From the Jaws of Defeat

Mail coming from New Orleans to Washington, traveling across the Natchez Trace route, usually took about three weeks, but the harsh winter of 1814–15 made it slower. While Washington waited “in awful suspense,”1 news of the great victory at New Orleans took a full four weeks by the fastest horsemen, arriving on Saturday, February 4. It provoked delirious rejoicing; all that night the District of Columbia blazed with candles and torches, as if to mimic in celebration the horror of the burning of the White House and Capitol by enemy invaders only five months earlier. Never has good news been more badly needed or more anxiously awaited. By act of Congress and presidential proclamation, January 12 had been a day of national prayer and fasting; though they did not know it, the people’s prayers had already been answered.2 On Monday, February 6, President James Madison issued another proclamation: This time, coming after a weekend of festivities, it was a full pardon for the pirates of Louisiana who had rallied to Jackson’s call. (Alas, the pirates proved incorrigible, and within the year the president needed to order out the navy against them again.)3

To say that Jackson’s victory came as an enormous relief to Madison would be an understatement. The previous six months had been probably the most harrowing that any president has ever been called upon to endure. In August the British had landed an expeditionary force in Chesapeake Bay and advanced upon Washington. Secretary of War John Armstrong had belittled the possibility of such an invasion and impeded preparations to defend against it. The president made it clear that he lacked confidence in the secretary and had curtailed his authority without actually replacing him. With the enemy nearing the capital by both

1. Washington National Intelligencer, Jan. 8, 1815. On communication between New Orleans and Washington, see Leonard Huber and Clarence Wagner, The Great Mail: A Postal History of New Orleans (State College, Pa., 1949).

2. “In the present time of public calamity and war,” President Madison set aside the day as one “of public humiliation and fasting and of prayer to Almighty God for the safety and welfare of these States, His blessing on their arms, and a speedy restoration of peace.” Presidential Messages, I, 558.

3. Ibid., 558–60; Irving Brant, James Madison: Commander in Chief (New York, 1961), 366.

land and water, American military intelligence was so inadequate, and staff work so nonexistent, that when a scouting party formed to ascertain the position of the redcoats, Secretary of State James Monroe saddled up and led it. For political reasons, the defense of the nation’s capital had been entrusted to Brigadier General William H. Winder, an officer of demonstrated incompetence. Winder and Secretary Armstrong were jealous of each other and showed more concern with shifting blame for what was going wrong than with rectifying it.4

Even before the scouts located the enemy, the citizens of Washington began to pack up and flee the city, fearful not only of the British army but also of persistent rumors of slave insurrection. In fact, although the British in the Chesapeake campaign did not call upon the slaves to revolt, they did promise freedom for those who would rally to their cause (as they had also done during the Revolutionary War). About three hundred escaped slaves donned the uniform of Royal Marines and—with very little training—showed “extraordinary steadiness and good conduct” in combat against their former oppressors, the British commander reported. Many other escapees helped the British as spies, guides, and messengers. The fear of slave insurrection forced the Americans to divert large numbers of militiamen away from the battlefront into preserving domestic security.5

At Bladensburg, Maryland, on August 24, 1814, seven thousand Americans faced forty-five hundred British. With the tactical advantages of the defense as well as numbers, the Americans should have been able to repel the invaders. But the hastily assembled local militia were undisciplined and poorly positioned, and their units uncoordinated. When the British artillery opened up with Congreve rockets—a novel weapon more spectacular than lethal—some of the militia panicked. At this juncture, with battle scarcely joined, Winder ordered a general retreat. The panic spread, the retreat became a rout, and the road back to Washington was littered with unfired muskets thrown away by militiamen in a hurry. The verdict of history terms Bladensburg “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms,” and the defense—or rather, nondefense—of Washington “the most humiliating episode in American history.”6 Yet, as at New

4. Harry Ammon, James Monroe (New York, 1971), 330; J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War (Princeton, 1983), 407–16.

5. Frank A. Casell, “Slaves of the Chesapeake Bay Area and the War of 1812,” Journal of Negro History 57 (1972): 144–55; quotation from Sir George Cockburn on 151. See also John K. Mahon, The War of 1812 (Gainesville, Fla., 1972), 312–15.

6. Quotations from James Sterling Young, The Washington Community, 1800–1828 (New York, 1966), 184, and Robert Rutland, The Presidency of James Madison (Lawrence, Kans., 1990), 159.

Orleans, the American artillery performed well; its guns covered the flight of the militia. African Americans fought on both sides, and “a large part” of these cannoneers “were tall, strapping negroes, mixed with white sailors and marines.”7

The crowd of fugitives included the president of the United States. On the field of combat the commander in chief had not even been able to control his horse, much less his army. Madison and his cabinet secretaries, after witnessing the first stages of the farcical “battle,” galloped off in different directions and went into hiding, out of touch with each other, leaving the country leaderless. Congress was taking its accustomed summer vacation, its members out of town. In this political vacuum, responsibility for the evacuation of the executive mansion fell to the first lady. Unlike most of those around her, Dolley Madison kept her head and safeguarded some of the national treasures (including Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington) in organizing her departure. But when Mrs. Madison sought refuge the next day at a Virginia farmhouse, the housewife cursed her because her husband had been called up for militia service, and threw the first lady and her entourage out. It was all too typical of the disrespect into which military humiliation had cast the country’s leaders.8

The advancing British columns found their way to the public buildings of central Washington with such ease that contemporaries believed they must have been guided by traitorous informants. At the President’s House (not yet called the White House), they found the main dining room set with food and wine for forty guests—a banquet had been scheduled for that evening. The laughing redcoats feasted themselves and drank a sarcastic toast to “Jemmy’s health” before putting the torch to the building.9Besides the presidential mansion, the British burned the Capitol and the Departments of State, War, Navy, and Treasury. A rainstorm blew up during the night and quenched most of the flames, but not before millions of dollars’ worth of damage had been done and thousands of volumes in the original Library of Congress destroyed. Damage was exacerbated by looting, committed not by the enemy but by locals, “knavish wretches about the town who profited from the general distress,” a Washington newspaper reported. The burning of the public buildings did not represent the

7. Paul Jennings, “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison” (1865), White House History 1 (1983): 46–51, quotation from 47.

