The “war hawks” as they were called, were obsessed with the idea of conquering Canada, at the time a major British threat to American expansion, but ultimately that attempt would fail miserably. What the war did do was prove that America was now truly independent and could hold her own in a fight as a sovereign nation. It was not an easy time for Madison, with all the things that were going on in the young nation, but he successfully led the nation through two full terms, and was able to retire happily in 1817 at his second term’s conclusion with America finally having proved its place in the world.
After serving as Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson through both of the President’s terms, Jefferson chose Madison to succeed him as the next presidential candidate. Madison won the presidency in 1808. Right at the beginning of his presidency, he had to deal with a difficult foreign policy situation between France and England, the situation that would inevitably lead to the War of 1812. When he first took office, Madison was well aware that he was being elected to the office at a very pivotal time in the nation’s development, and made this point clear in his relatively brief First Inaugural Address. In a turbulent world, the American experiment in democracy was thus far working as well as anyone could have dreamed. The newly elected president said,
The present situation of the world is indeed without a parallel, and that of our own country full of difficulties. The pressure of these, too, is the more severely felt because they have fallen upon us at a moment when the national prosperity being at a height not before attained, the contrast resulting from the change has been rendered the more striking. Under the benign influence of our republican institutions, and the maintenance of peace with all nations whilst so many of them were engaged in bloody and wasteful wars, the fruits of a just policy were enjoyed in an unrivaled growth of our faculties and resources.
America had for some time done its best to remain neutral since the Neutrality Proclamation of George Washington’s administration, but affairs had considerably worsened. America had been very successful in trading with European nations, and remaining neutral had made America a very prosperous nation thus far. However, Madison made it clear that although it had been a wonderful privilege for the United States thus far to remain neutral with the “belligerent nations” of England and France, it could not continue much longer. John C. Calhoun, the leader of the so-called “war hawks” of the legislature, declared before Congress in 1812, “If we submit to the pretensions of England now openly avowed, the independence of this nation is lost… This is the second struggle for our liberty.” (White 1)
Madison would ultimately have to agree with him. Britain was still a major threat to American independence. They were still the rulers of the high seas, and American trade was always in danger, because the British navy was mighty and could act on a whim if it wished to crush American trade. The trading between France and America, and this was in Napoleon’s time, did not go over well at all with the British. The tensions between all three nations were constantly growing, and finally after about a decade of building tensions, the United States Congress and Madison finally decided that America had to take the initiative and prove that it could come together as a nation and defend its own liberty.
It was not a unanimous decision, however. America was still a very new nation, barely thirty-five years removed from its Declaration of Independence and not yet even twenty-five years removed from the ratification of its Constitution. There was no assurance yet that America could hold its own in a fight against one of the great nations of the world, never mind come out with a decisive victory. Britain had plenty of power to send a fleet over to devastate the American ports, the lifeblood of America at that time, and decimate any chance of America fully developing as a nation.
Also, America was still vulnerable on the northern and northwestern fronts, between Canada and the British troops aiding the Native Americans in the northwestern territories just outside of the official United States. (White 1) There were definitely very good reasons to go to war, but there was not yet a lot of confidence that America could enter a fight with such a mighty nation as Britain and come out on the other side without being completely devastated. But it finally came to the decision of Madison that America had to prove itself, and this was as important a time as any. Obviously, his decision would turn out to be the correct one, but going into the war it was not overly popular.
Before the declaration of war even happened, Madison found it important to replace his Secretary of State, Smith, who had proven to not be a competent officer. The man he chose to replace him in these turbulent times for perhaps the most coveted Cabinet office of all was James Monroe, a very interesting choice. (White 88) Not only was it an interesting choice simply because of the differences that he and Madison and Jefferson had had in the past, but because Monroe had just been elected to be governor of Virginia. (White 89) Monroe himself was not at first sure he should take the position, but inevitably he did, and of course he would later become the next President of the United States after Madison. Madison was well aware of the capabilities of his fellow Virginian and the choice would end up being a good one. Monroe would also end up serving as Secretary of War in 1814 and 1815 towards the war’s conclusion.
The United States officially declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. But America was not quite as ready for war, as the so-called “war hawks,” using the declaration of war to their advantage, found they were quite unable to conquer Canada. The American forces, led by General William Hull, were humiliated and forced to surrender at Detroit in August of 1812 to a smaller Canadian force. On a better note, the small American navy held its own for the early part of the war, including a famous victory of the Constitution, commanded by Isaac Hull, over the Guerrière, as well as the capture of the Macedonian by Stephen Decatur’s ship, the United States. Then again, the British soon regained their naval dominance, and captured a great many American ships in 1813, many of which stayed in harbor until the end of the war. However, several important inland naval victories proved to be important victories for the fledgling American navy over Britain. The American navy proved that it was not going to falter when it counted most.
When James Madison gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1813, the country was hot in the middle of war, in what looked to be thus far a losing effort. Madison in this address gave a very good explanation for why America had entered the war in the first place.
It was not declared on the part of the United States until it had been long made on them, in reality though not in name; until arguments and postulations had been exhausted; until a positive declaration had been received that the wrongs provoking it would not be discontinued; nor until this last appeal could no longer be delayed without breaking down the spirit of the nation, destroying all confidence in itself and in its political institutions, and either perpetuating a state of disgraceful suffering or regaining by more costly sacrifices and more severe struggles our lost rank and respect among independent powers.
