Forging a National IdentityJames Madison
The Key to Our Nation
A Five-Part Series by Devin Bent
As the consensus choice for the United State's first president, George Washington truly was regarded as "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Until his retirement in 1796, the venerated Washington was the icon around which the new nation rallied, for, as James Madison later observed, the forces of "opinion and habit" had not yet allied themselves to our political institutions.
Madison had been the driving force behind the creation of the new government, but an identity based on genuine nationhood and pride had yet to be built. Not until the final days of Madison's second presidential term would there be a Star Spangled Banner and the popular inclination to sing it. In between there would come repeated tests to the national resolve behind the idealistic piece of parchment known as the Constitution.
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 supply that first test and jolt Madison out of a brief retirement at Montpelier. These infamous laws, passed by a Federalist majority in Congress, give President John Adams the power to expel or imprison aliens and punish "seditious" individuals who wrote, "printed, uttered or published" criticism intended "to defame" government officials, including congressmen and the president. Adams, it seems, had a thin skin, and his party had tired of the Democratic-Republicans' steady criticism of its policies favoring commercial ties with England. The Federalists meant to put their out-spoken critics in jail and intimidate the others.
An alarmed Madison writes to Jefferson, "The Alien bill proposed in the Senate is a monster that must forever disgrace its parents." When Madison drafted the First Amendment, his focus had been on freedom of religion, but now he concentrated on the threat to freedom of expression. He pens the Virginia Resolutions and the Report on the Virginia Resolutions, developing a doctrine that guides us yet today.
"The right of electing the members of the government constitutes ... the essence of a free and responsible government," Madison writes. "The value and efficacy of this right depends on the knowledge of the comparative merits and demerits of the candidates for public trust, and on the equal freedom, consequently, of examining and discussing these merits and demerits and of the candidates respectively."
"Free communication among the people," Madison maintains, "... has ever been justly deemed the only effectual guardian of every other right."
His action establishes Madison as a guardian of civil liberties, although, as it happens, events overtake the necessity for the resolutions. The acts are allowed to expire after the Democratic-Republicans capture Congress and the White House in 1801.
But Jefferson, with Madison's help, succeeds Adams as president only after a near-disastrous turn of events. A tie vote in the Electoral College between Jefferson and Aaron Burr forces the House of Representatives to decide who will serve as president and who will serve as vice president. After six days of dread and deadlock, on its 36th ballot, the balance tips as the House votes Jefferson president and Burr vice president. The republic and the Constitution prevail, and political power transfers through peaceful, democratic means.
True to his Democratic-Republican party creed that a standing military is a threat to liberty, Madison writes to Jefferson, "And what a lesson to America & the world is given by the efficacy of the public will when there is no army to be turned [against] it!"
With his opponent Burr safely tucked away in the non-role of vice president, there is never any doubt that President Jefferson will pick Madison, his closest and most trusted friend and adviser, for the real No. 2 position in his administration. Hence, when Madison officially takes up his duties as secretary of state in May 1801, he meets daily with Jefferson to discuss in detail national and international events and administration plans for responding to them. Of paramount concern to the fate of America is the epoch struggle between the superpowers Great Britain and France. Napoleon is waging war throughout Europe, while Britain's superior navy dominates the French at sea. The European war constantly threatens to divide the United States. Madison, for his part, dedicates his political career to asserting the nation's neutrality. But it is no easy task. The nation's disparate regions all strain and contend against one another in supporting or opposing federal policies that appear to favor Britain over France or vice-versa.
One serendipitous bounty arising from Europe's hostilities is the opportunity to purchase the Louisiana Territory from a debt-ridden France. While pondering the constitutionality of transacting a deal not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, Jefferson and Madison nonetheless initiate the purchase. They reason it would cost the United States far less, and be more expeditious, to purchase territory rather than fight a war for it. "With respect to the terms on which the acquisition is made" -- it is bought for less than a penny an acre -- "there can be no doubt that the bargain will be regarded as on the whole highly advantageous," a characteristically understated secretary of state writes to James Monroe and Robert R. Livingston, his diplomats in France.
Aside from the purchase, Europe's ongoing war delivers little but bad news and mounting frustration to Secretary Madison. The belligerents refuse to recognize American claims of neutrality. As a result, the British Navy harasses American trading ships, seizing their sailors and "impressing" them into service in His Majesty's men-of-war. Madison doggedly tries his best through ongoing diplomacy to stop the practice, but it continues unabated, fostering a growing sense of outrage among Americans.
Madison urges America to fight back with boycotts and other economic sanctions. The result of this policy is the Embargo Act, passed by Congress in December 1807 to deny American commerce to the belligerents. Most historians concur the embargo was disastrous only to America, particularly its planters and seamen. It spurred widespread scofflaw and smuggling throughout New England, where opposition was vociferous. Many Americans initially support the embargo, but after the economy grinds to a halt, opposition grows. Especially so after it becomes clear that both Britain and France have ignored it. Realizing its failure, Jefferson, Madison and Congress let the act expire the day before Madison takes office as president.
