Presidential Review: James Madison

17 Mar

James Madison is considered to be that other founding father, which is kind of surprising considering his nickname is father of the Constitution, the most important document  in American history.  Most notably, he was credited with bringing in the Bill of Rights which Congress initially thought unnecessary.  However, as politically savvy as he may have been, putting together the rules for the country is a little less glamorous than fighting a war or writing the Declaration if Independence.  Also, it’s not like he came up with the whole thing by himself–the Constitution was a series of compromises on all sides, and however Madison may have helped the process along, the title is a little bloated (by his own admission.)

However, we’re not talking about his founding father cred, we’re talking about his presidency.  Madison was our first wartime president,  had one of the best first ladies ever, and finally the United States was in the black on its debts.

The funny thing is that Madison had nearly the same problems that Jefferson did in terms of political philosophy vs. practicality.  He allowed the Bank of the United States to be shut down, because he didn’t believe the government should be accumulating wealth or giving itself loans.   However, once the War of 1812 started he found that he could not fund the war effort without the bank, so he had to re-institute it.    I’m neither here nor there on this issue, though how the US funds itself is very important, The Bank of the United States had such a limited effect on American history considering its on again/off again nature and didn’t nearly control as much as the Federal Reserve does.

Now for the War of 1812.  Historically, the War of 1812 was a mixed affair.   The New England states in particular were against it as war tends to limit trade.  However, the rest of the country was very eager for war against Britain because they were arming Native Americans in the Northwest and practicing impressment (which is taking American sailors and forcing them to enter the British Navy–which I wonder at its effectiveness–I’m just saying forced military service for a country you aren’t even from wouldn’t make a person particularly eager to do a good job).  The real reason though that war looked so inviting is that many members of Congress thought we could get Canada somehow in the bargain.

To Madison’s credit, he hardly was a warhawk–especially early on he encouraged Congress to exercise restraint, however Congress was determined to have a war and it wasn’t like Madison was blocking them that hard.  So on to the War of 1812!

Early on the war was a mess.  Madison had nothing to finance it with, New England was balking at helping out, and he had to depend on state militias, many who wouldn’t leave their state borders.  We unsuccessfully invaded Canada, and England recapitulated by setting fire to Washington D.C.     The British occupation was particularly galling because American forces had moved its troops to Baltimore in error thinking the British troops were heading there leaving Washington completely undefended.   The British left after the burning and a series of storms mostly because they weren’t trying to hold territory and Washington D.C. had little strategic value.

The second half of the war fared better, particularly in the south and the west where two future presidents, William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson, were showing their stuff.  One thing the war did was give America a perfect excuse to eradicate the Native American population from within American borders.  Now I think the whole history of Native Americans in the United States is a gigantic tragedy, they didn’t do themselves any favors by allying themselves with the British (though I don’t particularly blame them).  Dominion issues aside, many tribes made themselves enemies of the United States through this alliance forcing conflict as they presented a credible threat.  In the end, though I don’t think the United States government had pure motives, I certainly don’t see this set of conflicts in the skeezy light that I see the 19th century land-grabbing and dirty politics that came later.

Madison was particularly honorable in this respect–he sought to protect Native Americans in a kind of patronizing way.  His aim was dubious–he wanted to convert Native Americans to European settler ways of living, particularly by encouraging farms and homesteads.  However, he wanted the military to protect (peaceful) Native American lands and work with them through diplomacy.  His generals, particularly Jackson, did not agree and ignored these plans.

In any case, one result  of  the war was that Native Americans were entirely removed as a credible threat to the eastern United States.   In the end, the treaty with England returned everything to as it was before the war, though it must be said that England never again would treat the United States as a vassal country.

Funnily enough, at the time, Americans considered the War a great success.   A viewpoint at the time seemed to be that Britain was trying to take back America, though it’s doubtful that England ever had that aim–even in the war, England never really tried to seriously take any territory for keeps.  Up to the War of 1812, I can say that England had an attitude of proprietary dominance over American international policy which ended with this war.

In general I have to come to the conclusion that Madison was a pretty good president–granted, the war was mostly unnecessary and started off on a bad foot, Madison learned from his mistakes and ended it on a high note.  At the end of his presidency the country was at peace again and entering a very prosperous period known as the Era of Good Feelings.  The War of 1812’s greatest legacy is that it allowed the Democratic-Republicans to change their policy on many facets of a strong central government.  The ideas of having national standing armed forces, centralized improvement projects, and  a stable national financial system, were no longer issues for Democratic-Republicans, and because those issues were central to the Federalist cause, any real political conflict went away–for a little while at least.    All this discussion about a centralized government vs. a decentralized one seems academic now, but at the time the United States could have gone either way, and while it would be a little while for the whole country to embrace a national government (aka The Civil War) the United States government would function from a strong central base with very little question.

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