8. Ralph Ketcham, James Madison (New York, 1971), 577–78; Virginia Moore, The Madisons (New York, 1979), 321. The Madisons’ conduct was satirized in a mock-heroic poem, The Bladensburg Races (Washington, 1816).

9. Washington National Intelligencer, Sept. 2, 1814; Ketcham, Madison, 579.

casual vandalism of drunken soldiers; the fires had been set on orders from Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, overall British commander in the Chesapeake, who sent a message notifying President Madison that the action constituted a reprisal for earlier outrages committed by the Americans during their invasion of Canada. The most significant of these incidents had been the burning of the parliament house of Upper Canada when the Americans captured York (now Toronto) in April 1813.10

The municipal authorities of Georgetown and Alexandria rushed off messengers assuring the British they would capitulate without a fight; Alexandria’s surrender was accepted, but the British actually had no intention of occupying Georgetown.11 Instead the invaders moved on Baltimore. Only the successful defense put up at Fort McHenry on September 13, immortalized by Francis Scott Key in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” kept that city from sharing the fate of Washington. The British then evacuated as quickly as they had come, taking with them some twenty-four hundred African American men, women, and children who had seized the opportunity to escape from slavery. In all but a few cases the British kept their promise of freedom to these people, most of whom wound up settling in Nova Scotia. For eleven years after the war the United States pursued Britain to obtain compensation for their former masters, and eventually collected.12 Strategically, the purpose of the British raid on the Chesapeake had been to distract the Americans from efforts to conquer Canada; psychologically, to discredit the Madison administration. Both objectives were attained. No wonder an October visitor to Octagon House in Washington (at the corner of New York Avenue and Eighteenth Street), where the Madisons lived during the repair of the President’s House, found the chief executive looking “miserably shattered and woe-begone.”13

Madison’s troubles were political as well as military, involving his own party, the Jeffersonian Republicans,14 and his cabinet. Even in defeat,

10. Washington National Intelligencer, Aug. 31, 1814; Charles W. Humphries, “The Capture of York,” in Morris Zaslow, ed., The Defended Border: Upper Canada and the War of 1812 (Toronto, 1964), 251–70.

11. Walter Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light (New York, 1972), 182–83, 197–201.

12. Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada (New Haven, 1971), 114–27; Frank A. Updyke, The Diplomacy of the War of 1812 (1915; Gloucester, Mass., 1965), 404.

13. William Wirt, quoted in Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Administration of James Madison (New York, 1890), VIII, 231.

14. The Republican Party of Jefferson was not the same as the Republican Party of Lincoln, which was founded in the 1850s and still exists today. The Republican Party of Jefferson eventually split, the “Old” Republicans becoming the Democratic Party of today and the “National” Republicans becoming the Whigs.

Secretary of War Armstrong represented a political faction Madison must treat with care, the prowar Republicans of New York. So the president graciously allowed Armstrong to resign instead of firing him; Armstrong repaid Madison’s consideration with years of recriminations.15 Madison transferred Armstrong’s rival, James Monroe, to the War Department, creating a vacancy at the State Department that went unfilled, so Monroe handled both jobs until he worked himself to exhaustion. The Treasury and Navy Departments also needed new heads, but again it proved difficult to find appropriate candidates willing to perform such thankless tasks. The prestige of the federal government had sunk so low and the prospects for victory in the war become so doubtful that few politicians cared to identify themselves with the administration. State and local governments, frightened by the prospect of further British raids along the coast, were losing interest in overall war strategy and concentrating on their own defenses, even disregarding federal authority. In a way they had justification for doing so, for the successful defense of Baltimore had been mounted by the Maryland authorities, not by the federal ones.16

On September 19, 1814, Congress assembled, summoned into a special session by the president. It met in the only public building in Washington to have escaped destruction, the Post Office cum Patent Office. Even though surrounded by the charred evidence of their country’s plight, the elected representatives of the people could not bring themselves to meet the urgent needs the president laid before them. He called for universal military conscription, and they responded by authorizing more short-term volunteers and state militia, specifying that the latter would not have to serve outside their own or an adjacent state without the consent of their own governors. Recent Treasury attempts to borrow having failed, the president asked for a new national bank to enable the government to raise money for the war and to restore the collapsed financial system of the country. After long debate the congressmen substituted a paper-money measure that Madison felt compelled to veto. They even quibbled over Thomas Jefferson’s generous offer to sell his magnificent library to the federal government as a replacement for the lost Library of Congress. The legislators did conduct a congressional investigation into the fall of Washington and made more trouble for Madison by debating a proposal to move the nation’s capital back to Philadelphia on the grounds that it would be more militarily defensible. (The change only narrowly lost in the House, 83 to 74.) In short, Congress put Madison’s exemplary

15. See C. Edward Skeen, John Armstrong, Jr. (Syracuse, N.Y., 1981), 187–213.

16. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War, 424–28.

patience to a severe test. “How much distress in every branch of our affairs” resulted from lack of congressional cooperation, he complained to a fellow ex-president.17

Nominally, Madison’s Republican Party enjoyed a large majority in Congress. In fact, little party discipline existed, and the Republicans had been badly factionalized throughout the war. Once news arrived, in the summer of 1812, that the British had repealed their Orders in Council restricting American commerce, congressional Republicans divided over the wisdom of persisting in the war for the sake of resisting impressment alone. Speaker of the House Langdon Cheves of South Carolina was no friend of the administration; House Ways and Means Committee chairman John Wayles Eppes, son-in-law of Thomas Jefferson, proved a thorn in Madison’s side. Several of the legislative leaders to whom the president might have looked for support were absent, in the armed forces or away on crucial diplomatic missions, like Henry Clay, across the ocean trying to negotiate a peace. Congressmen calling themselves “Old” Republicans remained such stubborn adherents of their little-government, lowtax, state-rights philosophy that no national emergency could budge them, though the president belonged to their own party. Even Madison’s friend and mentor Jefferson sided with his son-in-law and against the proposed second national bank; it was one of the few times Jefferson and Madison did not cooperate with each other. The minority party, the Federalists, constituted the natural friends of national authority, but in the present situation they behaved as the most obstructionist of all Madison’s opponents. Bitterly hostile to an administration that had ruined their commerce and destroyed Alexander Hamilton’s financial system, they were not about to grant assistance to wage a war they deplored.18

