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Leading the United States into the War of 1812 was not the shining moment of James Madison's political career.
Granted, he set himself a high bar: this was the legendary statesman and intellectual who became known as the father of the American Constitution. But when it came to serving as President, he ended up letting the house burn down—literally.
We'll get to that later.
After America gained independence from Britain, Madison was one of the strongest advocates for a strong national government, helping to author the Federalist Papers that laid out the case for ratification of the Constitution. For more on his early political career, you can check out Shmoop's Federalist Papers guide.
For now, let's just recap that he was largely responsible for the idea for our three-branch governmental structure and two-house legislature. And if that wasn't enough, he wrote the Bill of Rights to make sure that the strong federal government he favored didn't trample all over the rights of individual citizens.
Not a bad few years' work.
One of Madison's lifelong political concerns was in preventing a majority from abusing their power by denying the rights of a minority. The checks-and-balances system of government that he proposed was designed to prevent those kinds of power grabs.
Before he was president, Madison served as President Thomas Jefferson's secretary of state from 1801 to 1809. During those years, tensions mounted between the U.S. and Britain over maritime rights. Jefferson and Madison favored policies that would place trade restrictions on Britain in order to enforce America's rights at sea.
The only problem? It didn't work.
Britain continued its meddling after Madison succeeded Jefferson in 1809, winning by a landslide. Since his strategy of a trade war wasn't getting America the respect he thought it deserved, Madison decided to go in for an actual war. New England merchants, believing that the United States should turn the other cheek rather than lose the ability to trade with Britain, called the ensuing War of 1812 "Mr. Madison's War" (source).
Under Madison's leadership, the War of 1812 wasn't a cakewalk, despite a few significant victories at Lake Erie and in Nova Scotia.
By late 1814, the British were marching on America's eastern seaboard. They burned Washington D.C. to the ground in August, and besieged Fort McHenry in Baltimore in September. Famously, the bombs bursting in air gave proof to Francis Scott Key that the flag was still there and the Fort survived the assault.
Even with the White House and Capitol destroyed, and only about $5 million left in the Treasury, Madison remained confident of ultimate victory. He believed that the U.S. was too big and complex to be subdued. In order to control the diverse American continent, it wasn't enough to sack the capital; you were going to have to control the whole thing.
He was right: The British, seeing they couldn't subdue the U.S., started talking about negotiations to end the war.
Madison sent some of his best negotiators to hammer out the terms of a peace. Both sides ended up dropping most of their demands. The British were sick from years of war (mostly with France), and the U.S., down to their last buck and just wanting to get on the the business of building their nation, were in no mood to argue.
In the end, "Mr. Madison's War" concluded with the Treaty of Ghent, a ceasefire which didn't address any of his original beefs with Britain. The word "impressment" didn't make it into the text. The treaty also didn't resolve the question of neutral trading rights. Worse, the war had become so unpopular in America's Northeast that some New Englanders had been threatening secession. Had things turned out differently, this could have been the start of a civil war.
After he left office in 1817, Madison retired to his Virginia plantation with his wife Dolley, of ice cream fame. (Seriously, she popularized it at the White House and her favorite flavor was oyster).
When he wasn't puttering in the garden, Madison founded the University of Virginia with his buddy Thomas Jefferson. He dabbled in politics, becoming president of the American Colonization Society, which tried to address the problem of slavery by advocating that freed slaves be returned to Africa.
Not one of his finer moments, in retrospect.
After his death in 1836, a message Madison had written in 1834, but only wanted published posthumously, was made public. In "Advice to My Country," he wrote:
The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished and perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the Serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise. (Source)
Guy loved his country.
There are reasons that modern historians sometimes throw Madison under the bus for leading America into a war with little to show for it in the end. However, at the time, Madison found cause to celebrate. After the peace was concluded with the Treaty of Ghent he declared victory, summing up public sentiment like this: "The late war, although reluctantly declared by Congress, had become a necessary resort to assert the rights and independence of the nation" (source).
Instead of being demoralized by the losses during the war, Americans were energized. Under Madison's leadership, the public now believed that they stood on equal ground with their European counterparts.
In that sense, Madison's presidency was as important to the formation of American national identity as the Constitution he helped to write. He was there at the nation's birth and parented it though a rocky adolescence.