mapMadison's Montpelier

A nice one-day trip from Northern Virginia can include both Montpelier and Jefferson's Monticello. Both homes are especially gorgeous if you can catch them during the fall leaf season. The view from the Monticello grounds is spectacular. Montpelier is interesting for what the Du Pont family did when they owned it.

Montepelier has recently undergone a major reconstruction project to restore it to its original condition. When the DuPont family owned the property, they remodeled it in interesting fashion, but in the process the historic layout was lost. The restoration project, funded by the Montpelier Foundation, was begun in 2003 and completed in 2008.

Link to the Montpelier Web Site

James Madison was a close friend and political ally of Jefferson.  Madison's home, Montpelier, near Orange, Virginia, is about 27 miles from Monticello.

Madison and Jefferson exchanged frequent visits when able, and their collected correspondence fills three hefty volumes.  Madison was selected as Jefferson's successor by Republicans in Congress and won the election of 1808 easily.  Madison is sometimes viewed as being temperamentally unsuited for leadership, but a closer examination of his performance at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, his term as Speaker of the House, as Secretary of State under Jefferson and as President reveals that while he was small in stature and lacked a strong speaking voice, he knew how to get things done. Dolly Madison, known for her physical attractiveness and cleverness at entertaining and decorating, was a sophisticated political companion who knew how to use her feminine charms in the service of her husband's political career.  Ever faithful to her "Jemmy," Dolly entertained at the White House in a manner suggestive of the salons of Paris, collecting information and seeing to it that those who needed her husband's ear could get it.  Like many other great women in supporting roles, Dolly Madison served her husband and her country well, and is best known for having saved a famous portrait of George Washington from the British as they approached and then burned the White House in 1814.

  • For a great read about Madison and his contemporaries, try the fine book 1812 by David Nevin, a first rate historical novel. It's in the Fairfax County library system.

A summary of Madison's White House years:

  • His terms were dominated by foreign dilemmas—the last years of the Napoleonic Wars.
  • In 1809 Congress responded to popular pressure, rebelled and repealed Jefferson's Embargo. Despite its unpopularity, the embargo had some positive effects on the American economy:
    • It forced American to invest in manufacturing, thereby becoming less reliant on foreign goods, which ultimately helped the U.S. balance of trade.
    • It relieved the impressment controversy, thus buying time for America to grow stronger;
    • It helped lead to the eventual repeal of the British Orders in Council.
    • Madison felt the embargo was a positive instrument of policy, not a backing down in the face of the British
  • Subsequent attempts to reduce tensions at sea included—
    • The Non-Intercourse Act, in effect from March 1809 to May 1810: It provided for non-importation/exportation against belligerent nations; it was directed against both France and England; trade with both nations was prohibited.
    • Trade with all other nations was ok; concerning France and Great Britain, trade could be resumed with whichever nation dropped its restrictions against the U.S.  In general American ships could go wherever they wanted.
    • Also under the terms of the Non-Intercourse Act, the United States committed itself to resume trade with England and France if those nations promised to cease their seizure of American vessels.
    • On the basis of a pledge by a British official, Madison reopened trade with England, but the British ignored the promise and seized American ships that sailed under Madison's direction.
    • Congress then passed Macon's Bill Number Two, in effect from May 1810 to March 1811, another "carrot and stick" measure. It reopened trade with both Britain and France, but threatened new sanctions against either nation in the case of misbehavior, and trade with the other nation at the same time.  Theoretically it provided flexibility, but in the face of repeated violations and "cheating" by both sides, it also proved ineffective.
    • Under this law Napoleon promised to respect  American rights but subsequently broke his word.
  • British Minister Erskine, who was friendly to the U.S., negotiated a favorable treaty with the U.S., and Madison claimed that all issues between the U.S. and Great Britain were resolved. Foreign Secretary Canning rejected the agreement, however, and the Americans grew angry and moved closer to France. Great Britain replaced Erskine with a tougher minister, "Copenhagen Jackson," who was notorious for having ordered British ships to fire on the Danish capital.
  • Napoleon buffaloed Madison by having one of his ministers, Mr. Cadore, send an ambiguous letter containing promises to revoke restrictions in exchange for American pressure against Great Britain. Madison informed Great Britain that non-importation would be reinvoked, but the British refused to repeal their Orders in Council. Non-importation was thus invoked against England from March 1811 to June 1812
In a new incident at sea an American ship, the U.S.S.President got into a scrap with the British Little Belt, which was badly battered.  Meanwhile the British again began arousing the Indians in the Northwest Territory.  The Indian Chief Tecumseh and his brother, The Prophet, attempted to form and Indian coalition to unify resistance against the Americans.  Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory, led an expedition and defeated the Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe.  The Indian Confederation collapsed, but the American victory sent Tecumseh and his warriors over to the British side.