After the debacle at Washington, Federalist opposition to the war escalated. Federalist Massachusetts and Connecticut withdrew their militia from federal service. A Federalist-sponsored convention of New England states met at Hartford, Connecticut, from December 15 to January 5, deliberating in secret what steps to take in response to the crisis. A week after its adjournment, the convention’s report appeared on January 12—by coincidence also the day of national prayer, fasting, and humiliation. Speculation had been rife as to what the convention might decide: Secession and the negotiation of a separate peace with the British seemed

17. James Madison to John Adams, Dec. 17, 1814, quoted in Rutland, Presidency of Madison, 181.

18. See Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War, 438–39; Rutland, Presidency of Madison, 173–75, 185; Ammon, James Monroe, 338–41; Young, Washington Community, 185–86.

not at all unthinkable. But in fact, moderate Federalists led by Harrison Gray Otis dominated the Hartford Convention, and its outcome, when revealed, proved less threatening than the Republicans had feared. Protesting that the administration had neglected to protect New England while diverting military effort to unsuccessful invasions of Canada, the convention asked that states be allowed to assume responsibility for their own defense, receiving some federal revenues to help pay the cost. Otherwise the delegates simply repeated the standard complaints of Federalist New England and called for amendments to the Constitution to correct them. Their grievances included the constitutional provision allowing the slave states extra representation in Congress for three-fifths of the people they held as property. (Only because of this clause had Jefferson defeated John Adams in the election of 1800, driving the Federalists from power.) Other requested amendments would have required two-thirds congressional majorities to declare war, embargo commerce, or admit new states. Presidents would be limited to one term and could not come from the same state as their predecessor. Federal offices would be restricted to native-born citizens (New England having relatively few immigrants at the time). When he read the recommendations, Madison is said to have laughed aloud19—a reflex that might have expressed either his relief or his recognition of the political impossibility of such amendments. Although its Federalist sponsors have received much criticism, both in their own time and since, the resolutions of the Hartford Convention proved in the end less of a long-term danger to the federal Union than the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, which had championed state nullification of federal laws. Only one Hartford action posed even a potential threat: if the war continued until next June, the delegates resolved, a call should go out for another New England convention, presumably to seek more drastic remedies.20

Into this context of high anxiety in Washington, news of victory at New Orleans came like a deliverance from purgatory. To be sure, the repulse of the British invasion at Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain the previous September had been strategically more important, prompting the British to abandon their plan to annex part of New England to Canada. But New Orleans was a much bigger battle, and the great disparity in casualties made it especially gratifying. The British army defeated in the Gulf included units that had fought in the Chesapeake, so the events at Bladensburg

19. Brant, Commander in Chief, 361.

20. Theodore Dwight, History of the Hartford Convention (New York, 1833), 352–79; William Edward Buckley, The Hartford Convention (New Haven, 1934).

and Washington seemed properly avenged. The success of Jackson’s citizen army over professional soldiers seemed to vindicate those who had argued that the militia constituted the most cost-effective means of defense. The victory could therefore be welcomed wholeheartedly, not only by the Republican nationalists, who had wanted the war, but also by the “Old” Republicans, who had not wanted any innovations in the direction of bigger government. Finally, while the uncharismatic Madison had never captured the public imagination as a wartime leader, Jackson perfectly personified a popular war hero.

The curious aftermath of the New Orleans campaign, however, dampened the administration’s pleasure in the country’s new hero. Infatuated with his own sense of power, General Jackson kept the city of New Orleans under martial law until March 13, long after the first news of peace arrived. During this period his arbitrary rule lost him much of the universal popularity his victory had won him among the local population. On February 21, six militiamen who had tried to leave before their term of service expired were executed in Mobile by his orders, a draconian action at a time when everybody but Jackson considered the war over. When the federal district judge in New Orleans challenged Jackson’s dictatorship, the general put him in jail! After the eventual restoration of civil law, Judge Dominick Hall hailed Jackson into federal court and fined him a thousand dollars for contempt. Jackson’s admirers chipped in to pay the fine, but the general declined their money and paid it himself. Both the peremptory behavior of the strong-willed Jackson and the way he polarized people by it were premonitory of things to come. (Twenty-nine years later, a Democratic Congress would refund Jackson, by then an ex-president, the fine plus interest.)21


Not until Monday evening, February 13, did Washington learn that a treaty of peace had been signed by representatives of Great Britain and the United States at Ghent, Belgium (then the Austrian Netherlands), on Christmas Eve of 1814. Because of storms in the Atlantic, this news had taken even longer in crossing the ocean than that from New Orleans had in coming through the forests and rivers of the continent. The delay in receiving the news from Europe had psychological significance. Upon

21. Remini, Jackson, I, 308–15; Patrick Kastor, The Nation’s Crucible: The Louisiana Purchase and the Creation of America (New Haven, 2004), 174–78. For the later repercussions of this episode, see Joseph G. Tregle Jr., “Andrew Jackson and the Continuing Battle of New Orleans,” JER 1 (1981): 373–93.

first hearing, it seemed to the American public as if Jackson had won a decisive victory, and even when people later learned that the war had ended two weeks before his battle, its effect on their attitude remained.

