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James Madison

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James Madison, the 4th president of the United States, born March 16, 1751. Despite serving as President, eight years each as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, as secretary of state, his principal contribution to the founding of the United States was the acclaimed "Father of the Constitution." He played the leading role in authoring the U.S. Constitution, and was its leading defender and interpreter for 50 years. To the top degree, he combined scholarship, a keen intelligence, commitment to republican government, and a realistic understanding of politics in a way that allowed him again and again to move from an idea or a conception to a plan, a policy or a law.

Madison's place among the Founding Fathers reveals the necessary qualities of his public career. Not gifted with Washington's influential presence or instinctive good judgment, he was more expressive and more creative than the first president. He lacked Franklin's extensiveness of interest, communicable wit, and unique political style, but he more deeply understood the problems of government. John Adams was more educated and more mindful of the stubborn, catastrophic dilemmas of human life, but Madison was more skilled at creating institutions likely to cope in some way with those problems. Jefferson had a finer vision of the potential for life under republican government, a greater aptitude for leadership, and a special gift for the brilliant expression, but Madison had a more subtle and keen political sense. Finally, though Hamilton was more brilliant in argument and more proficient at offering complete plans, Madison was more faithful to republican values and more aware of the constraints that human need and diversity should place on the designs of the nation's leaders.

Madison's easy election as president in 1808 continued the "Virginia dynasty," meaning the first five presidents of the United States were from Virginia. Madison also had to overcome resistance that favored his friend James Monroe, further making evident political difficulties for his administration. The united loyalty of the Republican Party to Jefferson, the source of his ability to lead effectively without seeming to violate republican dependability to legislative superiority, dissolved under Madison's less compelling management.

Madison's presidency was quiet until November 1811, when with the support of newly elected "War Hawks" who asserted a mastery over Congress; Madison decided that the nation should move toward war with Britain unless the arrogant and damaging assaults on American ships and seamen were stopped. With some defense measures finally pushed through Congress, and no sign of reconciliation from England, Madison asked for and received a declaration of war in June 1812. He was at the same time assured of reelection as president over a merger of nonconformist Republicans and New England Federalists led by DeWitt Clinton of New York.

Throughout the war, Madison struggled with factions within his own party and a determined opposition in New England that, reached proportions the president regarded as near treasonous. Nevertheless, he refused to establish martial law in the region or even seriously restrict civil liberties.

On the battlefield, Madison hoped that American enthusiasm and the vulnerability of Canada would lead to a swift victory. However, the surrender of one American army at Detroit, the defeat of another on the Niagara River frontier, and the disgraceful retreat of yet another before Montreal shot down these hopes. Predictions improved, however, with victories at sea, including the conquest of the Guerriиre by the USS Constitution, the 1813 defeat of the British on Lake Erie, and Gen. William Henry Harrison's triumph on the Thames River.

Yet, the chaos in American finance, Napoleon's happenings in Europe, and another unproductive military campaign in New York left Madison discouraged. His enemies gloated over his nearly fatal illness in June 1813.

The summer of 1814 brought to America thousands of veteran British troops. They fought immensely improved American armies to a standstill on the Niagara front and appeared in Chesapeake Bay with intent on capturing Washington. Madison unwisely entrusted defense of the city to a bad-tempered, rebellious secretary of war, John Armstrong, and to a careless general, William H. Winder. A small but well-disciplined British force defeated the disorganized Americans at Bladensburg as Madison watched from a nearby hillside. His humiliation was complete when he saw flames of the burning Capitol and White House while fleeing across the Potomac River. Dolley Madison, after removing Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of Washington from its frame and loading it on a wagon with a few other precious items, also fled the



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