragmatic accommodations to stay secure. Certainly the northeast would have endorsed this alternative: the Federalists favored good relations with Britain for the sake of New England commerce, and very wisely. The problem is that the southerners hated the English and liked the French, and the war hawks wanted an excuse to seize Canada (a British possession). Had Madison stood up to his own tribe, he would have shown himself to be a great president.

He opted, however, for neither of these better options and instead took a divided and unprepared nation into war against a naval superpower, which resulted in the only invasion of the homeland in U.S. history (aside from 9/11). Even worse — and again against his own principles — he supported a national bank to finance the war debt. He and Thomas Jefferson had all along opposed the First National Bank (1791-1811) for good reasons, and when its charter ended in 1811, he vowed not to renew it. But in the aftermath of the war he (once again) capitulated to Henry Clay and John Calhoun, who wanted a central bank.

Civil liberties preserved

What redeems Madison are his liberty values — the values that he set forth in his blueprint of the Constitution and actually lived by. As I said before, I don’t rate the presidents for anything they did prior to or after their presidential terms. So Madison gets no credit for drafting the Constitution anymore than Jefferson gets credit for penning the Declaration of Independence, fabulous as these achievements are. As we saw in Jefferson’s case, his presidential behavior didn’t always live up to what he advocated as a founding father; his liberty rating was excellent in some ways (especially during his first term), and quite bad in others (especially during his second term).

In Madison’s case, he did practice what he preached. Remarkably, he did nothing to restrict anyone’s civil liberties during the War of 1812 — an astonishing rarity during times of war and crisis. Contrast with the following:

  • John Adams used the Alien and Sedition Acts during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800). (See here.)
  • Thomas Jefferson, while reversing the oppressive measures under John Adams, was no liberty saint himself. He seized and searched citizens without warrants under the Embargo Act (1807-09), and supported state actions for libel against newspaper editors who badmouthed his presidency. (See here.)
  • Abraham Lincoln denied citizens free speech during the Civil War (1861-65). He arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and threw them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. On top of all that, he physically attacked and removed a peace movement. He created military tribunals to try civilians who had simply discouraged people from enlisting in the Union armies; He also “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, in other words detaining them without allowing them to challenge their detention; in so doing, he outrageously ignored the Supreme Court’s order that only Congress, not the president, has the right to suspend habeas corpus during times of war. Finally, he drafted people — the first time forced conscription was used in the American republic. The Constitution doesn’t authorize a military draft, and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits involuntary service. (See here.)
  • Woodrow Wilson’s violations of civil liberties during America’s involvement in World War I (1917-18) were the worst of any president. He resurrected conscription from the Civil War, and used the Selective Service Act of 1917 to draft men against their will. (This act has never been repealed, and to this day American men are required to register for the draft, thanks to Wilson.) The Espionage Act of 1917 made protests against the draft illegal, as well as criticism of American allies. The Sedition Act of 1918 clarified vague language in the Espionage Act, and made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the war effort or the aims of the government. Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic. He fined and imprisoned thousands for criticizing the war. Filmmaker Robert Goldstein got a ten-year sentence for producing a movie on the American Revolution which portrayed the now-allied British in a naturally bad light. Even two years after the war, in 1920, Wilson vetoed Congress’ repeal of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. He was by far the worst presidential threat to liberty. (See here.)
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt was only marginally better than Wilson during America’s involvement in World War II (1941-45). While he did not suppress free speech with arrests and jail sentences, that was only because he had a conscientious Attorney General (Biddle) who urged him not to repeat Wilson’s sins. FDR often scorned Biddle at his cabinet meetings for his unwillingness to prosecute seditionists who spoke against the war, though he didn’t push the issue. He did, however, use British agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested the war. He denied Jews entry into America when they fled the terror of the holocaust; he threw tens of thousands of Japanese American citizens (let alone resident aliens) into prison camps just because of their ethnic heritage. If he was better than Wilson, he was still obscene. (See here.)

Unlike all of these executives and more, Madison preserved peoples’ liberties during the crisis he presided over. The War of 1812 was a blunder, but at least citizens didn’t pay for it with their liberty. That’s no small point and a huge mark of merit for Madison. The cliche that “in times of war, it’s inevitable that some liberties suffer,” isn’t true. All it takes is resolved leadership.

On the downside, Madison did try to create a national draft, but his proposal went nowhere; it was unacceptable to Congress and the public. During the War of 1812, America fought with an all-volunteer army; forced conscription wouldn’t be the way of things until the Civil War.


My scoring for Madison is as follows.

Peace. For taking a weak nation into an avoidable war, he gets docked 15 points off the bat. He keeps the remaining 5 since the result was at least a draw, rather than a loss, without any concessions having to be made. Had Madison lost the war, America would have given up quite a lot; it might have even become a vassal state. (Eland gives him a zero peace rating, but I think that’s not quite right.)

Prosperity. Throughout his term, Madison tried following Jefferson’s policies of low taxes and a reduction of the national debt whenever possible. The war interfered with these motives, and these motives are also weighed against the fact that he eventually (against his better judgment and wise principles) created the Second Bank of the United States. 8 points. (Which is Eland’s score.)

Liberty. This would be a perfect 20, though I dock Madison a single point for trying (vainly) to push through a draft. (Eland, bizarrely, awards him only 10 points, on grounds that “doing the right thing after a monstrous blunder — starting the war — shouldn’t merit too much praise”. On the contrary, it merits the praise as its own category, which is the whole point of the separate categories. Eland basically punishes Madison for the same fault twice, violating his own grading standard.)

Peace — 5/20
Prosperity — 8/20
Liberty — 19/20

TOTAL SCORE = 32/60 = Average

Which places Madison almost exactly in the middle of my presidential rankings. He was average (not bad, as Eland concludes). He will be close to the #20 slot on my final list, give or take, when I finish assessing all the presidents.

UPDATE (9/27/21): Upon further reflection, I was too harsh on Madison for the War of 1812. One of my readers pointed out that if Madison hadn’t stood up, then Britain would have kept picking on the U.S. forever. The war was also a success because it put an end to impressment; it ended the search and seizure of American ships (except during WWI), and Britain vacated forts on U.S. soil and stopped stirring up and arming the Indians. I give him 15 peace points instead of 5. He still could have tried the methods Eland mentions to avoid the war, but on whole he can’t be judged that harshly.

Peace — 15/20
Prosperity — 8/20
Liberty — 19/20


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