In the public mind, Andrew Jackson had won the war; the incompetence, confusion, cowardice, and humiliations of the fall of Washington were forgotten. The President’s Mansion received a hasty coat of white paint over its stone exterior to hide the black smoke marks, though the interior took years to restore; from this cover dates the new name “White House.”22 The paint job symbolized the country’s attitude perfectly. Americans reinterpreted the War of 1812 as a second war for independence, a vindication of their national identity rather than a revelation of its precariousness. “Seldom has a nation so successfully practiced self-induced amnesia!” the historian Bradford Perkins has commented.23 In the euphoria of nationalism that the messengers from the Hartford Convention found upon arrival in Washington, they did not even dare to present their demands. Later, when the Capitol was rebuilt, Madison enjoyed the satisfaction of commissioning two huge paintings by John Trumbull depicting British defeats in an earlier war to decorate the walls of the rotunda.24

Viewing the war with hindsight after the Battle of New Orleans, Americans felt that they had won the respect of Europe in general and Britain in particular. Of much more importance, they had gained self-respect. “The war has renewed and reinstated the national feelings and characters which the Revolution had given,” declared Albert Gallatin, informal leader of the American negotiating team at Ghent. “The people...are more American; they feel and act more as a nation.” For their part, the Canadians too came to regard the war as a defining moment in their national history, and with even more justification. The successful repulse of the U.S. invasions fostered among the inhabitants of Upper Canada a sense of their own identity as a proud people, separate from the Americans.25

Like the prince regent, President Madison had no hesitation in accepting the Treaty of Ghent. On February 15, he submitted it to the Senate, which unanimously consented to ratification the following day. When

22. Ammon, James Monroe, 396.

23. Bradford Perkins, The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776–1865 (Cambridge, Eng., 1993), 146.

24. The paintings are The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga and The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.

25. Gallatin quoted in Rutland, Presidency of Madison, 188; J.M.S. Careless, “Introduction” to Zaslow, ed., The Defended Border, 6.

news of the British ratification reached Washington on February 17, the president declared the war officially over. But naval engagements on the high seas continued as late as June 30, when the last hostile shots were fired in Sunda Strait near Java.26

The terms of the treaty provided for an end to the fighting and little else. “Nothing in substance but an indefinite suspension of hostilities was agreed to,” commented one of the American negotiators.27 The two sides referred some minor boundary disputes to commissions of arbitration. The British conceded nothing on either of the issues for which the United States had gone to war: restrictions on American trade and impressment of American seamen. Indeed, the treaty did not so much as mention these issues. It did require prisoners of war to be returned; among these were over two thousand Americans impressed into the Royal Navy before the war who had refused to fight against their own country. Unconscionable delays in repatriating American POWs occurred simply because the two governments disagreed about who should pay the cost of their transportation. At Dartmoor prison in England, over six thousand frustrated American sailors (eleven hundred of them black) still awaited release months after the treaty. In April 1815, they rioted. The guards fired, killing six and wounding sixty.28

Why, one may wonder, did Americans receive the terms of the Treaty of Ghent with such thankfulness? In the first place, people measure events in terms of their expectations. The Madison administration had long since become reconciled to making peace without obtaining recognition of the rights for which war had been declared. As far back as June 1814, the president and his cabinet had instructed their negotiators not to insist on these demands, deciding, in effect, to settle for less than victory in return for peace.29The terms of Ghent therefore represented about as much as the American side could have expected after this decision had been reached. That the British had not insisted on any boundary concessions—particularly in the portion of Maine they occupied, where many people had already taken the oath to George III on the supposition that British rule would be permanent30—came as good news for the United States and disappointed the Canadian public.

26. See H. Adams, History, IX, 73.

27. John Quincy Adams, quoted in William Earl Weeks, Building the Continental Empire (Chicago, 1996), 29.

28. Donald Hickey, The War of 1812 (Urbana, Ill., 1989), 176, 306; James Horton and Lois Horton, In Hope of Liberty (New York, 1997), 184–85.

29. Madison and Monroe reaffirmed the instruction in October; Ketcham, Madison, 590. See also Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War, 392–95; Hickey, War of 1812, 289.

30. See Hickey, War of 1812, 194–95.

The peace also rendered most of the federal government’s political problems moot. With no war to fight, the need for conscription vanished, and placing the financial system on a more secure footing could safely wait for the next Congress. The prospects of secession by New England, constitutional crisis, or the breakup of the Republican Party all receded. The administration could safely reject advice to create a coalition government by reaching out to the Federalists with offers of patronage; the opposition could now be isolated and crushed.31

Finally, regardless of the terms of the treaty, the public overwhelmingly welcomed peace itself. Indeed, the government would probably have accepted a less favorable treaty, in the interests of restoring peace. Maritime New England had of course wanted peace all along; by now the staple-producing agricultural regions as well were hurting badly from the British blockade and desperately needed peace to market their crops abroad. In fact, the peace came just in the nick of time. If the war and its economic hardships had dragged on much longer, the federal government, the Constitution, and the Republican Party might not have survived intact. With peace, they all did. And with peace the economy rebounded suddenly. The price of imports plummeted and that of export staples rose. Treasury bonds gained 13 percent overnight on the news of peace. What though the terms of the treaty were not all that Americans would have desired? Congressman William Lowndes of South Carolina went to the heart of the matter when he observed to his wife that “the time of making” the peace was “more fortunate” than the treaty itself.32

As things turned out, avoiding mention of the issues of the war in the treaty of peace proved convenient. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the occasion for British interference in American trade and impressment of American seamen came to an end. This, however, could not have been foreseen at the time. Indeed, Napoleon’s return to France from Elba on March 1, 1815, might well have inaugurated another protracted period of European warfare instead of only a short one. With perfect justice, therefore, some thoughtful observers warned that the new peace between the United States and Britain might prove only temporary. Both sides took some precautions against future wars. Throughout the next generation, the British strengthened the fortifications of Quebec.33

31. Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War, 432.

32. Updyke, Diplomacy of the War of 1812, 368–69; William Lowndes to Elizabeth Lowndes, Feb. 17, 1815, quoted in Stagg, Mr. Madison’s War, 500.

33. See C. P. Stacey, “The Myth of the Unguarded Frontier, 1815–1871,” AHR 56 (1950): 2–12; Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the Balance of Power in North America, 1815–1908 (London, 1967), 33–52.