By 1812 troubles between the United States and Great Britain and France had reached a point of no return.  Although the War of 1812 has been called the least necessary of all American wars (at least until Vietnam), in retrospect the American government under Jefferson and Madison pursued reasonable (if somewhat ineffective) policies in defense of America's neutral rights.  It is true that great profits can be earned through trade in time of war, and greed was no doubt a factor that pushed American merchant captains into repeated confrontations with both nations.  Still, nations have a right to carry on business even when part of the world is at war. The major goal of American foreign policy during this era was to try to give the President enough flexibility so that he could punish nations that treated us badly and reward those who were more cooperative. Unfortunately Great Britain and France were locked in mortal combat and neither was inclined to be cooperative with anybody, least of all the fledgling new republic across the ocean.

In the end, British domination of the seas was the factor that put the Americans at odds with them.  Though the French behaved almost as badly as the British, an American war with France was unlikely, first because a French invasion of America (or vice versa) was virtually out of the question.  Furthermore, impressment of American sailors was hardly practiced by the French, and leftover antagonisms from the Revolution still rankled both American and the British.  For all their differences, France was America's ally in winning independence, something Americans were unlikely to lose sight of. "God forget us, if we forget/the sacred sword of Lafayette" is a well-remembered epithet for much of American history)

Causes of the War of 1812

  • The 1810 election brought a group on new congressmen to office, the "War Hawks"—southerners & westerners who were strong nationalists, men like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun & Felix Grundy.
  • Economic depression, somewhat exacerbated by trade problems, and "land hunger" for Canada were factors.
  • War Fever in the West was rooted in American pride, sensitivity, and frustration with repeated mistreatment.  Patience wore thin in the face of repeated violations.
  • Curiously, the desire for war was strongest in the West, where trade factors were felt least, although farm problems existed and economic troubles existed everywhere.
  • New Englanders opposed the war, which would end all trade for the duration of the conflict.
  • In 1810 Americans seized West Florida and declared the "Republic of West Florida"; this was the only territorial conquest of War of 1812.
  • In the end there was much resistance to war: the vote for war in Congress was 79-49; every state delegation in Congress from Massachusetts to Delaware came down against the war declaration.  The Southern and western delegations were almost unanimously in favor and "gave the East a war."
  • See Madison’s War Message to Congress.

The War of 1812

Madison's term ended on a fairly positive note. Whether a victory or a lucky draw, the American people felt satisfied with the results of the war, largely because of Jackson's victory at New Orleans and several spectacular naval triumphs. Further, the old Federalist Party was now all but gone, and a new "era of good feelings" was ushered in. Threatening talk about the "Virginia Dynasty" gradually died out.

Madison's legacy is still being debated, but in general it can be said that he was one of the key figures in the creation of the American Republic. He seems to this observer to be moving out of the shadow of his more famous Virginia brethren, and deserves his title of "Father of the Constitution." He lived until 1836, the last of the greats of that era to pass on.

Go to Monroe Administration Page
Updated August 3, 2013
Copyright © Henry J. Sage 2001
Jefferson Home | Updated 3/08/13