Category: Failed Ideologue
Term in Office: 4th president, 1809-1817
Political Party: Democratic-Republican
Home State: Virginia
Take a look at the historic placement of James Madison in the presidential rankings. You will find that he is consistently in the mid-teens, although there are a few outliers (Siena had him at an absurdly high #6 back in 2010, C-SPAN had him at #20 in 2009.) I do not agree with so high a place for Madison, but I understand the deep-seated need to view his presidency as a success. Madison helped write the Constitution, indeed, he helped design the presidency itself. We would not know very much at all about how the Constitution was fashioned, if not for the meticulous notes he kept (which, to his credit, actually understated his own influence on the document.) In the same way that someone who writes an anatomy textbook might be the last person you want in the operating room, Madison was a brilliant, world-class political theorist, an excellent representative during the first few congresses, and an okay-ish Secretary of State. But he was not well suited to the intricacies and messy realities of governing. The art of actually serving as president did not work in the neat closed-systems and internal logics through which his mind, weaned on Enlightenment and Whig ideologies, interpreted the world.
All this is to say, as Americans, we have an instinct to view Madison as a reasonably accomplished, slightly above average president because of his immense contributions to American politics outside of the presidency. We have difficulty conceiving of the Constitution’s principal author being unable to serve as an effective president. But the record seems clear: despite Madison’s great intellectual gifts, he was by far the weakest of our Founding Father presidents.
Madison was also a poor temperamental fit for the presidency. While often identified as the sharpest guy in the room, and while scrupulously honest, he was not a natural leader. Painfully shy (not helped by his short 5’4” stature), he may have been subject to epileptic fits throughout his life. Like his friend Jefferson, Madison was a poor public speaker, but lacked even Jefferson’s compensatory skill at dinner-party wit. Moreover, Jefferson was a consummate party operative; while Madison was always part of the debate, and fashioned many of the ideas Jefferson used, he was unable and at times unwilling to corral votes in his corner, despite the overwhelming support his Democratic-Republicans enjoyed in Congress.
Thomas Jefferson gave Madison a very difficult hand to work with by the time he was inaugurated in 1811. On the eve of Madison’s presidency, the American economy was reeling from an embargo that restricted nearly all foreign exchange in the United States. The idea behind this embargo was to punish Britain and France for seizing American ships and impressing American sailors into involuntary service, but this maneuver did the fledgling nation far more harm than to these European powers. Tradeable goods lay rotting and molding in ports, and businesses that relied on international commerce lay dormant. Although the embargo was ended just before Madison took office in favor of a non-intercourse act (haha) that simply banned trade with Britain and France, the damage was done, and it had failed entirely to make those two great powers reconsider their respective policies of seizure and impressment.
Part of the difficulty in solving these problems was the lack of good help available; Madison’s time in office wasn’t particularly stacked of top-notch personnel; the founding fathers were getting a bit long in the tooth. By Madison’s term, they were either retiring to their estates to spend their twilight years whuppin’ slaves and harvestin’ tobacco, or were shedding their mortal coil for elysium. (Case in point: Madison had two vice-presidents, both important Early Republic figures, die on him: George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry.) Conversely, the great personalities of Jackson’s age– Clay, Webster, Benton, and even John Quincy Adams, were on the scene, but not quite ready for prime time, young enough to irritate Madison, but not experienced or tempered enough to be useful to him.
Still, this doesn’t excuse the incredibly bad picks Madison chose for his administration. No president can do it all, and each president relies on both receiving advice and delegating authorities to competent people- two areas where Madison’s predecessor Jefferson and his successor Monroe excelled. Instead, Madison was first president to really and truly give sectional and factional considerations priority over merit. You can argue, for example, that Washington did the same when he picked a New Englander, a New Yorker, and a Southerner for his first cabinet- but you could also argue that Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson were all extraordinary choices who served their offices well. Madison made disloyal, indiscreet Robert Smith, the brother of an important senator, Secretary of State, probably because he intended to direct foreign policy himself. The unqualified New Englander William Eustis was made Secretary of War, and the alcoholic Paul Hamilton was put in charge of the Navy Department at a time when, I remind you, our seapower was terribly weak and two major European powers were seizing our ships. For a time, Madison was so badly short-staffed that James Monroe was stuck serving as Secretary of State AND War during the middle of hostilities with Britain. Unbelievable. Madison surely must have known that storm clouds were on the horizon when he took office, which makes the bad lot of second-raters, has-beens, and never-weres that stocked his administration look even worse in hindsight.
Madison’s poor appointments were particularly disastrous given that the first major war fought under the Constitution, the War of 1812, unfolded during his term in office. You can make a case that declaring war on Britain fell under Augustinian “just war” precepts, but you can just as persuasively argue to the contrary. Lots of Appalachians and Southerners saw a war with Britain as a good opportunity to settle old scores and annex Ontario or Quebec, naively underestimating how boldly these territories would resist American forces. Out of all American wars, it is the one I most wrestle with when I consider whether or not it ought to have been fought. Madison was reluctant to go to war, partly because he knew well that a war would centralize the government and embolden the army, two things the Virginian believed would threaten a republic. Nevertheless, he was convinced by the young “War Hawks” in Congress (I am staring daggers at Henry Clay right now) to declare war, despite loud protests from New England, reliant on British trade and fearful of invasion from Canada.
