We welcome a guest post today from Jeff Broadwater, author of James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation. It was on this day two hundred years ago, June 18, 1812, that Madison signed into law the United States’ first ever declaration of war against Great Britain. In the following post, Broadwater discusses how the War of 1812 affected Madison’s reputation then and now.
For all his genius as a political theorist (we remember him as “the Father of the Constitution”) and despite remarkable success as a politician (he lost only one election in a public career spanning forty years) James Madison has never been ranked among the greatest of presidents. The War of 1812 permanently stained his reputation.
According to most accounts, Madison led an unprepared nation into an unnecessary war that, after three years of bloody but inconclusive fighting, ended with a peace treaty that settled absolutely nothing. For much of the war, Madison tolerated incompetent subordinates, and when he was in a position to take personal charge of a battlefield, the result was one of the most spectacular disasters in American military history: the burning of Washington, D.C. by the British in August 1814. So Madison’s typical listing among the second tier of chief executives seems understandable.
Yet Madison’s wartime leadership deserves a second look. After winning reelection during the war, Madison left office in 1817 as popular as ever. The conflict produced no backlash against his Republican Party. Instead it discredited his Federalist opposition, and Madison’s good friend James Monroe succeeded him in the White House. As the only Founder to serve as president during a full-scale war, Madison may have understood something about the duties of a commander in chief that we have forgotten.
In a republican political order, Madison always saw the legislature as the first among the supposedly equal branches of government. When he went to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 he had not given the scope of executive power much thought. The real work of government, he assumed, would be done by the legislative branch. Madison’s thinking about the executive evolved during the Philadelphia debates, but his expectations for the office remained modest.
He served in the first Congress to meet after the Constitution took effect, and during a debate over how to address the president, Madison assured his fellow representatives that they had nothing to fear from the executive. “I believe a president of the United States, clothed with all the powers given in the Constitution would not be a dangerous person to the liberties of Americans, if you were to load him with all the titles of Europe and Asia.”
One scenario, however, worried him. If the federal government grew too large, its various responsibilities would overwhelm Congress, and power would flow to the president, who could act with greater dispatch. In his day, war, or the threat of war, provided the most likely catalyst to big government.
“The means of defense against foreign danger,” Madison wrote, “have always been the instruments of tyranny at home.” Kings and emperors understood the phenomenon, making the executive, he wrote Thomas Jefferson, “the branch . . . most interested in war, & most prone to it.”
For Madison, the War of 1812 was more than a trial of American arms; it was a test of republican government. Fearful of an imperial presidency, Madison met the challenge and hewed to the confines of the Constitution. The nation barely muddled through, yet when peace came, most Americans, including his old rival John Adams, believed Madison had been a splendid chief executive. He had not tried to set the national agenda, but he won praise for respecting civil liberties in the face of almost unprecedented levels of dissent. His contemporaries put a premium on fidelity to the Constitution, and however history has judged him, they considered the unassuming Madison to be one of our greatest presidents.
Jeff Broadwater is professor of history at Barton College and author of James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation, George Mason, Forgotten Founder, and Eisenhower and the Anti-Communist Crusade.