James Madison

Presidency

When Jefferson triumphed in the election of 1800, Madison became (1801) his Secretary of State. He served through both of Jefferson's terms, and he was Jefferson's choice as presidential candidate. As President, Madison had to deal with the results of the foreign policy that, as Secretary of State, he had helped to shape. The Embargo Act of 1807 was in effect dissolved by Macon's Bill No. 2. The bill provided, however, that if either Great Britain or France should remove restrictions on American trade, the President was empowered to reimpose the trade embargo on the other.

Madison, accepting an ambiguous French statement as a bona fide revocation of the Napoleonic decrees on trade, reinstated the trade embargo with Great Britain, an act that helped bring on the War of 1812. This move alone, however, did not bring about the war with Great Britain; equally significant were the activities of the "war hawks," led by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, who, hungry for the conquest of Canada and for free expansion, clamored for action. They helped to bring about the declaration of war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812.

The War of 1812 was the chief event of Madison's administration. New England merchants and industrialists were already disaffected by the various embargoes, and their discontent grew until at the Hartford Convention they talked of sedition rather than continuing "Mr. Madison's War." Even the friends of the President and the promoters of the war grew discouraged as the fighting went badly. Victories in late 1813 and in the autumn of 1814 lifted the gloom somewhat, but disaster came in Sept., 1814, when the British took Washington and burned the White House. Nevertheless the war ended in stalemate with the Treaty of Ghent.

Madison's remaining years in office witnessed the beginning of postwar national expansion. He encouraged the new nationalism, which hastened the split in the Democratic party, evident in the rise of Jacksonian democracy. Through these later upheavals Madison lived quietly with his wife, Dolley Madison, after his retirement in 1817 to Montpelier.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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