Considered as a conflict between Great Britain and the United States, the War of 1812 was a draw. For the Native Americans, however, it constituted a decisive defeat with lasting consequences. For centuries the tribes had been able to retain much autonomy—economic, political, and military—by playing off the British, French, Spanish, and Americans against each other. After 1815, nowhere east of the Mississippi could this strategy remain viable.34 The call of the Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (“the Prophet”), for united Native resistance against the encroaching white settlers had been sufficiently successful to bring on widespread frontier race war beginning in 1811, but not successful enough to forge durable pan-tribal cooperation. Tecumseh carried the message of militancy and traditionalism to the Southwest as well as the Northwest, and in both areas it often divided tribes internally. In 1812 Tecumseh and his followers sided with the British as representing the lesser white evil, but several tribes, notably the Cherokee in the South, allied with the United States. Others remained divided or neutral. The defeat and death of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, and the slaughter of the traditionalist Red Stick Creeks at Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814, marked the end of the serious military power of the American Indians in the Northwest and Southwest respectively.35

From the point of view of U.S. expansionism, Andrew Jackson really had been a major architect of victory in the War of 1812, though it was not his triumph at New Orleans but those in the Creek War that possessed strategic significance. In the Southwest, waging the War of 1812 represented part of a larger struggle by the United States to secure white supremacy over a multiracial and multicultural society that included Native Americans, African American maroons, French and Spanish Creoles, and intermixtures of all these peoples with each other and white Americans. Along the Gulf Coast, as in the Chesapeake, the British took advantage of racial divisions; they armed, uniformed, and trained about a thousand African Americans and some three thousand Indians for service with their forces.36 But the British did not mount a significant effort of their own in

34. On the Northwest, see Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Cambridge, Eng., 1991); on the Southwest, see L. Leitch Wright Jr., Creeks and Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscolunge People (Lincoln, Neb., 1986).

35. The Red Sticks got the name from their red war clubs. See John Sugden, Tecumseh’s Last Stand (Norman, Okla., 1985); George F. G. Stanley, “The Indians in the War of 1812,” Canadian Historical Review 31 (1950): 145–65.

36. Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 182. See also Frank Owsley Jr., The Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands (Gainesville, Fla., 1981).

the region soon enough to prevent Jackson from crushing the Creek insurgency before he had to turn to defend New Orleans. On August 9, 1814, he imposed the Treaty of Fort Jackson upon the Creeks, forcing the tribe to cede over 22 million acres in Alabama and Georgia, more than half their territory. Among the lands thus seized, much belonged to Creeks who had been friendly to Jackson, for the conflict had begun as a civil war among Creeks. Some of it was not Creek land at all but belonged to Jackson’s allies the Cherokees. The eminent nineteenth-century historian John Bach McMaster called the Treaty of Fort Jackson a “gross and shameless” wrong, and the twenty-first century has no reason to alter that judgment.37

None of the Indian tribes was party to the Treaty of Ghent. Originally, the British negotiators had called for the creation of a completely independent Native American buffer state in the Great Lakes region, but they backed away from this demand when their U.S. counterparts made clear its unacceptability. By Article Nine of the treaty as agreed, the signatories undertook to make peace with the Indians on the same basis as their settlement with each other, the status quo ante bellum. The United States promised to restore to the Native Americans the “possessions, rights, and privileges, which they may have enjoyed or been entitled to in 1811, previous to such hostilities.”38 This might seem to invalidate the Treaty of Fort Jackson, and so the Creeks hoped. In the months immediately following the peace, British agents in Spanish Florida promised refugee Creeks that Britain would make sure they recovered the lands lost at Fort Jackson. At first, the U.S. government itself accepted this interpretation of the requirements of the Ghent agreement. In June 1815, the Madison administration ordered Andrew Jackson to begin to return to the Creeks the lands taken from them by his treaty. But Jackson raged and refused to obey, and the government felt loath to enforce its edict upon a popular hero supported by white public opinion in the Southwest. Would the British make an issue of it? Lord Bathurst, the secretary of state for war, argued that they should, but he could not persuade his cabinet colleagues.39

After the Treaty of Ghent, the British left their former allies to the not-so-tender mercies of the United States. A series of U.S. treaties with the northwest tribes in 1814–15, beginning with the Second Treaty of Greenville,

37. John Bach McMaster, History of the People of the United States, from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York, 1895), IV, 171.

38. Treaty of Ghent as printed in Niles’ Weekly Register, Feb. 18, 1815, 397–400.

39. Remini, Jackson, I, 302–5; Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 190; Weeks, Building the Continental Empire, 40.

forced the Indians to declare themselves allies of the United States. Having complied with the letter of the Treaty of Ghent in the first round of treaties, the U.S. government then felt free to resume the negotiation of cessions of tribal lands in the Northwest, which recommenced in 1816 with the Potawatomi of Illinois. Over the next few years the fur-trading activities that the British had maintained on the American side of the Great Lakes were at last closed down, restricting the economic leverage of the Native Americans. Tenskwatawa, the once formidable prophet of a religious revitalization movement, eked out an obscure existence in Canadian exile.40

Tribes like the Cherokees who had allied with the United States during the War of 1812 found little gratitude afterwards. In the Southwest, Andrew Jackson, returning to his primary interest in gaining lands for white occupancy, extorted a fraudulent treaty with unauthorized Cherokees in September 1816, purporting to confirm the loss of the area he had taken from their tribe by the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Not willing to defy his popularity with southwestern voters, the Senate ratified it.41 By a series of such treaties in the years immediately after 1814, Jackson obtained vast lands for white settlement. A historian has estimated his acquisitions at three-quarters of Alabama and Florida, one-third of Tennessee, one-fifth of Georgia and Mississippi, and smaller portions of Kentucky and North Carolina.42

In the racial warfare around the Gulf, the Treaty of Ghent did not bring peace. In July 1816, amphibious expeditions of U.S. soldiers, sailors, and their Indian allies converged against the most powerful of North American maroon communities, the Negro Fort on the Apalachicola River in Spanish East Florida. During their naval bombardment, a redhot shot hit the fort’s powder magazine, destroying the fort and taking more than 270 lives in a gigantic explosion. The leaders of the maroons were captured, tortured, and killed; about sixty surviving followers were rounded up and taken to Alabama and Georgia for sale into slavery (in violation of the federal law of 1807 prohibiting the importation of slaves

40. Francis Paul Prucha, Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier (New York, 1969), 119–28; Willard Karl Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (Kent, Ohio, 1996), 20, 32–33; R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (Lincoln, Neb., 1983), 143–64.

