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September 6th, 2018

James Madison and the War of 1812

The Peter Principle is both a management concept and the title of a popular 1969 bestseller written by Laurence J. Peter. It suggests that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their "level of incompetence". In other words, success at one level leads to promotion to upper levels until the employee reaches a level at which he or she is no longer competent, because skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another. Does this describe James Madison? You be the judge. Madison was an excellent constitutional thinker and draftsman. But when a panel of historians was asked to list the worst mistakes made by Presidents, the list included the decision made by James Madison to take the nation to war against Great Britain at a time when the country had a small standing army and a navy many believed to be no match for the Royal Navy. The country was not united on the decision, with warhawks in the south and west, and New Englanders against the move. It was another moment of division and polarization on an important national issue.

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When Madison became President in 1809, the Federalist party had weakened, and some of its former members had joined Madison's Republican party. This didn't mean that Madison had no opposition. His own party split into rival factions. The largest faction was probably the "War Hawks" who were led by House Speaker Henry Clay. American animosity against the British was high, following the quasi-war during the Adams administration and the failed Embargo Act. The continued British impressment of American sailors and British encouragement of native American aggression against settlers in the west fueled the nation's desire for war.

The War Hawks were emboldened by the fact that Napoleon had won a decisive victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, and as a consequence, the British had their eyes in another direction. Congress repealed Thomas Jefferson's embargo shortly before Madison became president. America's new "nonintercourse" policy was to trade with all countries including France and Britain if restrictions on shipping were removed. In April 1809, Madison's efforts to get the British to cease the impressment practices were rejected by British Foreign Secretary George Canning and by August 1809, diplomatic relations with Britain were at a low point.

At first, Madison resisted the calls to go to war. In his Political Observations written on April 20, 1795, Madison stated:

"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."

During his first State of the Union Address in November 1809, Madison asked Congress for advice concerning the British-American trade crisis. He expressed concern about the possibility of war. But by spring 1810, Madison was asking Congress for more appropriations to increase the size of the Army and Navy in preparation for war with Britain. Largely due to peace in Europe, the economy in the United States began to recover early in Madison's presidency. By the time Madison was standing for reelection in 1812, the Peninsular War in Spain had spread, while Napoleon invaded Russia, and the entire European continent was once again embroiled in war.

On June 1, 1812, Madison sent a message to Congress listing American grievances against Great Britain, and asked for a declaration of war. Many in Madison's party believed this to be a politically wise course with en election on the horizon and felt that doing nothing in the face of British offences would make Madison appear weak. After Madison's message, the House of Representatives deliberated for four days behind closed doors before voting 79 to 49 for a declaration of war. The Senate agreed by 19 to 13. The war formally began on June 18, 1812, when Madison signed the measure into law and proclaimed it the next day. This was the first time that the United States had declared war on another nation, and the Congressional vote would prove to be the closest vote to formally declare war in American history. None of the 39 Federalists in Congress voted in favor of the war and those critical of the decision subsequently referred to it as "Mr. Madison's War".

The United States entered the War of 1812, while the Napoleonic Wars were taking place in Europe. Napoleon intended to force other European countries to join his embargo on Britain. As Great Britain increased naval pressure against Napoleon, it did the same against American ships. Britain used its navy to prevent American ships from trading with France. The United States, which was a neutral nation, saw this act as a violation of international law. The Royal Navy boarded American ships on the high seas and impressed its sailors for its own navy. Madison equated this with an invasion of American soil. Britain also armed First Nation tribes in the Northwest Territory and encouraged them to attack settlers, even though Britain had ceded this territory to the United States by treaties in 1783 and 1794.

The War Hawks dubbed the War of 1812 a "second war of independence". But the war came at a time when Madison faced formidable obstacles. These included a divided cabinet, divisions within his own party, a recalcitrant Congress, obstructionist governors, incompetent generals, and with militia that refused to fight outside their states. Popular support for the war was sectional. There were serious threats of secession from New England, which continued to trade with Canada and refused to provide financial support or soldiers. The problems were made worse due to Jefferson's and Madison's dismantling of the revenue-generating system built by Hamilton and the Federalists. Jefferson and Madison had reduced the military, closed the Bank of the U.S., and narrowed the tax system. They distrusted standing armies and banks, and the dismantling of the federalist taxation system meant they could not finance the quick building of an army. By the time the war began, Madison's military force consisted mostly of poorly trained militia members.

The senior command at the War Department and in the field proved incompetent. For example, General William Hill surrendered his army at Detroit to a smaller British force without firing a shot. Things weren't much better in the Treasury. War was difficult to fund, because the national bank had been closed and major financiers in the Northeast refused to help.

Madison's plan was for the U.S. to seize Canada, cutting off food supplies to the West Indies, giving him a good bargaining chip at any subsequent peace talks. But the US invasion efforts failed. Madison had thought that state militias would rally to invade Canada, but the governors in the Northeast failed to cooperate. Their militias either sat out the war or refused to leave their states for action. The British armed American Indian tribes in the Northwest, including several tribes allied with the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh.

There were some American successes, in some unexpected places. The British lost control of Lake Erie at the naval Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. General William Henry Harrison caught up a British Army in retreat at the Battle of the Thames, where he destroyed the British and First Nations armies, killed Tecumseh, and destroyed the threat posed by First Nations in the Great Lakes region. In retaliation, the British raided Washington in 1814. Madison fled the capital with his wife Dolley Madison rescuing White House valuables and documents shortly before the British burned the White House, the Capitol and other public buildings.

It was two future presidents, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison who had destroyed the main Indian threats in the South and West, respectively. An American naval shipyard was built up at Sackets Harbor, New York, where thousands of men produced twelve warships. American frigates and other vessels, such as the USS Constitution (dubbed "Old Ironsides"), the USS United States, the USS Chesapeake, the USS Hornet, the USS Wasp, and the USS Essex, won some significant naval battles on the Great Lakes. The U.S. fleet on Lake Erie went up against a superior British force there and destroyed or captured the entire British Fleet on the lake. Commander Oliver Perry reported his victory with the simple statement, "We have met the enemy, and they are ours." Around 1,800 British ships were captured.

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The defense of Ft. McHenry, which guarded the seaway to Baltimore, against one of the most intense naval bombardments in history led Francis Scott Key to write the poem that was set to music as the U.S. national anthem, "The Star Spangled Banner."

With the war resulting in a stalemate, peace talks began, resulting in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war in February 1815, with no territorial gains on either side. But news of the treaty traveled slowly back across the Atlantic. It was after the treaty had been signed that General Andrew Jackson put together a force including regular Army troops, militia, frontiersmen, Creoles, Native American allies and Jean Lafitte's pirates. The Battle of New Orleans took place two weeks after peace treaty was drafted (but before it was ratified). At the battle Jackson's forces repulsed the British invasion army in the most decisive victory of the war. The victory gave the nation a tremendous boost of morale and many believed that the victory at New Orleans had forced the British to surrender. This view, while inaccurate, led to the post-war euphoria that persisted for a decade.

Napoleon was defeated for the last time at the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815, near the end of Madison's presidency. The late victories in the war held to rehabilitate Madison's reputation as President and many Americans now believed the United States had established itself as a world power. The war is generally considered to be a draw. Nothing was lost or gained in terms of territory or spoils of war, though there was the tragic loss of life. Madison had elected to lead his country into a war that it was not prepared for. Over two centuries later, debate continues over whether this was a courageous decision or a foolish one.

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