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Madison's place among the Founding Fathers reveals the necessary qualities of his public career. Not gifted with Washington's influential presence or instinctive good judgment, he was more expressive and more creative than the first president. He lacked Franklin's extensiveness of interest, communicable wit, and unique political style, but he more deeply understood the problems of government. John Adams was more educated and more mindful of the stubborn, catastrophic dilemmas of human life, but Madison was more skilled at creating institutions likely to cope in some way with those problems. Jefferson had a finer vision of the potential for life under republican government, a greater aptitude for leadership, and a special gift for the brilliant expression, but Madison had a more subtle and keen political sense. Finally, though Hamilton was more brilliant in argument and more proficient at offering complete plans, Madison was more faithful to republican values and more aware of the constraints that human need and diversity should place on the designs of the nation's leaders.
Madison's easy election as president in 1808 continued the "Virginia dynasty," meaning the first five presidents of the United States were from Virginia. Madison also had to overcome resistance that favored his friend James Monroe, further making evident political difficulties for his administration. The united loyalty of the Republican Party to Jefferson, the source of his ability to lead effectively without seeming to violate republican dependability to legislative superiority, dissolved under Madison's less compelling management.
Madison's presidency was quiet until November 1811, when with the support of newly elected "War Hawks" who asserted a mastery over Congress; Madison decided that the nation should move toward war with Britain unless the arrogant and damaging assaults on American ships and seamen were stopped.
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Throughout the war, Madison struggled with factions within his own party and a determined opposition in New England that, reached proportions the president regarded as near treasonous. Nevertheless, he refused to establish martial law in the region or even seriously restrict civil liberties.
On the battlefield, Madison hoped that American enthusiasm and the vulnerability of Canada would lead to a swift victory. However, the surrender of one American army at Detroit, the defeat of another on the Niagara River frontier, and the disgraceful retreat of yet another before Montreal shot down these hopes. Predictions improved, however, with victories at sea, including the conquest of the Guerrière by the USS Constitution, the 1813 defeat of the British on Lake Erie, and Gen. William Henry Harrison's triumph on the Thames River.
Yet, the chaos in American finance, Napoleon's happenings in Europe, and another unproductive military campaign in New York left Madison discouraged. His enemies gloated over his nearly fatal illness in June 1813.
The summer of 1814 brought to America thousands of veteran British troops. They fought immensely improved American armies to a standstill on the Niagara front and appeared in Chesapeake Bay with intent on capturing Washington. Madison unwisely entrusted defense of the city to a bad-tempered, rebellious secretary of war, John Armstrong, and to a careless general, William H. Winder. A small but well-disciplined British force defeated the disorganized Americans at Bladensburg as Madison watched from a nearby hillside. His humiliation was complete when he saw flames of the burning Capitol and White House while fleeing across the Potomac River. Dolley Madison, after removing Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of Washington from its frame and loading it on a wagon with a few other precious items, also fled the capital but failed to find her husband in 48 hours of confused actions in Virginia and Maryland.
However, when Madison returned to Washington after three days, he was soon cheered by word of the British defeat in Baltimore Harbor, the battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to the national anthem. News also arrived that U.S. forces had repulsed a powerful British army coming down Lake Champlain.
When the Duke of Wellington and other British leaders learned, in late October, of the setbacks, they decided that the American war was not worth the tiring efforts necessary for victory. They would seek peace. But Madison did not know this, and with a powerful British force threatening New Orleans, he had to prepare his disordered nation for more war. Sectional strains grew as Federalist leaders denounced the war at the Hartford Convention.
Madison dismissed Armstrong from the War Department and appointed a new Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander J. Dallas, who managed to partially restore American credit. Madison also hoped that his peace commission in Ghent might now secure adequate terms from Britain. On Christmas Eve, 1814, with both sides tired of war, a peace treaty was signed restoring the pre-war boundaries and ensuring American national independence. Britain had lost any remaining hope of dominating its former colonies or of blocking United States expansion into the Mississippi Valley. In early February 1815 the news of the peace treaty reached a nervous capital city and sent it into festive celebrations.
With threats of disunion ended, the path opened for westward expansion, and the nation and its institutions agreed, Madison's last two years as president were triumphant. Responding to the nationalist mood, he proposed a wide-ranging domestic program in 1815. To guide and kindle the economy, he recommended a re-charter of the National Bank, a moderate tariff to protect "infant" industries, and federal support for roads and canals that would "bind more closely together the various parts of our extended confederacy." He also recommended establishment of a national university and defense measures strong enough to dissuade potential enemies.
Happily retired to his Virginia farm, Madison practiced logical farming, helped Jefferson found the University of Virginia, advised Monroe on foreign policy, arranged his papers for publication, and maintained a wide communication. He returned officially to public life only to take part in the Virginia constitutional convention of 1829.
Madison's health slowly declined, forcing him more and more to be a silent observer. He died on June 28, 1836, the last survivor of the founders of the American Republic.
Ketcham, Ralph (1990). James Madison: A Biography. Virginia: University Press of Virginia.
Rakove, J., O.Handlin (2001). James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic. Pearson Education.
(2006, 06/27). James Madison - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved May 31, 2006, from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Madison