41. William G. McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (Princeton, 1986), 198–201, 210–11.

42. Michael Rogin, Fathers and Children: Andrew Jackson and the Subjugation of the American Indian (New York, 1975), 165. The texts of the treaties are in American State Papers: Indian Affairs (Washington, 1834), II, 1–150.

across international boundaries). The victors treated the weapons and property of the maroon colony as booty and confiscated them.43 This was not the first time that Spanish sovereignty in Florida had been disregarded by the United States, and it would not be the last.

One other epilogue to the War of 1812 remained to be written: the punishment of Algiers. The dey of Algiers had sided with Britain and made war on United States commerce—a foolish decision since, because of the British blockade, there were few American ships then in the Mediterranean for the Algerians to seize. The advent of peace with Britain would bring a resumption of American exports to the Mediterranean and necessitated an immediate resolution of the problem with Algiers. Accordingly, President Madison wasted no time in calling upon Congress on February 23, 1815, to declare war against Algiers and authorize an expedition against that power. Flush with confidence and with a greatly expanded navy now at its disposal, Congress for once promptly complied with the president’s request.

Nominally tributary to the Ottoman Empire, Algiers was for all practical purposes independent, and Congress voted its declaration of war against the dey alone, not against the sultan. Like the other states of the Barbary Coast, Algiers had for centuries demanded and received tribute from nations wishing to trade in the Mediterranean. In default of tribute, the Barbary powers preyed upon a country’s shipping, capturing vessels, confiscating their cargoes, and either selling the crew as slaves or holding them as prisoners for ransom. Although often called “pirates,” the Barbary states were actually hostile governments and their predatory actions a form of warfare, not private crime. Smaller trading nations (such as the United States) suffered more than the great powers, since they found it harder to come up with the necessary protection money. Under the Jefferson administration, the United States had already been involved in several naval campaigns against the Barbary rulers; this time the country was better prepared to exert substantial force. If the Treaty of Ghent had achieved no assurances for American commerce, a war with Algiers might accomplish something more positive.

In May 1815, a ten-ship squadron set sail from New York for the Mediterranean, with an even stronger one to follow. The two squadrons were commanded respectively by Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore William Bainbridge, both of whom had had extensive

43. Wright, Creeks and Seminoles, 198–99; Joshua Giddings, The Exiles of Florida (Columbus, Ohio, 1858), 40–45; David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler, Old Hickory’s War: Andrew Jackson and the Quest for Empire (Mechanicsburg, Pa., 1996), 62–75.

experience in Jefferson’s wars on the Barbary Coast. Decatur’s last ship, the frigate President, had been captured by the British in January 1815 while trying to run the Royal Navy’s blockade off the coast of Long Island.44 His new assignment offered Decatur the chance to redeem his reputation, and he rose to the occasion. Off Cape de Gata, Spain, on June 17, Decatur caught up with the Algerian corsair Raïs Hamidou, who was killed in the ensuing engagement. Hamidou’s battered flagship Meshouda surrendered to Decatur’s flagship Guerriere. After taking another Algerian warship, Decatur entered the harbor of Algiers on June 29 and dictated peace terms. The tribute the United States had been paying Algiers before 1812 would cease but American ships would enjoy full trading privileges anyway; Algiers would return confiscated American property, release the ten Americans currently held captive, and pay them each a thousand dollars in compensation (modest enough for their sufferings).45 In return Decatur promised to give their captured ships back to the Algerians. The combination of strong force and reasonable demands proved effective: The dey signed. In the follow-up squadron, Commodore Bainbridge, who had spent nineteen months as a prisoner during the earlier Barbary Wars, enjoyed the satisfaction of reminding Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, all three, of American might. The other two Barbary governments followed the example of Algiers and renounced their claims to tribute from the United States. But the luckless Americans who had been released from Algerian captivity tragically died on the way home when the ship carrying them sank in a storm.46

The following year, the dey tried to renege on the new agreement. But with the Western powers no longer at war with each other, the days when the Barbary rulers could prey upon Mediterranean commerce were numbered. The weakness of Algiers having been revealed by the Americans, an Anglo–Dutch fleet bombarded the city in August 1816, destroying its fortifications and compelling the dey to release all eleven hundred Western captives and renounce permanently the enslavement of Christians. After this

44. See H. Adams, History, IX, 63–70.

45. Less than $100,000 per victim in today’s money. For this and other monetary equivalents, I rely on John J. McCusker, How Much Is That in Real Money? (Worcester, Mass., 1992).

46. See Frederick Leiner, The End of Barbary Terror (Oxford, 2006); Robert J. Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815 (New York, 1995), 209–11; John B. Wolf, The Barbary Coast: Algiers Under the Turks (New York, 1979), 149–50, 330–32; Glenn Tucker, Dawn like Thunder: The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy (New York, 1963), 447–65.

episode the dey was in no position to repudiate his treaty with the United States. Thus closed the era of the Barbary Wars. Not until the late twentieth century would the United States again make war against a Muslim ruler.47

Commodore Decatur received a hero’s welcome home. In Norfolk, Virginia, at one of the many banquets in his honor, he proposed a toast that became famous: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.”48 In the prevailing mood of postwar nationalism, this accurately summed up the feelings of most Americans.


James Madison is revered today by political scientists and legal scholars as “the Father of the Constitution,” but unlike such other Founders as Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, there is no popular cult of Madison today and few public monuments to his memory. It was the same even in his lifetime. Madison owed his presidency to the confidence of Jefferson and the other leaders of the Virginia Republican Party rather than to popularity with a mass following. By temperament, Madison was an intellectual rather than an executive. In the Constitutional Convention and the debate over ratification that followed, he had been in his element and earned his place in history. The papers he wrote (along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) on behalf of the new national Constitution are rightly judged masterpieces of political argumentation and analysis. Afterwards Madison had drafted the Bill of Rights and led the opposition to his erstwhile collaborator Hamilton in the House of Representatives. He had made Jefferson a loyal secretary of state. But as a wartime president, James Madison did not display dynamic leadership. Andrew Jackson acknowledged Madison “a great civilian,” but declared “the mind of a philosopher could not dwell on blood and carnage with any composure,” and judged his talents “not fitted for a stormy sea.”49

Those who met the president often remarked on his small size; Washington Irving called him “a withered little Apple-John.”50 True, Madison’s

47. James Madison, “Eighth Annual Message to Congress” (1816), Messages and Papers of the Presidents, I, 575; Ray Irwin, The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers (New York, 1970), 176–86. During the First World War, the United States did not declare war on the Ottoman Empire.

