Tune in this week as I chat about the presidency of one of the most gifted political minds of the founding era, James Madison.
Given all the work he put into the creation of the republic, it was never a question of if but when Madison would take the reins. So why is his presidency seen as kind of a dud? Tune in as I dive into this and more.
Cheney, Lynne. The Virginia Dynasty: Four Presidents and the Creation of the American Nation. New York: Viking, 2020. Kindle.
“First Inaugural Address, [4 March] 1809,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/03-01-02-0015. [Original source: The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 1 March–30 September 1809, ed. Robert A. Rutland, Thomas A. Mason, Robert J. Brugger, Susannah H. Jones, Jeanne K. Sisson, and Fredrika J. Teute. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984, pp. 15–18.] (LINK)
Horwitz, Tony and Brian Wolly. “The 10 things you didn’t know about the war of 1812.” May 21, 2012. Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed October 18, 2021. (LINK)
House of Delegates. "Tax on Religion; an excerpt from the Journal of the House of Delegates (1784)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Accessed October 17, 2021. (LINK)
Madison, James. “Memorial and Remonstrance (1785).” Bill of Rights Institute. (LINK)
Stagg, J.C.A. “James Madison: Campaign and Elections.” UVA Miller Center. (LINK)
Wills, Gary. James Madison. New York: Times Books, 2002.
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Welcome to Civics & Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic in US History and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in highschool. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey Peeps! Welcome Back.
James Madison, otherwise known as the father of the constitution, was arguably one of the most brilliant political minds in United States History. If you’ve listened to the podcast for a while, you know how much of a champion he was in updating the Articles of Confederation and the vast amount of research he did in order to improve upon the flailing government established under the Articles of Confederation to erect a more reliable republic.
I have touched on the founding father Madison and his immense accomplishments in prior episodes. So if you’re looking for a review of his pre-presidency days, definitely check out the episodes titled Madison Dash to the Constitution, From Confederation to Constitution and The Bill of Rights.
But while he was a gifted political mind, his presidency is seen by many historians as a little lackluster. Unlike the other men who make up what is referred to by some as the Virginia Dynasty, Madison had no resounding accomplishments as president and, in fact, had a few stumbles.
Was Madison a bad president? Or has history dealt him a bad hand? Let’s try to find out, shall we?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
While this episode focuses mainly on Madison the president, I do want to provide at least a little context so we can set the stage and truly understand everything that led to Madison’s election in 1808.
Born in Virginia in 1751, Madison was a sickly child. Small in stature - reaching only 5’4’’ and still the shortest president in United States history, he spent his youth exercising his mind and attending Princeton, graduating in just two years. Ailments plagued him throughout his life and while they were not constant, they did impede his abilities. Madison described them as “sudden attacks” that “somewhat resembling epilepsy and suspending the intellectual functions.”
Despite whatever condition he suffered from, he was able to find a way to be engaged in political debate, helping perpetuate a freer society. One thing he was deeply committed to was the freedom of religion. While working on the Virginia Declaration of Rights in the 1770’s, Madison persuaded a change that while seemingly minor had long term ripple effects. The original text as written stated quote, “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” For Madison, that did not provide sufficient separation and he lobbied the team to edit the text to quote, “all men are equally entitled to enjoy the free exercise of religion.” end quote.
Before this, it was very common for countries and territories to have a state sponsored religion. This often led to discrimination of those practicing other religions and in Madison’s eyes, was an impediment to true freedom. Opposing a resolution in the Virginia legislature that would provide a tax benefit to christian sects, he anonymously wrote quote, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of christians, in exclusion of all other sects.?” end quote.
Of course, he is known for his work in getting the federal republic off the ground and was intimately involved in laying the foundation of the new government, often leading the discussions through his persuasive written arguments. And he could back his arguments up as he always had the receipts. He was committed to research and this aided him when it came time to debate the many facets of republican government. As I mentioned in a prior episode, in the run up to the constitutional convention, Madison reviewed the success and failures of every government throughout history to ensure whatever was created in Philadelphia had the highest possibility for success.
And once the constitution was signed and out for the public to vote on, he went to work in drafting essays in its defense. Along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, Madison furiously pumped out letter after letter defending the validity of the constitution and lobbying the public to get behind the new form of government. Today, we know these letters collectively as the federalist papers. While Hamilton rightly gets the credit for his astronomical 51 essays, Madison did his fair share of heavy lifting, authoring 29.
