Having long pondered the complex question of how to provide leadership in a system of government deriving its "just powers from the consent of the governed" and having gained wide experience in public office, Madison became president on 4 March 1809. Although painful intraparty opposition by his long-time friend James Monroe and by Vice President George Clinton, as well as by a Federalist party revived by anger at the embargo, denied him the political domination enjoyed by Jefferson, Madison nonetheless won comfortably with 122 votes in the electoral college to 47 for Federalist Charles C. Pinckney, 6 for Clinton, and none for Monroe.
Trying to adjust to his diminished political position and perhaps too little inclined to exert his will on Congress, Madison accepted one of the weakest cabinets in American history. Thwarted by the Senate from moving Gallatin to the State Department, Madison instead appointed affable but incompetent Robert Smith, who, through alliance with a group of hostile senators led by his brother, Samuel Smith of Maryland, became a center of disaffection within the cabinet. Madison endured this disloyalty and covered up for Robert Smith's incompetence by in effect continuing to do the work of the secretary of state himself for two years, but he finally had to replace Smith in a storm of factional invective in April 1811.
The new secretaries of war and the navy, William Eustis of Massachusetts and Paul Hamilton of South Carolina, were second or third choices for their posts and were appointed largely to achieve regional balance. Eustis proved utterly unsuited to the administrative needs of the War Department, while Hamilton became an alcoholic, ordinarily unable to perform any duties after noontime. Even Gallatin, although a most able secretary of the treasury and entirely loyal, was restive, resentful, and politically damaged at being barred by the Senate from the State Department.
Two men carried over from Jefferson's administration in offices not yet accorded cabinet status were scarcely better: Attorney General Caesar Rodney was seldom in the capital, while Postmaster General Gideon Granger, because of disputes over appointments, was increasingly estranged from, and hostile to, the president. Madison began his presidency, then, laboring under severe political difficul-ties and surrounded by less-than-ideal colleagues.
The ill effects of these appointments might have been avoided in normal times, but Madison faced the climactic years of the Napoleonic Wars. Britain and France were locked in a life-and-death combat that made neutrality difficult and infringed the rights of nonbelligerents. Both great powers plundered American vessels on the high seas, issued arbitrary decrees to damage American commerce, and otherwise took what advantage they could of the scorned and unarmed upstart nation. But it was Britain—with warships that ruled the seas; arrogant naval officers who ruthlessly impressed American sailors; sharp-dealing merchants who were eager to keep the former colonies in a state of economic dependence; and a fleet that could harass, blockade, and bombard the American coast with impunity—that could, and did, most injure and offend the United States. Thus, Madison saw Britain as the principal threat to the nation and came increasingly to feel that standing up to her might require a "second War of Independence."
The tangled diplomacy and stop-and-start legislation to impose economic sanctions on one or both of the belligerents that preoccupied Madison during his first three years as president—the signing and repudiation of the Erskine Agreement, the two Macon bills, protests of British orders-in-council and Napoleonic decrees, and so on—all failed because both France and Britain, fighting for survival, were prepared to use any means to win any advantage they could.
In the summer of 1811, Madison, by then ably supported by James Monroe, who had replaced Robert Smith as secretary of state, and buttressed in Congress by energetic young members soon dubbed War Hawks (Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun foremost among them), decided that if final efforts at favorable diplomatic settlement with each belligerent failed, war with the worst offender (almost sure to be Britain) would be necessary. In the spring of 1812, as Madison, Monroe, and their congressional allies pushed war preparations, intransigent dispatches arrived from Europe, so on 1 June, Madison asked Congress to declare war on the former mother country. With Federalists (dominant only in New England) solidly in opposition, the House of Representatives voted for hostilities (seventy-nine to forty-nine) and the Senate followed suit (nineteen to thirteen); on 18 June, Madison signed the declaration of war.
Madison viewed the declaration with sadness and regret, although he had for nearly a year been working with his cabinet and with Clay and others in Congress to prepare the country for battle. In reviewing the course toward war, Madison observed that Britain's notice of July 1811 that it would require humiliating concessions before withdrawing orders-in-council had made hostilities virtually inevitable. Writing to antiwar John Taylor "of Caroline" even before the final declaration, Monroe had explained that upon joining the cabinet in April 1811, he had found erroneous his conviction that Britain would make concessions if properly approached. Nothing, he added, "would satisfy the present Ministry of England short of unconditional submission which it was impossible to make." Thus, after July 1811, "the only remaining alternative was to get ready for fighting, and to begin as soon as we were ready. This was the plan of the administration when Congress met [in November 1811]; the President's message announced it; and every step taken by the administration since had led to it."