As the new president in 1809, Madison is still hopeful that peace can prevail with England. He remains patient, even as the British make common cause with the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and encourage the Native-American nations west of the Appalachians to resist the American settlers spilling over the mountains. After hostilities break out in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, Madison waits no longer. In 1812, he asks Congress for a Declaration of War against England and gets it.
Initially the war goes badly, and Madison, who has made some bad appointments, must bear some of the blame. Federalists heap criticism upon Madison's leadership and label the war "Mr. Madison's War." The merchants in New England trade with the enemy, and in reward the British blockade imposed in 1813 exempts New England. New England's Federalist governors refuse to let their militia serve outside their own states.
In 1813, however, the war turns for the better. The British are defeated on Lake Erie and the great Tecumseh is defeated and killed at the Battle of the Thames. Madison is hopeful. He tells Congress, "The war has proved ... that our free Government, like other free Governments, though slow in its early movements acquires, in its progress, a force proportioned to its freedom ... ."
But in the summer of 1814, disaster looms. With Napoleon defeated, England now turns its full might toward dismembering its former colony and making peace with the pieces. For many Americans, the British rampage through Washington that August must have spelled the end. But the 63-year-old Madison remained on horseback for most of four days and nights while the capital burned and then returned immediately to its charred ruins to resume official business. Within a month of the burning of the White House he sends his sixth State of the Union message to Congress candidly acknowledging England's potential "deadly blow at our growing prosperity, perhaps at our national existence."
Unexpectedly the tide turns. The British force that burned Washington is turned back on land and sea at Baltimore, and Francis Scott Key writes the Star Spangled Banner in celebration. At Plattsburg, N.Y., the next month, an American force of 5,000 turns back a British strike of 11,000 veterans bent on cutting the country in two.
With the wider war stalemating, both sides continue to negotiate for peace and finally end the war with the Treaty of Ghent. News of it, however, does not reach Madison until 10 days after Andrew Jackson's stunning defeat of the British invasion of New Orleans in January 1815. With news of the victory, followed closely by news of the peace treaty, Madison rides a crest of euphoria and unheralded popularity that carries him through the remainder of his second term.
The war carries more resounding implications as well. While American victories signal to the world that the United States can and will defend itself, this "second war of independence" also opens up the vast interior of the United States for expansion. But a victory for the United States becomes a tragedy for Native Americans.
"The late war," Madison wrote in a special message to Congress accompanying the Treaty of Ghent, "although reluctantly declared by Congress, had become a necessary resort to assert the rights and independence of the nation."
"Mr. Madison's war" also signaled a change in Madison's views regarding a standing military. Madison went so far as to ask Congress to prevent a complete demobilization after the war in order to maintain a national army.
Within, also, the nation's temperament and sense of pride decidedly changed. Albert Gallatan, Madison's secretary of the treasury and friend, observed: "The war has renewed and reinstated the national feelings and character which the Revolution had given, and which were daily lessened. ... They are more American, they feel and act more as a nation... "
Even arch adversary John Adams gave Madison credit: "Notwithstanding a thousand Faults and blunders, [Madison's administration] has acquired more glory, and established more union, than all of his three predecessors ... put together."
But if the war had rallied Americans together, there was also something in the political conduct of the war that defined what set them apart as Americans. This sentiment was perhaps best expressed by a Washington, D.C., citizen's committee that thanked Madison, when he left office in 1817, for his principled leadership through out the war and challenges to his policy.
"Power and national glory, Sir, have often before, been acquired by the sword; but rarely without the sacrifice of civil or political liberty." The committee lauded Madison for safely wielding "an armed force of fifty thousand men, aided by an annual disbursement of many millions, without infringing a political, civil or religious right."
Madison had endured much during the war, including invective criticism. New England merchants had smuggled and traded with the enemy. Federalist politicians had encouraged the British and hinted of secession. Governors had refused the services of the militia. But after the war, Madison orders no reprisals. New Englanders are not jailed, executed or barred from public office. Madison simply leaves it to the electorate to vote the Federalist ringleaders out of office and lets the party die a natural, political death.
Thomas Jefferson in retirement draws the lesson that is still important today. Madison's forbearance has "shown the placid nature of our Constitution. Under any others their treasons would have been punished by the halter. We let them live as the laughing stocks of the world, and punish them by the torment of eternal contempt."
In our subsequent history, as America's wars and civil strife have unfolded, not all of our presidents have been able to make the same claim regarding the sanctity of civil liberties. But, fortunately for us, Madison is the one by which we can measure them -- in war and peace.
Final Installment: Part V
The Retirement Years. Montpelier's five-part series concludes with Madison retiring to Montpelier. The last living founding father, the former president continues to advise, write about and clarify his thoughts and theories on the founding and continuing success of a representative democracy.
Story by retired James Madison Center Director Devin Bent with Randy Jones