Aside from questions of leadership, Madison sent the United States into a war against the world’s largest naval power ill-prepared and ill-funded. Few wars drift into farce quite like the War of 1812; Jefferson had left the army understaffed and mismanaged, and Madison did little to set this aright during his first term. Eventually, Madison fired Eustis, and hired John Armstrong Jr. to serve as Secretary of War, but Armstrong proved to be not much better. (Armstrong, as Madison should have known, was part of the Newburgh Conspiracy, which aspired to usurp civilian control of the armed forces). There was hardly a standing army to speak of, and small militias, often reluctant to fight outside their state or obey commanders from other parts of the country, were often the nation’s only line of defense. New England stubbornly sat the conflict out and at times sabotaged a war effort they felt was detrimental to its interests. Madison retreated in ignominy from Washington, D.C. when the British mounted a successful invasion and burned any building that functioned as part of the federal government. Fledgling settlements along the Great Lakes were destroyed. Only the distance across the Atlantic and a series of Napoleonic distractions kept the British from committing fully to the conflict and potentially wiping out the toddling American republic. Madison was very lucky that the war ended in status quo ante bellum with no loss of territory, because the consequences could have been severe. Regardless of whether the war was justified, its botched execution was a mistake that was costly in treasure and in blood, with few concrete results to show for it, and with many unresolved questions with respect to Great Britain.
Madison also let his republican ideology direct his approach to the economy in ways that were harmful. Like other Democratic-Republican presidents, he opposed internal improvements and a national series of roads, impeding the country’s development. But in terms of larger economic concerns, he erred in allowing the first Bank of the United States expire when its term was up. While Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin had convinced Madison of the need for a bank (a sentiment that struck against every Jeffersonian instinct the president had), Madison did not lift a finger to push a new charter through Congress, believing such advocacy a monarchial affectation, tooutside of the province of the executive branch. The bank’s charter tied in the Senate, but Madison was even unable to persuade his own vice-president against casting the deciding vote against it– leaving the nation with no reliable means to raise funds and finance an increasingly expensive and difficult war. Throughout Madison’s term, the problem of banking hindered the country’s ability to fight the war against Britain effectively, creating a kind of vicious circle. Inflation reigned and debt grew, even as Britain blockaded most of America’s ports. After dallying for nearly two terms, Madison finally relented, asked Congress to charter a Second Bank, and signed it into law in 1816. Madison then helped the bank get off to a terrible start by appointing a group of hyper-partisan Jeffersonians, none of whom were fond of the institution, to its board.
Many of my impressions on Madison have been solidified by re-reading Alvin Felzenberg’s The Leaders We Deserved. While we two disagree strongly on some presidents (Reagan, Carter and Hoover especially), we agree strikingly in some of our less conventional opinions- especially Jackson and Madison, both of whom we rate lower than most would. Despite his criticisms, Felzenberg makes an excellent point that Madison deserves credit for his excellent record on civil liberties during the War of 1812. I hasten to mention that John Adams’ presidency included the Alien and Sedition Acts, which looks worse on paper than what actually happened, but still leaves a cruel and xenophobic impression. Jefferson also cracked down on Embargo violators and critics– more Americans were imprisoned and a few even killed over the Embargo than under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Nevertheless, Madison was commendably tolerant of those who dissented against the war, particularly his enemies among the mercantile classes of New England. And keep in mind, New England was almost openly plotting to leave the union by the time the war was winding down. Lincoln might have suspended habeas corpus in such a situation. Jackson might have suspended actual bodies from trees. Madison let the fever pass, a much wiser decision.
The respect James Madison enjoys for his contributions to America’s founding documents and its first congresses is well earned. What that respect should not do is cloud our interpretation of Madison’s presidency, which all too often views the War of 1812 as a “no harm, no foul” sorta thing, rather than a litany of serious, costly, and unforced errors. Madison’s inability to lead a party, his incompetence at choosing good subordinates, and his sundry failures as commander-and-chief must render him one of our less successful presidents. Any of the accidental benefits of the war and the non-importation- their fostering of national sentiment, the promotion of infant industries, the morale boost from the Battle of New Orleans, should not redound to his benefit. Nevertheless, Madison’s reluctance to go to war, his active steps to preserve civil liberties, and his ability to eventually, if all too slowly, learn from his mistakes, prevent him from sinking to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder. Madison’s sloth in finding the balance between formulating and believing in republican ideals on one hand, and dealing in messy, complicated, unruly elements of governance makes him the highest-ranking president in our “Failed Ideologue” category.
A handy rule of thumb: if the British destroy your capital by fire, you are, by definition, a below-average president.
Meaningless Incidentals: Madison is now on the Mount Rushmore of “Presidents Who are Now Common First Names”, up there with Tyler, Jackson, and Reagan. I will not be giving my children any of these names.