His efforts proved helpful and after the constitution was ratified, he served as a member of Congress, sitting in the House of Representatives for his home state of Virginia. While an early supporter of General George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Madison quickly began to disagree with a number of policies being implemented and together with his friend and political ally Thomas Jefferson, decided to build an oppositional party to give the people a different option.
On a personal note, Madison met and married Dolley Madison in 1794 at the age of 43. Dolley seemed to be the antithesis to James in almost every way - she was charming and gregarious to his cerebral and quiet nature. And Dolley proved to be the ace in the hole once Madison became president, but we’ll dive into her story in the next episode.
He also hailed from a rich Virginia planter family, which meant though while he advocated for individual liberty and freedoms, he denied those same sentiments to the human beings he held in bondage, eventually bringing several enslaved men and women with him to the White House.
When Jefferson claimed victory in 1800, Madison served as his Secretary of State for both terms in office. This post was often seen as the stepping stone needed to become the next president and Madison was intimately involved in some of the key decisions of Jefferson’s presidency including his decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory and the failed Embargo Act.
As mentioned earlier, Madison is considered a member of the Virginia Dynasty, the four men who occupied the presidency for the first thirty-five years of the country’s existence. Of the first five presidents, only one of them, John Adams, was not a Virginian. This political dynasty is seen as kind of a power house when looked at collectively. Washington guided the nation through its first few years of existence, providing precedence on how to handle various issues and establishing a body of advisors we now call the cabinet. Jefferson was heralded for his expansion of the country and James Monroe, who succeeded Madison, is known for his infamous doctrine protecting United States interests.
Unfortunately for Madison, while he had a few firsts during his time as president, his tenure is seen by most historians as somewhat of a dud. Perhaps this is due to the natural comparison of his Virginian colleagues. Maybe it is a result of the actions he took in the ill advised and oft forgotten War of 1812.
And perhaps it was a failure of unrealized expectations. Madison benefited from being one of the most prepared men to enter the White House upon his election. Not only did he know the constitution inside and out and spend time in Congress, his service with Jefferson as Secretary of State provided key insight to the inner workings of cabinet meetings for eight years. Many important firsts occurred before he took office including the peaceful transfer of power and streamlining the responsibilities of the position of president. With all of this on his side, one would think Madison would be known in history as one of the most powerful and impactful presidents in United States history.
Oddly, Jefferson kind of gave up his duties as president in the few months leading to his end in office, leaving the country in a weird form of suspense. His stated reasons were to allow for Madison to make his own mark as president, but some hypothesize that Jefferson, facing some of the harshest criticism of his public life, was too hurt to focus on the business of governing the nation. The result was Madison being put in an odd position of trying to plan his tenure while also serving in the cabinet of the outgoing administration and trying to get Jefferson to move the country forward.
The biggest albatross around Monroe’s neck involved the trade embargo Jefferson signed in 1807. While Madison was an enthusiastic supporter of the embargo, it was very unpopular among the citizens of the north east and had thus far failed to live up to expectations. Even worse, the embargo had backfired, sending the country into a bit of a depression. In one of his final acts as president, Jefferson signed legislation repealing the embargo and signed the non-intercourse act.
This, of course, was equally as awkward and ineffective. Basically, the non-intercourse act restored trade with all other European countries except for France and Great Britain. The agreement held that trade could be restored with one or both nations as soon as they agreed to lift their restrictions on American trade. Like the embargo, the nonintercourse act was not successful in gaining leverage of either country.
Inaugurated on March 4th, 1809 in the recently completed chamber for the House of Representatives, Madison spoke to the trouble facing the country as a result of the wars in Europe and outlined a set of principles he would use to guide his time in office, including quote:
“to hold the union of the States as the basis of their peace and happiness; to support the Constitution, which is the cement of the Union, as well in its limitations as in its authorities; to respect the rights and authorities reserved to the States and to the people as equally incorporated with and essential to the success of the general system; to avoid the slightest interference with the right of conscience or the functions of religion, so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction; to preserve in their full energy the other salutary provisions in behalf of private and personal rights, and of the freedom of the press; to observe economy in public expenditures.” end quote.
