Historians such as Henry Adams and Garry Wills called James Madison's presidency a failure, despite his genius as a legislator. Madison was the first president to lead our nation through a war that defined not only our sustained independence from Britain, but also our identity as a nation of liberty and learning, despite difficulty and division within his administration.
His presidency is extremely relevant today because the lessons it taught us continue to be just as important today as they were in the th century. The primary issue during Madison's administration was the conflict with British impressments of American sailors, claiming them as deserters. During Madison's first term, he tried to prevent war by various means of negotiation. A restless Congress plagued Madison's presidency. The political parties at that time were the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans. Although there was a Democratic-Republican majority in Congress, the Federalists were forceful and the Congress members were divided heavily between these political a liations as well as the issue of whether or not to go to war with either Britain or France.
Madison was also plagued with a frustrating Cabinet. His
first Cabinet contained incompetent men. According to Ralph
Ketchum, author of "James Madison: A Biography," many of
them were drunkards including Secretary of State Robert Smith and Secretary of War John Armstrong. Madison replaced Smith with James Monroe in . Madison's only strength in his Cabinet was Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin who excelled in financial matters. On June 1, 1812, Madison officially declared war against Britain. Congressmen who had fought against the idea of war scoffed, "It's Mr. Madison's war!"
Shortly after his war declaration, Madison was nonetheless re-elected. The nation was militarily unprepared for war. Madison had elected too old or too young military heads, with some exceptions including Andrew Jackson and Oliver Perry. The War of 1812 didn't accomplish much, resulting in the climactic burning of Washington City on Aug. 24, 1814. Yet each of these problems that plagued Madison's presidency, as dire as they each may seem, are not relevant reasons to doubt the leadership of James Madison. Here's why:
The burning of Washington City shook the nation to its
core. It has been said to be Armstrong's fault, as he disbelieved that the British would actually burn the City. erefore, despite Madison's warnings, Washington City was not protected from the British. Many of the Cabinet members and Congressmen wanted to relocate the government, but
it was Madison alone who said that they would rebuild. They
would give Britain the pleasure of having humiliated them.
Because of Madison's firm hand, American pride carried the nation and by 1815, peace with Britain came. For the last two years of his presidency, Madison rode on popularity. He had taken the nation though a war in which we gained national pride, integrity and identity.
The importance in setting the record straight on Madison's presidency is relevant today because the War of 1812 taught many lessons, both to the United States and other nations. It taught us the need for a strong military; how to defend our liberties as a sovereign nation, and how to maintain unity at a time when the nation was very divided. It taught other nations to respect us, as they continue to do so today, and reinforced to the world the power of a free republican democracy.
But most importantly, it continues to teach everyone that no
matter how large a situation or how dangerous the odds, standing up for what you believe in and uniting together as a people is strong enough to break the bonds from any hidden oppressor or known enemy. Although we were not prepared, it was on principle that Madison decided to go to war.
Madison stood in the midst of turmoil and indecision before and during the War of 1812. He received recognition even though he had a divided Congress, incompetent Cabinet and inept military leaders.
Madison led us through a war not to prove a military or administrative point, but to prove that despite all odds, the United States of America would not submit. It would stand in its independence, and not back out on its Constitution, where the principles of liberty rest and where the heart of James Madison still beats today. It is why the War of is also called "The Second War of Independence."
Madison made long-term decisions as president. He wanted to uplift constitutional principles that would last generations. Unfortunately, many leaders today seem to focus on short-term goals. Because of media and technology, politicians have been so overwhelmed by the "small"
situations of our day that they cannot easily look as far ahead into the future as Madison did more than years ago. Politicians today would benefit from Madison's example, stepping out of the box and planning for greater political prosperity. In recognition of this ongoing bicentennial of Madison's presidency, let us applaud our namesake James Madison.
Sarah Everett is a James Madison impersonator and a junior theatre major. Contact Sarah at email@example.com.