Asked to assess Madison's state of mind as the war approached, his private secretary, Edward Coles, noted that "it was congenial alike to the life and character of Mr. Madison that he should be reluctant to go to war, . . . this savage and brutal manner of settling disputes between nations," while diplomacy afforded any peaceful hopes at all. Coles agreed with Monroe that Britain's notice of July 1811 "closed the door to peace in Mr. Madison's opinion" and observed further that during the long session of Congress from November 1811 to July 1812, "a class of irritable men, . . . hotspurs of the day," declaimed for war, heedless of the need for preparation and scornful of "sound, prudent and patriotic men" who wanted delay and further diplomatic initiatives. Madison stood in the middle, Coles said, trying "to moderate the zeal and impatience of the ultra belligerent men, and to stimulate the more moderate and forbearing. To check those who were anxious to rush on hastily to extreme measures without due preparation and to urge those who lagged too far behind." The president restrained his own determination to go to war to bring to his side "tardy and over cautious members of Congress" and thus be able to declare war "by a large and influential majority."
Viewed in this perspective, Madison's course during the year preceding the war declaration and even during the whole seven-year period following full-scale resumption of the Napoleonic Wars in 1805, appears straight and consistent, if not always wise and well executed. He thought throughout that his goal, a genuine republican independence for the United States, found its worst menace in the commercial and maritime arrogance and power of Great Britain. To have submitted to her unilateral decrees, her discriminatory trade regulations, or her naval outrages would have restored the colonial dependence Madison had fought for half a century. It would, moreover, have ratified unjust principles of international law and emboldened antirepublican forces in Britain and the United States, thereby threatening, in Madison's opinion, the survival of free government anywhere in the world.
War was deemed so corrosive to republican principles that only the direst emergency could condone it. Thus, Madison tried every conceivable and even some inconceivable ways of peaceful resistance until many men less patient, less subtle, and less earnestly republican than he thought him hopelessly irreso-lute or a tool of Napoleon. Madison pronounced this latter charge "as foolish as it is false." If the war coincided with the views of the enemy of Great Britain and was favored by Napoleon's operations against the British, he observed coolly,
that assuredly could be no sound objection to the time chosen for extorting justice from her. On the contrary, the coincidence, though it happened not to be the moving consideration, would have been a rational one; especially as it is not pretended that the United States acted in concert with [Napoleon], or precluded themselves from making peace without any understanding with him; or even from making war on France, in the event of peace with her enemy, and her continued violation of our neutral rights.
Although in retrospect it may seem Madison underestimated Napoleon's global ambitions, he had no illusions about the French tyrant. Britain's greater capacity to injure the United States was the steady, realistic base of Madison's policy.
Less defensible is Madison's relentless, sometimes innocently implausible reliance on peaceful coercion—such as embargo, selective trading with the belligerents, or alliances with other neutral nations—which instead of persuading the belligerents to deal honorably with the United States, only convinced them they had nothing to fear from it. Thus, insult followed depredation, year after year. Shifting from one kind of nonviolent coercion to another and offering the carrot and then the stick first to one belligerent and then to the other, instead of persuading either of them to accept American support in exchange for commercial justice, led each country to think it could, by intrigue and maneuver, get all it wanted while granting nothing. As a result, by 1812 the United States was neither trusted nor respected by the warring powers. At home, Madison's patient, subtle efforts to unite the country behind him often had the doubly debilitating effect of disgusting those impatient for war and encouraging those opposed to it to think he would ultimately flinch from hostilities. Although, even in retrospect, better alternatives are not readily apparent, Madison's course seldom had the effect he intended.
Least defensible of all is the unfitness of the nation for war in June 1812. In response to those who charged that Britain, not the United States, had to fight at long distance and therefore would benefit from delay and warning, Madison insisted that "it was, in fact, not the suddenness of war as an Executive policy, but the tardiness of legislative provision" that left the nation unprepared. He had, he pointed out, recommended a military buildup in early November 1811, and it was more than two months before Congress took even ill-conceived steps. Although Congress did indeed hang back in this and many other ways during the twelve years of Republican rule, Madison seldom did more than call vaguely for "attention to the nation's defenses," and Secretary Gallatin insisted repeatedly that military expenditures be limited by his plans to discharge the national debt. From 1805 on, while Madison talked loudly and unyieldingly of neutral rights, the chasm widened between the obvious military peril of the European war and the pitiful state of the country's armed forces. He often spoke loudly and carried no stick at all.