48. Quoted in Dictionary of American Biography, ed. Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone (New York, 1931), III, 189.

49. Andrew Jackson to James Monroe, Jan. 6, 1817, Papers of Andrew Jackson, ed. Harold Moser et al. (Nashville, Tenn., 1994), IV, 82.

50. Gaillard Hunt, The Life of James Madison (New York, 1902), 299–300.

height barely reached five feet six, two inches below the average for those days, but observers were also noticing that the president lacked a commanding presence. Fortunately, the vivacious and strong-willed Dolley Payne Todd Madison supplied some of the social skills her husband needed; she exerted more influence in the administration than any other antebellum first lady save Abigail Adams.51 The president, patient and fair to a fault, listened to advice and then found it hard to make up his mind. He had allowed himself to be dragged reluctantly into war with Great Britain. In waging it, he showed himself a poor judge of men. No one in politics feared him, and he had never been able to control Congress. He was too nice.

But if James Madison was not a strong chief executive, he remained a conscientious and public-spirited statesman. And in the relief and rejoicing over peace, the president enjoyed a sudden, unaccustomed popularity. His first State of the Union message after the conclusion of peace gave Madison his best chance to leave a lasting mark as president, and he recognized the opportunity. Madison determined to draw the appropriate lessons from the nation’s narrow escape from disaster. Accordingly, his Seventh Annual Message to Congress, dated December 5, 1815, sought to turn the war-generated nationalism to constructive purpose. The message laid out a comprehensive legislative program that showed his presidency in its best light. In subsequent years, its elements became known as the “Madisonian Platform.”52

Following the example of Jefferson rather than that of Washington, Madison sent his annual messages in writing and did not deliver them in person. For the president to open the session of Congress with an address in person seemed to Republicans, if not to Federalists, altogether too reminiscent of the monarch’s speech from the throne at the opening of Parliament. Not until Woodrow Wilson did an American president recur to Washington’s practice and deliver his State of the Union address in person.

Madison began by pointing with pride to the victory over Algiers, the reestablishment of commercial relations with Great Britain, and the pacification of the Indian tribes. Despite the inevitable reductions in the army, he warned, it was important to retain the general staff, reform the

51. See Catherine Allgor, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York, 2006).

52. Almost thirty years later, the Madisonian Platform was still endorsed: John Pendleton Kennedy, Defence of the Whigs, by a Member of the Twenty-Seventh Congress (New York, 1844), 12–24.

militia, and provide a system of military pensions that would “inspire a martial zeal for the public service.” Coastal defenses and naval ships under construction should be completed, not abandoned. Although peace had restored the government’s revenues and credit, Madison remained convinced that a national bank should be reconstituted. Such a bank would not only market government securities and provide credit for an expanding economy but provide a uniform national currency, the lack of which, the president noted, produced “embarrassments.” Support for a national bank, originally the brainchild of Jefferson’s adversary Alexander Hamilton, represented a major change of policy for the Republican Party. Nevertheless, in three weeks time, Madison’s secretary of the Treasury would lay before Congress a detailed plan for a second Bank of the United States.53

Madison presented the rest of his domestic program as flowing naturally from his concern with a strong defense posture. The tariff not only provided revenue, he reminded Congress; it could also protect against foreign competition those industries “necessary for the public defense.” Such a protective tariff, by making the United States independent of foreign markets or suppliers, would help avoid commercial troubles like those that had led to war in 1812. Where did this leave the principle of laissez-faire? “However wise the theory may be which leaves to the sagacity and interest of individuals the application of their industry and resources, there are in this as in other cases exceptions to the general rule.” Common sense should mitigate the application of any theory.

The most ambitious part of Madison’s address was his plea for “establishing throughout our country the roads and canals which can best be executed under the national authority.” The obvious benefits of improved transportation were economic and military; but, he bravely added, there would also be “political” benefits: “binding together the various parts of our extended confederacy.” The strict construction of the Constitution, to which Madison’s party stood pledged, need not stand in the way of progress. “Any defect of constitutional authority which may be encountered can be supplied” by amendment. Madison was playing upon the patriotic and optimistic postwar mood he sensed in the public. What better way to manifest this self-confidence than through a coherent program of national economic development?

53. Presidential Messages, I, 562–69. Madison’s Seventh Annual Message to Congress has also been conveniently reprinted in Marvin Meyers, ed., The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison (Hanover, N.H., 1981), 279–306.

In the American legislative process, the president proposes, but Congress disposes. Then, as now, one-third of the senators and all the members of the House of Representatives were newly chosen for each biennial Congress. Elections for the Fourteenth Congress had been held at various times throughout the fall and winter of 1814–15, for there was no nationally standardized date; then, in accordance with the ponderous operation of the Constitution prior to the Twentieth Amendment, the members waited until the first Monday in December 1815 to hold their first session.54 The Fourteenth Congress reflected choices the electorate had made during some of the darkest days of the war, and its members accordingly inclined toward strong government. They also comprised one of the most talented Congresses in history. The energetic, popular, and visionary Henry Clay of Kentucky returned to the Speakership. The chairman of the House Committee on National Currency was a brilliant and patriotic young South Carolinian named John C. Calhoun. Clay and Calhoun worked closely together; they ate in the same boardinghouse, and in that era when congressmen seldom brought their families to Washington, this relationship counted for a lot.55 Other capable nationalists included John Forsyth of Georgia, Henry St. George Tucker of Virginia, and Calhoun’s fellow South Carolinian William Lowndes. Daniel Webster led the small Federalist minority. Much reduced in numbers and influence, the Old Republican state-righters were typified in the Senate by Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina and in the House by the eccentric John Randolph of Roanoke County, Virginia. As usual in the period, the House displayed more leadership than the Senate, whose members were chosen by state legislatures rather than by direct popular election.56

Madison’s nationalist program put the Federalists in an embarrassing position; they could not offer consistent opposition to it.57 The most telling criticisms of it came from the Old Republicans, sometimes called “quids” because of their self-styled role as a tertium quid (third element or third force), alongside Federalists and administration Republicans. These Old Republicans claimed to defend their party’s original principles against corrupt innovation; they looked upon the nationalism of the

54. The Twentieth Amendment (ratified in 1933) moved the date for sessions of Congress forward by eleven months, so that they begin in January rather than December.

