James Madison by Garry Wills

Invade Canada!

President #4, C-SPAN historians rank #20

jamesmadisonJames Madison was definitely a president with an impressive resume. For starters, Madison wrote much of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was a passionate defender of religious freedom. He served in the House of Representatives. He was Secretary of State for eight years under Thomas Jefferson. But his eight years spent as President are almost entirely remembered for the War of 1812 (which only lasted a little over two years), an event that had two effects: 1) it made Madison appear to act in a way that was very much the opposite of what he believed in for most of his life and 2) created dread in the minds of American schoolchildren who feared that their history teacher would make them write about the War of 1812 on a test and they’d have to figure out just what the whole war was about.

Garry Wills, who has profiled historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Saint Augustine, tries to make sense of the presidency of one of the Founding Fathers who seemingly succeeded at everything in life, except being president. But Wills makes the case that Madison’s eight years as president were not as bad as some historians made them out to be. Wills doesn’t believe that Madison was the greatest president, but he defends Madison for not giving up his most cherished principles, embodied in the Bill of Rights, in a time of war. Madison’s biggest problem in Wills’ eyes was that he made poor choices for his Cabinet and tried to fight a war without much of a standing army.

Madison’s contributions to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are easily his greatest achievements. And it would have been hard for Madison to accomplish anything greater during his term as a president, especially in light of the world he was entering. And just what was that world?

When Madison was inaugurated in March of 1809, the United States was still suffering the effects from an embargo on trade that President Thomas Jefferson had pushed for, and Madison, his Secretary of State, fully supported. The embargo on trade was supposed to put economic pressure on both the British and French from attacking American ships who tried to trade with either country. The United States wanted to be a neutral. But in the Napoleonic Wars, there were just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line. Wait, that’s a Bruce Springsteen song. Sorry…

Where were we? Oh yes, the Napoleonic wars and the U.S. getting caught up in them. Madison hoped that economic pressure would force either the British or French to give in and allow the U.S. neutral trading rights, but that was not to be. And by 1812, Madison, tiring of British attacks on U.S. merchant ships by press gangs trying to get back sailors who had left the British Navy, asked Congress to declare war on Britain. The U.S. had an equal beef with France, but the French had slightly better P.R. among Americans. Madison, who always thought economic sanctions could fix any problem, had aligned himself with the “War Hawks” in Congress, led by Speaker Henry Clay.

With a war started over maritime matters, the American response, logically, was to attack Canada. Why? Well, why not? It’s Canada. How hard could it be?

It turned out to be rather difficult. It was especially difficult because Madison entrusted the command of the troops to Revolutionary War heroes (who were old and mostly incomptetent), political appointees (who were mostly incompetent, but not necessarily old), or people who were crooks (such as General Robert Wilkinson who had taken bribes from Spain and thought about overthrowing the government in a plot with Aaron Burr and once decided to quarter most of his soldiers near a swamp in New Orleans in the summertime and half of them got malaria and died.). The U.S. takeover of Canada never happened, although U.S. troops did burn the city of York (now Toronto) to the ground. This served only to make the British angry and they responded in kind by burning down large parts of Washington, such as the White House.

The U.S. Navy had a few big victories, but the biggest one served to give them control of Lake Erie, which seemed like a lot of effort to just keep the future site of Cleveland safe. And the U.S. had enough victories on the battlefield to keep the British at bay. The biggest U.S. victory came in New Orleans in 1815, a few days after a peace treaty was signed in Ghent, Belgium. The battle went something like this.

Wills mentions how the U.S. had little intelligence of British troop movements during the war. The primary source of information came from reading newspapers. The Secretary of State, James Monroe, decided to do some scouting on his own since few people in the Army were willing to do so. Monroe was also told to go take command of the troops in the Northwest that had failed to take over Canada, although Monroe did not take official command.

Many of these problems that Madison encountered were Jefferson’s fault, in the eyes of Wills. Jefferson shunned a large navy, preferring a system of small gunboats, which proved to be almost, but not quite entirely, useless in defending the coastline. And Jefferson feared a standing army. However, a standing army can come in handy when you’re going to war against a very, very, very, very big and rich country.

However, Madison, unlike other presidents during wartime (including revered figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt) did not restrict civil liberties. Madison didn’t shut down presses of people who opposed the war. Madison didn’t imprison the members of the Hartford Convention, a group of New England Federalists who were thinking of seceding from the United States (they didn’t, mainly because they realized it was a bad idea and people were making fun of them.) And when Congressional leaders asked Madison to proclaim a National Day of Prayer and Fasting when the war started, Madison declined, figuring that people who wanted to pray “would do so on their own.”