Madison correctly pointed out the host of difficulties he faced in placing the nation on a war footing. Officers for the army had to be chosen from among "survivors of the Revolutionary band," many of whom "were disqualified by age or infirmities," or from among those untried on the battlefield. Furthermore, to appoint any executive officer, "an eye must be had to his political principles and connections, his personal temper and habits, his relations . . . towards those with whom he is to be associated, and the quarter of the Union to which he belongs." Add to this, Madison concluded, "the necessary sanction of the Senate" (often denied) and the large "number of refusals" of office by the most qualified prospects, and the reasons for a poorly staffed register were painfully obvious. Madison did not lack will, or understanding of what needed to be done, or courage to face war, but rather, as his own apologies verify, the capacity to disentangle himself from republican pieties, political crosscurrents, and organizational weaknesses.
Calhoun wrote a friend in April 1812 that "our President tho a man of amiable manners and great talents, has not I fear those commanding talents, which are necessary to controul those about him. He permits division in his cabinet. He reluctantly gives up the system of peace." The South Carolinian observed further that "this is the first war that the country has ever been engaged in; there is a great want of military knowledge; and the whole of our system has to be commenced and organized." Eight months later, after disasters caused by "errors and mismanagement . . . of most incompetent men," Calhoun noted that the difficulties "lie deep; and are coeval with the existence of Mr. Jefferson's administration."
Jeffersonian republicanism, with its hostility to economic regulation, deficit financing, and militarism, simply was not a vehicle designed for effective travel down the road to war. What Clay, Calhoun, and other War Hawks did in 1811 and 1812 was not browbeat the president into war or give the impulse to it from their expansionist predilections but rather to provide the legislative leadership in Congress, the effective attention to preparedness, and the sharp propaganda sense needed to arouse the country. Madison saw too clearly all the variables of a complex situation, knew too well the traps awaiting him in every direction, and understood too profoundly the anti-republican tendencies of arming for war to accept readily the reckless and unsubtle needs of girding for battle. What undermined Madison's policy of upholding American rights by peaceful means was, first and foremost, the absence of effective armed force, which again and again prevented him from being able to confront his opponents with a plausible threat and made skeptics on both sides of the Atlantic doubt he could have any ultimate intention of going to war. Second, an impression of irresolution grew from the shifting terms of his policies of commercial retaliation and peaceful coercion—embargo, nonintercourse, nonimportation, and so on—which often, at the very moment of effective pressure, freed trade long enough for Britain to fill its warehouses. Madison underestimated, too, the flexibility of international trade, the endurance of the belligerents, and the amount of damage some of his policies inflicted on the United States. Thus, the nation, especially New England, saw no credible and effective policy around which to rally. Although Madison, striving for domestic unity, both tempered his policy and manipulated his channels of communication, his stance was inevitably regarded as unwarlike.
Reflecting on the causes of the war, Republican Congressman Jonathan Roberts wrote that "there had all along been an idea cherished by the opposition, that the majority would not have nerve enough to meet war. This I believe, mainly induced Britain to persist in her aggressions. If she could have been made to believe . . . that we were a united people, and would act as such, war might have been avoided." As the London Independent Chronicle pointed out, "in every measure of government, the [Federalist] faction have rallied in opposition, and urged the British Ministry to persist in their Orders. They forced the United States to the alternative, either to surrender their independence, or maintain it by War."
Thus, although these misjudgments, too subtle policies, and republican predilections may paradoxically have made more likely the war that Madison tried to avoid and certainly left the nation dangerously unprepared, he was perfectly clear, as he stated in his first wartime message to Congress, on the basic cause and ultimate need for hostilities:
The war in which we are actually engaged is a war neither of ambition nor of vainglory.. . . It is waged not in violation of the rights of others, but in maintenance of our own.. . . To have shrunk [from it] . . . would have struck us from the high rank where the virtuous struggles of our fathers had placed us, and have betrayed the magnificent legacy which we hold in trust for future generations. It would have acknowledged that on [water] . . . where all independent nations have equal and common rights, the American people were not an independent people but colonists and vassals.