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Presidential History of James Madison

In the presidential campaign of 1808, James Madison was forced to answer for the failed Republican-advocated Embargo Act. The Federalists gained momentum by criticizing Madison's poor handling of international affairs. Despite the opposition's tactics, Madison routed the Federalist candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, with 122 electoral votes to 47. Madison took office in March 1809 on the heels of an unstable national economy and naval threats from both Great Britain and France.

The embargo was imposed in response to violations of U.S. neutrality, in which American merchantmen and their cargo were seized as contraband of war by the European navies. The British Royal Navy, in particular, resorted to impressment, forcing thousands of American seamen into service on their warships. Great Britain and France, engaged in a struggle for control of Europe, rationalized the plunder of U.S. shipping as incidental to war and necessary for their survival. Americans saw the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair as a particularly egregious example of a British violation of American neutrality. Perceived diplomatic insults and unwarranted official orders issued in support of these actions by European powers were widely recognized as grounds for a U.S. declaration of war. Irate citizens cynically transposed the letters of "Embargo" to read "O Grab Me."

President Thomas Jefferson acted with restraint as these antagonisms mounted, weighing public support for retaliation. He recommended that Congress respond with commercial warfare, rather than with military mobilization. The Embargo Act was signed into law on December 22, 1807. The anticipated effect of this drastic measure – economic hardship for the belligerent nations – was expected to chasten Great Britain and France, and force them to end their molestation of American shipping, respect U.S. neutrality, and cease the policy of impressment. The embargo turned out to be impractical as a coercive measure, and was a failure both diplomatically and economically. As implemented, the legislation inflicted devastating burdens on the U.S. economy and the American people.

Madison proposed a bill in 1810 that would alleviate the commerce restrictions on either of the two European countries that respected the neutral rights of U.S vessels. Napoleon I agreed to these terms as a ploy to gain an alliance with the United States against Great Britain, and the United States resumed trade relations with France.

The British remained relentless in seizing U.S. ships and forcing U.S. sailors into service. Great Britain also contributed weapons and supplies to Native Americans who staged uprisings against settlers along the northwestern boundaries of the United States.

"Mr. Madison's War"

On June 18, 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain, and the War of 1812 had begun. Federalist opponents called it "Mr. Madison's War" and proclaimed that the president had been strong-armed into the conflict by the War Hawks.

As commander in chief during the War of 1812, Madison and Treasury Secretary Gallatin were unable to convince Congress to increase funds to support the military. As a result, the United States lacked the trained troops and munitions necessary for launching a successful war campaign. U.S. achievements in the war were limited to a few successful ground assaults and strategic naval battles.

Madison planned offensives into Canada and commissioned American Revolution veteran Gen. William Hull to lead the U.S. attacks. Hull's tactics were poorly organized, and he was forced to retreat to Detroit where he surrendered to British troops and their Native American allies in August 1812. Further attempts to invade Canada were equally disastrous.

Amid the series of defeats on the battlefield came the presidential election of 1812, and New England Federalists labeled Madison as an incompetent leader during his campaign. His opponents used their antiwar rhetoric to promote their candidate, DeWitt Clinton, of New York who was the nephew of Vice President George Clinton. Nevertheless, Madison had little difficulty in securing a second term. When Vice President George Clinton died in 1812, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts was elected to replace him.

The United States fared much better in its naval campaigns. The frigates Constitution and United States won decisive encounters against British warships in 1812. In the Battle of Lake Erie U.S. naval Capt. Oliver H. Perry took control of Lake Erie in an engagement over a British fleet in September 1813. This victory helped ensure U.S. control of the Northwest.

Madison had named Gen. William Henry Harrison as the commander of U.S. forces in the Northwest after Hull's surrender at Detroit. Harrison drove the British from Detroit, and on Oct. 5, 1813, defeated the British army and their Native Americans at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada. The Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, was killed in this battle, and thereafter the Native Americans loyal to Great Britain broke their alliance.

In August 1814 British troops marched into Washington, D.C., and burned the Executive Mansion, the Capitol, and several other government buildings. Madison and his Cabinet retreated to Virginia during the attack. He scolded members of his staff, including Secretary of War John Armstrong, for ignoring his warnings and not preparing the necessary defenses for the city.

After burning the U.S. capital, the British captured Alexandria, Va., and proceeded to Baltimore, Md., where they met sturdy resistance from U.S. forces at Fort McHenry on Sept. 13, 1814. On the morning of September 14 Francis Scott Key noticed that the U.S. flag still flew over the fort, and it inspired him to write the "Star-Spangled Banner," which Congress adopted as the U.S. national anthem in 1931.

Neither the United States nor Great Britain gained any significant military or territorial advantages as a result of the War of 1812, and no agreements were made concerning U.S. neutrality rights at sea. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Dec. 24, 1814, in Belgium that officially ended the war.

News of the peace treaty had not reached New Orleans, where U.S. Gen. Andrew Jackson was defending the city from a British invasion from along the southern banks of the Mississippi River. On Jan. 8, 1815, Jackson's superb fortifications and skillful leadership gave the United States a quick and decisive victory in the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson was crowned a war hero, and Madison exploited the enthusiasm from the aftermath of the battle by proclaiming the war a success.

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