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Executive Branch

Secretary of State Madison

Secretary of State James Madison

The measures of the Adams administration provoked a backlash that allowed Republicans to capture the presidency in 1801. With Jefferson securely seated in the presidential chair, Republicans began to dismantle the Federalist machinery of government in what the president termed "the Revolution of 1800," eliminating internal taxes and judicial positions and reducing the military to a bare necessity. In this new order, Madison took on the responsibility of the State Department and remained as Jefferson's right-hand man and heir-apparent through the eight years of his fellow Virginian's two-term presidency.

As secretary of state, Madison was charged with a host of duties besides the conduct of American foreign policy, ranging from publishing and distributing the public laws to serving as liaison between the federal government and the governors of the states and territories. In the realm of foreign policy, he handled correspondence from five ministers and over fifty consuls.

The greatest achievement of the Jefferson administration was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. The most difficult problem the administration faced was the attempt to maintain the rights of a neutral nation in the face of the provocations and aggressions of France and Great Britain. No amount of argument about free trade or the injustice of impressment could stop the depredations enacted on American commerce or the impressment of American sailors on the high seas. Great Britain's orders in council in 1807 prohibited the common American practice of trading between European ports and later required all ships trading with the Continent to obtain a license in Great Britain. Napoleon's Milan Decree retaliated by making any ship complying with the British regulation subject to confiscation. Caught in this intractable bind, Madison and Jefferson turned to economic coercion as an alternative to war. The embargo that was enacted in 1807 solved the problem of foreign depredations on American commerce but at the cost of temporarily destroying that commerce. The weapon that was intended to cripple the British economy brought instead a wave of popular revulsion and widespread lawbreaking.

President Madison

President James Madison

As Jefferson's successor, Madison won the 1808 presidential election handily, despite a challenge from his estranged friend, James Monroe. Throughout his first term Madison was preoccupied by disputes with France, Great Britain, and Spain. By 1810 France had repealed its commercial restrictions, at least nominally, and in the same year Madison seized the province of West Florida from Spain, thereby consolidating American control of the Gulf Coast. But with respect to Great Britain, his efforts were unavailing, and beginning in November 1811, he urged Congress to mobilize the country's defenses. In June 1812 he asked for and received a declaration of war against Great Britain.

Elected president for a second time in 1812, Madison launched a series of invasions at Canada as the most vulnerable British target. The war effort was hampered, however, by poor generalship, untrained and ill-equipped troops, quarrels with the state governments, and logistical difficulties. The collective impact of these administrative and political difficulties on effective war-making made the War of 1812 hard going indeed.

Madison and the Treaty of Ghent

With the strategic failure of the Canadian campaigns of 1812 to 1814 and with his own capital burned by British invaders in 1814, Madison was happy to accept a peace on the basis of the prewar relationship with Great Britain. The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, was negotiated in December 1814, but the news did not reach Washington until February 1815. In the interim the nearly miraculous victory at New Orleans in January 1815 put a happy coda on what was for the most part a disastrous experience. And, just as important, the immediate causes of the war—commercial restrictions and impressment—had vanished with the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the European conflict.

Madison's final years in office allowed him, for the first time in fifteen years, to turn his attention to domestic affairs. Ironically, he proposed several measures that he had earlier strongly opposed—the recharter of a national bank, a limited protective tariff, and a constitutional amendment to allow the federal government to undertake internal improvements. The Second Bank of the United States was established by Madison's signature in 1816, but in one of his last official acts he vetoed as unconstitutional a Bonus Bill that provided for federal support of roads and canals. He retired to Montpelier for the second, and last, time in March 1817.

David Mattern (edited for use here by Jewel Spangler and Anne Colony); source: The American Revolution 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia, ed. Richard L. Blanco and Paul J. Sanborn (2 vols.; New York, 1993), 2:1002-8.