As someone who was intimately involved with the creation of the constitution, Madison made a promise to the people he would do his best to safeguard the country using it as his guiding light. And throughout his presidency, he mostly stayed true to this promise. Unlike Washington and Jefferson who had to make some decisions that could be seen as expanding on authority not provided for in the constitution, Madison mainly worked within the boundaries provided by the constitution to take actions he felt best.
This is best exemplified with the War of 1812. Under the United States Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war. As tensions escalated between the United States and Great Britain, Madison made preparations for conflict. Knowing that it was congress who was vested with the authority, Madison prepared his remarks, outlining why he felt the legislative body needed to declare war. In his speech he laid out his arguments including: impressment of american sailors, British support of indigenous tribal uprisings against americans along the frontier and illegal blockades.
Madison asked for, and was given, the first declaration of war in United States history. Under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress authorized a formal declaration of war against Great Britain. While unfunded and under prepared, the hope was the war would be quick and the United States could gain extra territory in the north.
Unfortunately, the war was neither quick nor a gain for the United States. It was this war where Great Britain marched on Washington, DC to burn the Capitol and White House; payback for the United States’ burning of the capitol town York, now known as Toronto. And this was the conflict that saw the last real stand of indigenous tribes, when the United States took advantage of the internal strife in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The conflict lasted an excruciating thirty-two months and ultimately ended in a draw with Great Britain. That’s right; after multiple years of conflict, thousands of soldiers killed and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the Treaty of Ghent ensured that relations and borders between the two countries would return to where they were prior to the start of the war.
Despite the overall tied conclusion, some felt Madison’s handling of the war was to be commended. Washington Mayor James Blake said quote, “Power and national glory, sir, have often before been acquired by the sword, but rarely without the sacrifice of civil or political liberty.” End quote. Madison had managed to steer the country through war without infringing on the freedoms of its citizens.
Where Madison perhaps struggled most is in staffing his administration. During his two terms in office, he went through five Secretaries of War, Four Attorneys General and two Secretaries of State, to name a few. His cabinet was such a revolving door that I can’t say I blamed him when he decided to not nominate a replacement for his Vice President George Clinton when he died in office in April of 1812.
Due to the growing factions within the republican party, it was nearly impossible to gain widespread support for any political appointment or policy Madison put forth. Originally hoping to secure Albert Gallatin for the position of Secretary of State, Madison had to settle for Robert Smith, who was incompetent and sought to betray Madison at every turn. In a strange irony, Madison dealt with the worst of both Washington and Adams’ presidencies with an untrustworthy Secretary of State like Washington and a Vice President who had his own schemes like Adams.
Madison, like Washington before him and Lincoln after, had his very own team of rivals in his cabinet. But unlike Washington and Lincoln, Madison seemed unable to control the differing opinions and gain a consensus for direction. Frustrated by this, Madison called fewer cabinet meetings than his predecessors and often sought advice with his secretaries one on one. Despite all of the in-fighting, Madison managed to get a least a little work done.
He oversaw the closure of the first national bank of the united states, only to authorize a charter to recreate it after the War of 1812 proved how efficient a national bank could be. This was a reversal of his previous position on the matter; prior to taking office, Madison argued against the establishment of a national bank, citing the fact the constitution provided no authority to the government to create one. However, after taking office and trying to fund a costly war without any central place for currency, Madison evolved his opinion and approved the charter.
Louisiana and Indiana came into the union during his tenure and he also added a bit of territory to the country, though not as much as his predecessor. And he survived a threat of secession when New England states issued their threat via the Hartford Convention.
After surviving through two terms, Madison followed the precedent set by Washington and Jefferson and decided to not run for a third term as president, making way for James Monroe who would be the last president from Virginia until William Henry Harrison in 1841. In retirement, Madison focused his energy on the American Colonization Society, an organization that encouraged the transportation of free black men and women from America to Africa.
Of course, as a southern planter, he also continued developing his crops utilizing enslaved individuals, despite believing the institution would naturally fade away as the country expanded west.
So while arguably one of our most politically talented presidents in the founding era, did he have a “successful” presidency? Well I think it depends on who you are asking and what definition of successful they’d use. Was he a transformative figure able to coalesce the public behind any and all of his policy initiatives? No. But did he bring the country to the brink of extinction or threaten the way of life? Also no.
Wherever you come out with your grade on his presidency, one thing is certain: if not for him, the role of president would likely not exist.
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