Madison and his advisers hoped that American zeal for the war (especially in the West), and the vulnerability of Canada as Britain strained its resources in the climax of the desperate struggle with Napoleon, would lead swiftly to American victory. He therefore ordered an American invasion of Canada at Detroit and an assault on the lightly defended borders at Niagara and in the direction of Montreal, with the intent of gaining advantages that could then be traded for British concessions on the high seas and along the Atlantic coast, where its naval power was overwhelming. Disaster ensued, for on 16 August one poorly led and ill-trained American army surrendered to a much smaller British and Indian force at Detroit and on 13 October another was badly beaten at Queenston Heights opposite Buffalo. A third army, commanded by an old, tired, timid, fumbling Revolutionary War general, William Dearborn, hampered by near-treasonable avoidance of duty by New England militia, retreated to winter quarters near Albany without even attempting to cut the vital, undefended British supply lines strung out westward from Montreal. Spectacular but isolated victories by the Constitution and other frigates boosted American morale but did not challenge overall British command of the seas.
These reversals made it necessary (and possible) for Madison to appoint new leaders for the Navy and War departments and to begin finding younger, more able, and more vigorous commanders for the army. His choice for the Navy Department, William Jones, turned out to be able and loyal, serving with distinction until the end of the war, but the War Department "solution" was more problematic. Madison finally settled on General John Armstrong, a New York politician who had wide military and administrative experience but was quarrelsome, imperious, and almost sure to be disloyal politically, especially to a Virginia-led administration. The president was well aware of the liabilities but hoped Armstrong's "known talents" and military experience, together with "a proper mixture of conciliating confidence and interposing control would render objectionable peculiarities less in practice than in prospect." Political considerations seemed still to compel appointment of some incompetent commanders in the army, but a move toward improvement was made by putting William Henry Harrison in command in the Northwest Territory and by promoting Winfield Scott, Jacob Brown, and Andrew Jackson to posts of enlarged responsibility.
In the election of 1812, Madison survived a political challenge from De Witt Clinton, who gathered support from a motley collection of Federalists and discontented Republicans, some of whom wanted a more vigorous and some a less vigorous prosecution of the war. After a scurrilous, even disgraceful campaign, Clinton carried all of New England except Vermont, as well as New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, but Madison's strength elsewhere gave him a 128–89 victory in the electoral college.
Two years of anxiety, frustration, and defeat still faced Madison. Financial and diplomatic headaches increased throughout 1813 as Britain felt emboldened by the effects of Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow, and American armies continued to flounder in the swamps west of Lake Erie. Only toward the end of the year did prospects for successful campaigns against Canada arise, following Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's naval victory on Lake Erie on 10 September and Harrison's defeat of a British and Indian army on the Thames River, north of the lake, on 5 October.
Meanwhile, another inept campaign in New York State and bold excursions by British naval forces in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere along the Atlantic coast left the nation frustrated and apparently defenseless. Disheartened, Madison suffered a near-fatal illness in the summer of 1813, provoking tactless political enemies to wonder how he could "appear at the bar of Immortal Justice" with the "bloody crime" of an unnecessary war on his hands and to hope publicly that the vice president, "scant-patterned old skeleton" Elbridge Gerry, as one Federalist labeled him, would soon follow the "lingering incumbent" to the grave so that a Federalist president of the Senate might rescue the country from its woes. (Gerry did indeed die in November 1814.)
News of Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig and of Wellington's victories in Spain, reaching Washington late in 1813, made it certain, moreover, that Britain would soon have thousands of battle-hardened troops free to assault and punish its former colonies, which, British leaders felt, had attacked treacherously when England was in desperate struggle against the French tyrant. British transports soon brought a fresh army to Canada, and another one appeared in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1814 accompanied by an awesome naval force. An issue of the Times of London that arrived in Washington in June 1814 threatened, "Oh, may no false liberality, no mistaken lenity, no weak and cowardly policy, interpose to save the United States from the blow! Strike! Chastize the savages, for such they are! With Madison and his perjured set no treaty can be made.. . . Our demands may be couched in a single word—Submission!" The French minister to Washington wrote, "The Cabinet is frightened.. . . It has a consciousness of its weakness and of the full strength of its enemy."
Madison tried to organize the defense of the capital, but Secretary Armstrong refused either to heed the president's suggestions or to formulate alternate plans. To make matters worse, the army commander in the region, General William Winder, although earnest and loyal, was inexperienced and incompetent. When British forces landed near Washington on 19 August 1814, Madison, Monroe, and Winder sought to muster and position the untested, largely militia forces. The Americans were outmaneuvered, fought a losing battle at Bladensburg on 24 August, and gave up the capital that afternoon.
The Madisons packed what state papers, valuables, and belongings they could and fled on horseback to Virginia as the British force burned the Capitol, the White House, and other public buildings. For seventy-two hours the exhausted president roamed the Virginia and Maryland countryside, searching for his family, sleeping wherever he could, and trying desperately to keep his army and government in being. He was personally courageous during the crisis and exerted a steadying influence on those around him. For a man of sixty-three, in uncertain health, his physical exertions were remarkable if not foolhardy or heroic.