In other words, Madison said that the United States inevitably would have been caught up in the conflict whether or not the nation wanted to. This meant that taking the initiative had been the correct course of action. Madison was quite clear that the nation had to prove itself as a competent nation in order to keep its respect as a strong trading partner. He also said,
Our nation is in number more than half that of the British Isles. It is composed of a brave, a free, a virtuous, and an intelligent people. Our country abounds in the necessaries, the arts, and the comforts of life. A general prosperity is visible in the public countenance. The means employed by the British cabinet to undermine it have recoiled on themselves; have given to our national faculties a more rapid development, and, draining or diverting the precious metals from British circulation and British vaults, have poured them into those of the United States. It is a propitious consideration that an unavoidable war should have found this seasonable facility for the contributions required to support it. When the public voice called for war, all knew, and still know, that without them it could not be carried on through the period which it might last, and the patriotism, the good sense, and the manly spirit of our fellow-citizens are pledges for the cheerfulness with which they will bear each his share of the common burden.
President Madison made very clear in his address that Britain for quite some time had been doing everything in its power to hinder American growth, but time and time again Americans had won out. America needed to prove that it could fight Britain on a much larger scale, and fight head to head with Great Britain as a truly republican nation this time. He then said perhaps the most important words of his second Address, and those that the first wartime President needed to say to inspire his nation.
To render the war short and its success sure, animated and systematic exertions alone are necessary, and the success of our arms now may long preserve our country from the necessity of another resort to them. Already have the gallant exploits of our naval heroes proved to the world our inherent capacity to maintain our rights on one element. If the reputation of our arms has been thrown under clouds on the other, presaging flashes of heroic enterprise assure us that nothing is wanting to correspondent triumphs there also but the discipline and habits which are in daily progress.
However, that next year was a very difficult year for America. Of course, the burning of Washington, DC obviously was the most terrible defeat of the War, and by far the most widely remembered part of it. In August of 1814, the British took Washington, burning the Capitol and the White House, creating a widespread panic. Fortunately for America, the British were stopped at the decisive American victory at Fort McHenry before the invading forces were able to reach Baltimore.
It was around this time that New England industrialists and merchants, who were never popular with the trade embargos against Britain to begin with, began to revolt. What was most interesting about this was that financially they weren’t being really hurt at all, and in fact, manufacturing and contraband trade were actually quite profitable for the region, because many New Englanders had isolated themselves from the rest of the country. These New Englanders gathered together at the Hartford Convention, which was a series of secret meetings held between December 14, 1814 and January 4, 1815. Many of them were of the Federalist Party, who had before opposed the Embargo Act of 1807. Now, they were growing increasingly angry with Madison, as the war was becoming incredibly expensive, and for this reason the War became known as “Mr. Madison’s War.” The Federalists suggested signing a separate peace with Britain, and even secession. But at the Convention’s conclusion, especially because of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the moderates at the convention won out and the Federalist extremists like John Lowell and Timothy Pickering were overruled. The failure of the Federalists at the Convention basically sealed the fate of their party.
The Treaty of Ghent was finally signed on December 14, 1814 by both sides at the neutral meeting place in Ghent, Belgium. It was ratified by the United States Senate two months later in February of 1815. In the treaty, territories were restored to their original parties, a diplomatic victory for the United States, as the British nearly did not give up control of the Great Lakes region. The agreement was that Great Britain would remove any and all troops from United States territories, including those in the northwestern areas. Those troops were helping the Native Americans resist American settlement, and with those troops gone they were left helpless. This inevitably left the Native Americans to which the British had promised an autonomous state for no choice but to give into the American demands that would buy away all of their original territory during the next quarter century. However, this treaty was instrumental in the continuation of American expansion westward. Without this treaty, the Ohio territory perhaps may have become a British-controlled Native American state.
The Treaty did not end the fighting, however. In fact, it did not even really end the war itself. All it had actually done, besides inevitably greatly weakening British interests in the northwestern United States, was to restore occupied territory and create commissions to settle outstanding boundary disputes. (White viii) The true end of the war would be at the Battle of New Orleans, the most decisive American victory of the War of 1812. It was, of course, Andrew Jackson’s famous victory, the one that made him a hero, and it was the battle that officially ended the war in 1815.
As Patrick C.T. White said in his excellent book on the War of 1812, A Nation on Trial, “The Declaration of War in 1812 marked the decision by the President and Congress that force alone would uphold their nation’s interest and honor.” (White 131) White also points out, unlike the Congress dominated by the likes of the war-happy Calhoun and Henry Clay, Madison even after officially declaring war did what he could to peacefully resolve the conflict and come to a truce with Britain. There were several attempts to stop the fighting before it began, in fact. However, that Congress was simply not going to play nicely with that idea. (White 131) Madison tried anyway, just like Jefferson had, to keep trying for peace. With the situation continuing to deteriorate, however, it was Madison himself who finally suggested the declaration of war to Congress. (Coles 3) (Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965.)
Fortunately for Madison and the rest of America, the President led a nation that was more than ready to hold its own in a conflict, and the nation took far less damage than may have been expected. James Madison did the best job that he could have during this pivotal time in the developing nation’s history. The words of his addresses signal his great confidence in the nation, and also reflected the confidence of the people in their young nation. Popular history may seem to have forgotten much about the War of 1812. What must not be left forgotten was Madison’s excellent conduct during its duration and that he was indeed our first ever wartime president. He did all that he could to work with the Congress that he had, and proved that though war is rarely a popular thing, that the American Experiment in democracy could in fact successfully orchestrate and come out of major military conflict intact, perhaps not yet in a major victory, but at least in perhaps the greatest stalemate ever fought in the history of the modern world.
Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965.
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