Wills’ history of Madison’s presidency accomplishes something that took this history major his whole life to figure out: just what was the War of 1812 fought for. And now I can drop in references to Macon’s Bill Number Two and force people to use Google to see if I am making sense.

For those interested in the full James Madison experience, you should visit his home, Montpelier, which is in Orange, Virginia. Or perhaps you can just take a look at the Bill of Rights. Madison would probably appreciate that more.

Miscellany: Madison’s first vice president, George Clinton, also ran against him as president and received six electoral votes for president. Clinton was Jefferson’s second vice president. Clinton was one of Madison’s chief political rivals. Clinton died before his term was up.

For his second term, Madison chose Elbridge Gerry as his Vice President. While Gerry agreed with Madison, he died in office too.

Being James Madison’s Vice President was sort of like being a drummer for Spinal Tap.

Housekeeping note: You can reach this site now also by using the URL http://allthepresidentsbooks.com.

Also I’ve gone through my backlog of books I’ve read, so give me a few days to get to a new one.

Furthermore, I’m going to use the tag “Democrats” for presidents who would have been described as “Republican” or “Democratic-Republican” at the time because it’s simpler. And if you don’t know what I’m getting at, you’re probably not interested in reading this blog to begin with.

John Tyler by Gary May

Him too!
10th President. C-Span historians rank: 35

My chaotic journey through the history of the U.S. Presidency begins with a book about the first vice-president to succeed a president who passed away while in office. Gary May, a professor at the University of Delaware, penned this surprisingly sympathetic look at one of America’s lesser presidents.

John Tyler was tacked on to the Whig Party’s ticket in 1840 because he had a recognizable name and could help the party out in Virginia, which was still a big player in national politics at the time, as it had 23 electoral votes. The two problems with this were: 1) Tyler had until very recently before the election been a Democrat and had only switched over to the Whigs more or less out of spite and 2) the Whigs, with William Henry (“I died in 30 days”) Harrison leading the way, won the election by a large margin (234-60) and still lost Viriginia.

Harrison, who was 68 when elected and not in the best of health to begin with, died a month into office. So it was time for Tyler to take over. Tyler hadn’t even been living in Washington since the inauguration as he really had nothing to do. But he comes back, tells everyone he’s the boss, vetoes Henry Clay’s favorite legislation, the chartering of a national bank, and almost his entire Cabinet resigns on the spot.

It didn’t get much better for Tyler. He couldn’t get any legislation passed. He couldn’t appoint judges. His wife died. And in 1844, while he and his Cabinet were cruising the Potomac on the U.S.S. Princeton, a cannon exploded on deck and killed his Secretary of State, Secretary of Navy, and dozens more. The gory details are here. For a traumatic event that wiped out many high ranking members of government, very few people know about it. Tyler was below deck at the time and unhurt by the explosion. (For those not scoring at home, Senate President Pro Tem Willie Mangum would have been next in line to become president at the time.)

But Tyler eventually remarried while in office and ended up fathering 14 15!! children in all. And he still has grandchildren (or least a grandchild) alive. Think of when your grandfathers were born. John Tyler was born in 1790!

Tyler’s biggest accomplishment was the annexation of Texas. Tyler had made it his quest to get at least that done before he left office. Thanks to the lobbying of his second wife, Julia, who by all reports was one of the best looking women in Washington, but she was also not afraid to throw herself into the political arena to help her husband.

Since both parties didn’t like Tyler, he didn’t run for reelection. James Polk, the Democratic candidate in 1844 and the eventual victor, campaigned on adding Texas to the United States. But Tyler managed to get Texas added to the U.S. on his watch when he signed a Congressional resolution the day before he left office annexing Texas. Perhaps Tyler knew that there was a city there named after him.

When Tyler passed away in 1862, he was about to start serving in the Confederate Congress. So his passing was not exactly mourned throughout the land.

However, Tyler should be remembered mostly for setting the precedent that when the President dies, the Vice-President becomes president. Some (read “Henry Clay”) wanted to call Tyler the “Acting President.” But Tyler called himself “President” and insisted that he had all the rights and privileges of the office. This principle didn’t become a formal part of the Constitution until 1967.

May wants us to believe that Tyler, a man who financed his first trip to Washington to serve in Congress by auctioning off his most beloved household slave, is not as bad as most historians view him. He believes that Tyler worked as well as he could in such an impossible situation. It’s not easy to govern when you have no constituency. But Tyler didn’t quit. You can’t blame a President for trying I guess.

(Postscript: From the introduction to this book, I have the impression that William Henry Harrison will get his own book, which will be an interesting task. If you’re ever in the Charles City, Virginia area, you can visit Tyler’s home, called Sherwood Forest.)