The British, having humiliated the American government and not intent on permanent occupation, soon withdrew, and Madison returned to the charred and dispirited city on 27 August. He at once, quite properly, dismissed Armstrong and Winder for their serious unfitness in the crisis, and although his own shortcomings were not always those his detractors have charged against him, he does bear ultimate responsibility for the disaster. Sooner than any of his advisers, he warned of the likely motivation for, and place of, the British attack. As Monroe later observed, Washington "might have been saved, had the measures proposed by the President to the heads of departments on the first of July, and advised by them, and ordered by him, been carried into effect."
Madison's faults of conception lay mainly in supposing the militia could be mustered effectively after the British forces appeared and in trusting military command to Winder. A Jackson or a Winfield Scott would almost certainly have foiled the hesitant, poorly executed British campaign against the capital. Madison must bear the blame for Winder's unfortunate appointment as well as for the retention of Armstrong during a period of crisis. Whatever uproar might have followed dismissal of the politically powerful secretary of war, it would have been preferable to his vitiating presence.
Furthermore, if, as is generally warranted by the record, Madison knew that the preparations he deemed essential to the defense of Washington were not being made, he failed as commander in chief in not correcting the situation by whatever means necessary. The dangers and liabilities of almost any course of action likely to lead to correction were as grave as Madison supposed, but it was nevertheless incumbent on him to do something. The events of the summer of 1814 illustrate all too well the inadequacy in wartime of Madison's habitual caution and tendency to let complexities remain unresolved when no clear course of action was available. Although such inclinations are ordinarily virtues, in crises they are calamitous.
Madison's fault was more profound than personal predisposition or the accident of being in the wrong position at the wrong time. Shortly after the president's return to Washington, Navy Secretary Jones, who had worked with him closely for a year and a half and had been with him almost constantly during the preparations, attack, and flight, observed, "The President is virtuous, able and patriotic, but . . . he finds difficulty in accommodating to the crisis some of those political axioms which he has so long indulged, because they have their foundation in virtue, but which from the vicious nature of the times and the absolute necessity of the case require some relaxation." That is, it was, ironically, Madison's very republican virtue that in part unsuited him to be a wartime president.
Madison's understanding of executive conduct did not require or even allow him single-handedly to make up for the reluctance of the people to be ready to defend themselves, for the hesitations of the states to adopt forthright measures, for the ineffectiveness of other executive officers, or for the failure of Congress to authorize and pay for a sufficient war machine. To have done so would, according to Madison's "political axioms," have corroded every virtue necessary to republican government: a responsible citizenry, vital state governments, self-reliant public servants, and respect for legislative leadership. It was, of course, impossible for him to be a Caesar or a Cromwell, but it was also against his nature and deeply held principles to become even a William Pitt or a Hamilton.
Earnest congressmen such as Nathaniel Macon, former President Jefferson, and even, in a lesser way, Gallatin himself managed, with good luck and without becoming gravely irresponsible, to evade the confrontation of republican pieties with the hounds of war thrust painfully and unavoidably on Madison by British arms in the summer of 1814. Madison believed, with much justification, that he could not conduct a war to validate a republican independence in the manner of an imperial proconsul without destroying that cause in the process. Had he done that, his failure would have been a moral one, permanently disastrous to the country. As it was, he only failed, pathetically in many ways, to find the proper blend, discerned by Washington and Lincoln, of stern, vigorous leadership and of republican deference necessary in wartime. The result was a merely temporary anxiety and destruction, perhaps a small price to pay to save the vital political character of the nation.
Although the repossession of the capital, the repulse of British forces before Baltimore (where Madison's prisoner—exchange envoy, Francis Scott Key, saw "by the dawn's early light" on 14 September that "the star-spangled banner yet waved" over Fort McHenry), hard-fought battles on the Niagara frontier, and, most important, the defeat of a British land-and-water invasion of the Champlain Valley on 11 September cheered and heartened Americans, and in fact would eventually cause Britain to seek an end to the war, months were to pass before Madison knew the crisis was over. American commissioners were in Europe with instructions for seeking peace, but in the summer and fall of 1814, British diplomats were still insisting on harsh terms. In the meantime, as another powerful British force gathered in the Gulf of Mexico menacing New Orleans, an enlarged war seemed likely amid heightened domestic difficulties.
Although some Federalists in Congress gave loyal if grudging support of the war effort, extremists, still vociferous and strong, reacted differently. To one plea for support of the administration, a leading Federalist retorted:
How often, in the name of God, will you agree to be cheated? What are you to gain by giving Mr. Madison Men and Money? . . . An union of the commercial states to take care of themselves, leaving the War, its expense and its debts to those choice spirits so ready to declare and so eager to carry it on, seems to be now the only rational course.
