The Presidential election in 1812 was one of the more interesting in our history. James Madison was running for re-election on the Jeffersonian Republican ticket. Dewitt Clinton, who was simultaneously Mayor of New York and Lieutenant Governor of New York, received the nomination of a dissident faction of the Jeffersonian Republicans, along with the nomination of the dying Federalist party. (more…)
On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the declaration of war passed by Congress on June 17, 1812, starting the War of 1812. I think it is safe to say that rarely has the United States gone to war more ill-prepared than in 1812, with an Army of 7,000 men and a Navy with 12 combat vessels, which is odd considering that there was no precipitating crisis that mandated a declaration of war at the time. The United States could have prepared for the conflict and then declared war, but no such pre-war preparation occurred.
The vote totals in Congress, in the House 79-49 and in the Senate 19-13, indicated that the war was largely at the desire of one political party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, and opposed by the Federalists. The opposition of the Federalists would continue throughout the war, and the conflict would be bitterly divisive in the United States.
The whole undertaking has a fairly surreal quality in retrospect, with the Madison administration, propelled by the War Hawks in Congress, undertaking a war that the President himself thought unwise and ill-considered against the mightiest Empire in the world.
Here is the text of the war message sent by President Madison on June 1, and which served as the basis for the declaration of war: (more…)
One of the more brilliant of the Founding Fathers, and imagine what it meant to stand out in that august assemblage, Alexander Hamilton’s life in some ways resembled a Greek tragedy where a gifted hero fails due to flaws of character. The most notable example of this in Hamilton’s life was his affair with beautiful 23 year old Mrs. Maria Reynolds. Reynolds’ husband was an abusive cad who made a dishonest living by swindling veterans out of their land grants for a fraction of their value. In 1791 Reynolds presented herself as a damsel in distress fleeing from her abusive spouse. This was the classic Badger con by which married men are placed in compromising positions, thus exposing themselves to blackmail. Like many brilliant individuals, Hamilton could be surprisingly gullible at times. Swallowing her story, Hamilton helped her monetarily, swiftly succumbed to her abundant charms, and she became his mistress. (more…)
During the Nullifcation crisis, James Madison, one of the last survivors of the Founding Fathers, was an ardent foe of both secession and nullification. In a letter to Senator Daniel Webster dated March 15, 1833, Madison set forth his thoughts on secession: (more…)
A debate between Adams and Jefferson from the John Adams mini-series on the necessity of a written constitution. I am all on the side of Adams. Putting one’s faith in the good sense and decency of people in general, and being cavalier about political arrangements as to government, is a short route to chaos as History woefully tells us. Jefferson’s views on this topic were tellingly set forth in a letter to William Smith on November 13, 1787:
God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … What country before ever existed a century and half without a rebellion? And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.
Jefferson, for a man who did not spend a single day in the Continental Army during the Revolution, was quite free in his talk about bloodshed. Most of the Founding Fathers, including Adams, viewed the misery and the blood of the Revolution as a regrettable necessity in the setting up of a new nation, and dreaded a repetition of such a conflict. Not so Jefferson who seemed to view such conflict as a necessary and normal part of a free society. Fortunately, heads wiser than Jefferson’s helped frame an enduring Constitution. James Madison, ironically the closest political associate of Jefferson throughout most of Jefferson’s later political career, summed up the necessity of government well in Federalist 51: (more…)
John Douglas Hall as James Madison gives a report on negotiations with France and England in 1811. The art of Presidential impersonation can not only be entertaining, but also a useful means of teaching history. There are thousands of Lincoln impersonators around the nation, and probably hundreds of Washington, not much for the remainder of our Presidents which is a pity. Mr. Hall does a very good job as Madison. He not only has his mannerisms down pat, but he speaks as Madison wrote, in fairly complex eighteenth century prose, which lends a verisimilitude to his performance. (more…)
In April 1787 James Madison wrote a very interesting document outlining the Vices of the political system of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. It is fascinating to read in light of the Constituional Convention later that year, and also in light of our experience with the Constitution for over two centuries: (more…)
Justice Stephen Breyer of the US Supreme Court has never been a fan of the Second Amendment. On Fox News on Sunday he made an historical claim that I would like to analyze in this post.
Madison “was worried about opponents who would think Congress would call up state militias and nationalize them. ‘That can’t happen,’ said Madison,” said Breyer, adding that historians characterize Madison’s priority as, “I’ve got to get this document ratified.”
I assume that the Justice is referring to Federalist 46 written by James Madison, and which may be read here. (I apologize in advance to our resident blog expert on the Federalist papers Paul Zummo. Paul, if you see any mistakes on my part in the following, please let me have it!)
The Justice is correct that many in the states were concerned that the proposed new federal government would have too much power, and Federalist 46 was written to help allay those concerns.
The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition.
Madison realized that this was a sensitive point. The American Revolution had only ended five years before, and the attempt by Great Britain to rule through military force was a raw memory for all of his readers. Madison tackles this fear head on by comparing the military force of a standing federal army to the militias of the states:
Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and let it be entirely at the devotion of the federal government; still it would not be going too far to say, that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to the best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted, whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops. Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it.
So far so good for Justice Breyer. However, he misses completely the import of other things that Madison says in Federalist 46.
Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. (more…)
Federalist 39 is one of the most important of the Federalist papers as it reveals much about James Madison’s philosophy of government. In it he discusses two objections to the Constitution: that it not sufficiently republican, and that it betrays the concept of federalism in creating a national rather than federal government.
In order to address the first charge Madison had to define the concept of republicanism. He confesses that “no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America,” and so he undertakes to establish what the concept means. While some European countries fashi0n themselves to be republics, the designation ill fits most of them, especially where absolute monarchs rule over the people. So if the designation “republic” does not suit Holland or Poland, what does constitute a republic? Madison’s answer provides and invaluable insight into how he views popular rule. (more…)
Federalist 38 is one of the more interesting essays written by James Madison. It is somewhat more polemical than any of the other essays he penned in this series. Also, depending on how deeply between the lines one is willing to read, it is a strikingly Hamiltonian.
Madison spends a great deal of time at the outset discussing the history of constitutional development. He notes that for most of human history constitutions were handed down by individuals. The constitutional convention was truly a groundbreaking achievement, none the least of which because it produced a constitution created by a group of men rather than a single lawgiver.
There are several possible ways to interpret this mini history lesson. One is to simply accept it at face value for what it is: a history lesson. Of course it might be more than this. Perhaps Madison wants to highlight the achievement of the Framers by placing it in historical context. Also, he is quite possibly building upon the previous essay by showing that the Framers had an incredibly difficult job, and any perceived imperfections in the final document had to be understood in light of the fact that it was the product of a committee that had to compromise along the way, as opposed to men like Solon who handed down constitutions according to their own whims.
The fact that Madison proceeds to spend much of the rest of the paper running down the anti-Federalists and their inability to offer up any meaningful counter-proposals suggests an even more sinister possibility. Maybe Madison is suggesting that the only alternative to the Constitution is chaos or tyranny (or both). That might be taking interpretation too far, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Madison is once again engaging in a little bit of rhetorical trickery. “If you guys are so smart, let’s see what you can do” seems to be the overriding theme of this paper.
At any rate, we should read Madison’s own words to understand what he’s trying to accomplish.