The Presidency of James Madison - dummies

By Steve Wiegand

If James Madison were alive today, he might well be a computer nerd. He was extremely intelligent, conscientious, and focused on the task at hand. A neat dresser who was slight of build (5 feet 4 inches, but he had a big head) and shy in public settings, Madison was referred to by both friend and foe as Little Jemmy. He could also be very stubborn.

Madison was easily elected president in 1808, mostly because

  • He was well regarded as the father of the U.S. Constitution.

  • Thomas Jefferson, who believed two terms was enough for anyone to be president, handpicked Madison to be his successor.

  • The opposing Federalist Party was so disorganized it would have had a hard time organizing a one-coach funeral.

Madison inherited a messy foreign situation. France and Britain were still at war, and both countries had continually raided American ships. Jefferson’s efforts to stop this practice by cutting off all U.S. trade with foreign countries had nearly sunk a previously buoyant U.S. economy.

So Madison and Congress tried a different approach. In 1809, Congress passed a law that allowed U.S. ships to go wherever they wanted but banned French and British ships from U.S. ports. The following year, Congress lifted all restrictions but gave the president the power to cut off trade with any country that failed to recognize America’s neutrality.

The French dictator Napoleon then announced the French would stop their raids if the British agreed to end their blockades of European ports. The British, quite correctly, didn’t trust Napoleon and refused. But Madison decided the French despot was sincere and re-imposed the U.S. trade ban on Britain. American merchants, especially in New England, moaned, and the British seethed, but Madison refused to change his mind.

New kids on the block

Madison’s decision was cheered by a new group of congressmen who took office in 1811. They were led by the new speaker of the House of Representatives, a 34-year-old Kentuckian named Henry Clay and a 29-year-old lawyer from South Carolina named John C. Calhoun.

This new Washington brat pack had missed a chance to participate in the American Revolution, and because so many of them wanted their own chance to fight the British, they became known as the War Hawks.

But there was more to the War Hawks’ desire for war than just a chance to kick some British butt. Canada belonged to the British Empire, and more than a few land-hungry Americans thought it should belong to the United States. A war with Britain would provide the perfect reason to conquer the neighboring northern nation.

Fighting the Native Americans — again

There was also the perennial vexing issue of what to do about the Native Americans. For the first decade of the century, the American policy had been to buy, coerce, bully, and swindle Native Americans out of their land in the Northwest rather than go to war.

By 1811, an inspirational Shawnee chief named Tecumseh had had enough. Aided by his religious fanatic brother Tenskwatawa, who was also known as the Prophet and who urged a holy war against the whites, Tecumseh rallied tribe after tribe to join his confederacy and stop the white men’s invasion. He urged the Native Americans to give up everything white — their clothes, their tools, and especially their alcohol.

By late 1811, Tecumseh had put together a force of several thousand Native Americans. An army of about 1,000 U.S. soldiers, led by Gen. William Henry Harrison, marched to the edge of the territory claimed by Tecumseh at Tippecanoe Creek, Indiana. While Tecumseh was away, his brother led an attack against Harrison. The result of the battle was a draw, but Tecumseh’s confederacy began to fall apart.