Not surprisingly, one visitor in Washington found Madison's thoughts and conversation "full of the New England sedition." To an old friend he wrote:
You are not mistaken in viewing the conduct of the Eastern States as the source of our greatest difficulties in carrying on the war; as it is certainly the greatest, if not the sole, inducement with the enemy to persevere in it. The greater part of the people in that quarter have been brought by their leaders, aided by their priests, under a delusion scarcely exceeded by that recorded in the period of witchcraft; and the leaders are daily becoming more desperate in the use they make of it. Their object is power. If they could obtain it by menaces, their efforts would stop there. These failing, they are ready to go to every length.
In this atmosphere Madison faced more New England resistance to war measures. Massachusetts refused to send militia to meet a British invasion of Maine; Vermont smugglers drove herds of cattle into Canada to feed British troops; Connecticut Federalists talked of a New England army free from federal control; and the Massachusetts legislature called for a convention to plan regional "self-defense" and to decide whether "to lay the foundation for a radical reform in the national compact," a resolution that led to the Hartford Convention of December 1814.
Acting Secretary of War James Monroe found these moves so threatening that he sent the hero of the Battle of Lundy's Lane, Colonel Thomas Jesup, to Hartford, ostensibly as a recruiting officer but actually as a federal agent to watch for possible treason and rebellion. Jesup's unreassuring reports caused Monroe to authorize New York's Governor Daniel D. Tompkins and General Robert Swartwout to send in loyal troops in case of a New England uprising. Only the triumph of relative moderates at the Hartford Convention persuaded Monroe and Madison to relax from a posture of armed preparedness against potential domestic insurrection.
All this watchful concern by the administration occurred without whipping up the public against the dissenters, without attempting to interfere with the Hartford Convention, and without any special declarations of emergency or other measures that might have led to detentions, strictures on the press, threats to public meetings, or other curtailments of civil liberties. It might be argued, of course, that to praise such restraint is to make a virtue of necessity, since the degree of disaffection in New England was such that Madison could not have coerced the home territory of Daniel Shays even if he had tried. At the very least some stiff fighting might have ensued, but the temptation and perhaps the force for a repressive policy existed.
For the time being at least, British forces in Canada were discouraged and quiescent as attention focused on New Orleans, so the veterans of Plattsburg and the Niagara frontier, now battle-tested and under vigorous, young leadership, were available for service. A few regiments marched to Hartford, Springfield, or even Boston might have cowed the dissidents and emboldened national sentiment in the region. Furthermore, politically the Republicans might have relished an opportunity to brand their foes as traitors and perhaps discredit them for a generation. Again one need only imagine what Hamilton, who had mobilized an army against the whiskey rebels, might have done in New England in 1814 to see the point.
On 4 February 1815 long-delayed news of climactic events that had happened thousands of miles away finally reached the gloomy, anxious capital. First came word of an astonishing American victory on 8 January at New Orleans: Andrew Jackson's frontier army, drawn up behind breastworks and ably prepared and commanded, had destroyed a battle-hardened British army that advanced courageously but fruitlessly against the American lines. The British lost seven hundred killed, fourteen hundred wounded, and five hundred captured, to American casualties of seven killed and six wounded. Then, on 14 February, came news that a peace treaty with Britain had in fact been signed at Ghent, Belgium, on Christmas Eve, 1814.
For Madison, these events were immensely gratifying. Jackson's victory not only rescued the nation from a sense of military inferiority but also achieved a goal Madison had sought for thirty-five years: secure American possession of New Orleans and the great valley it controlled. Now, with Spain prostrate, France conquered, and Britain utterly defeated at the very gates of New Orleans itself, a century and a half of strife and changing control had ended; the red sea of British dead created by the fire of Jackson's men dramatically and finally underscored American possession of the western empire. Madison knew the cheering throngs that filled the streets of Washington were celebrating the most important triumph of American arms since Yorktown.
The Treaty of Ghent contained not one of the humiliating conditions insisted upon by the British the previous August and thus restored all American territory occupied by British forces; recognized American rights on the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, and the Newfoundland fishing banks; placed the two countries on equal grounds commercially; and, by neither confirming nor denying impressment and other maritime rights, left these matters to the almost surely benign consequences of peace. Thus, although the treaty in one way seemed to settle nothing, merely restoring the status quo antebellum, ignoring the maritime grievances so often proclaimed as the cause of the war, and leaving many disputed matters to be settled later by commissions, in fact the United States, by standing up to Britain, had won a second war of independence.
The Senate ratified the treaty unanimously, and on 17 February, Madison declared the conflict ended. Celebrations again resounded throughout the nation, as not only were its independence and honor rescued but, with dazzling trade prospects opened, an era of growth and prosperity seemed assured. Furthermore, these glorious events, coming as they did when internal dissension and financial chaos threatened but before the Madison administration had to take repressive steps, seemed to vindicate the whole republican concept of government. This, of course, was Madison's only real war aim and the crowning achievement of his public life.