55. Young, Washington Community, 98–106.

56. George Dangerfield, The Awakening of American Nationalism (New York, 1965), 8–9; Norman K. Risjord, The Old Republicans (New York, 1965), 163–64; Rutland, Presidency of Madison, 194–95.

57. For example, House Federalists split 25 for, 23 against the tariff bill; 15 for, 38 against the Second Bank.

Madison administration with profound suspicion. The quid leader, John Randolph, once a devoted Jeffersonian, then an opponent of the war, had become the harsh critic of an administration he felt had betrayed its principles. Heir of an aristocratic Virginia family, Randolph cut a self-consciously picturesque figure, attending the House with his riding crop in hand, accompanied by his hunting dogs and slave valet. (Appropriately, he named his Virginia plantation Bizarre.) His frail body and high-pitched voice provoked suspicion of sexual impotence.58 Politically, however, Randolph was far from impotent; his sharp mind and sharper tongue made him a power to be reckoned with. Randolph possessed a gift for apt phrases (he had invented the term “war hawk”), and his gibes at the Republican new nationalism hurt. The Madisonian program encouraged financial speculation and would be “fatal to Republican virtue,” he warned.59

Randolph spoke for a venerable tradition that grounded republicanism in the honest industry of those practicing agriculture and opposed it to the rapaciousness and luxury of courtier capitalism.60 Madison’s program would cost money, and ever since the 1790s the Republican Party had opposed both taxation and government debt. But Randolph was wrong to see in Madison’s program simply a craven betrayal of principle. In fact, aspects of it were legitimately Republican and different from the Federalist program Alexander Hamilton had advocated in the 1790s. Hamilton had presumed the national debt to be permanent, a means to enlist the support of the creditor class behind the federal government. For Madison the debt constituted a temporary means to financing projects for national defense and economic infrastructure. Hamilton’s program had been based on a tariff for revenue and American acquiescence in British maritime supremacy. Madison’s program was based on a tariff to protect domestic manufacturing, and came in the aftermath of a war demonstrating American unwillingness to submit to dictation by British commercial and naval interests.61

Jefferson himself had come around to the new, Madisonian version of Republicanism, at least with regard to the protective tariff. Early in 1816,

58. Confirmed by postmortem medical examination; see Michael O’Brien, Conjectures of Order (Chapel Hill, 2004), II, 669.

59. John Randolph, Feb. 29, 1816, Annals of Congress, 14th Cong., 1st sess., 1111.

60. See Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978); Robert Dawidoff, The Education of John Randolph (New York, 1979), 145–63.

61. On the difference between Hamilton and the Madisonian Republicans, see John Nelson, Liberty and Property: Political Economy and Policymaking in the New Nation (Baltimore, 1987); Andrew Shankman, “A New Thing on Earth,” JER 23 (2003): 323–52.

he declared that circumstances had changed in the thirty years since he had expressed the hope that America might remain forever an agrarian arcadia. “We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturalist,” he declared.62 And when it came to promoting the development of transportation—“internal improvements,” in the language of the day— Republican nationalists went beyond anything Hamilton had envisioned. Where his outlook had been Atlanticist, theirs was continentalist. Internal improvements commended themselves to agrarians wanting to market their crops. Madisonians could invoke precedents for federal aid to internal improvements in the actions of Jefferson and his Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin.63 John Randolph expressed his bitterness against what he considered Jefferson’s apostasy from Old Republican virtue when he called Jefferson “St. Thomas of Cantingbury.” Alluding to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury, Randolph added sarcastically that “Becket himself never had more pilgrims at his shrine than the Saint of Monticello.”64

Responding to the Madisonian Platform and its own leadership, the Fourteenth Congress achieved one of the most creditable legislative records in American history. Members appropriated most of what the president recommended for the defense establishment. The landmark tariff they enacted on April 27, 1816, was candidly protectionist in its features. Only articles that could not be produced in the United States were placed on the free list. Those (few) articles that could be produced in the United States in sufficient quantity to satisfy the national market enjoyed the absolute protection of prohibitively high duties. Those that could be produced domestically, but not in sufficient quantity to satisfy demand, were subjected to a modest tariff thought sufficient to allow domestic producers to survive, generally about 25 percent. The protection came none too soon, for with the return of peace British manufacturers had already begun to dump products in the American market below cost, hoping to drive the American producers out of business. Optimistically, the rate-setters decided that after three years the country’s infant industries ought to need less protection and no rates should be higher than 20 percent. This decision set the stage for future tariff debates.65

62. Letter to Benjamin Austin, Jan. 9, 1816, TJ: Writings, 1371.

63. For a provocative interpretation of Gallatin’s program, see Steven Watts, The Republic Reborn (Baltimore, 1987), 224–39.

64. Quoted in William Cabell Bruce, John Randolph of Roanoke (New York, 1922), II, 283.

65. Brant, Commander in Chief, 403; John Mayfield, The New Nation, 1800–1845, rev. ed. (New York, 1982), 79; Frank Taussig, The Tariff History of the United States (New York, 1910), 18–19.

The most eloquent speech on behalf of the tariff came from John C. Calhoun on April 4. Calhoun argued for the encouragement of manufacturing on the grounds that a diversified economy would make the nation more self-sufficient, less dependent on foreign markets, and less vulnerable in time of war. Economic diversification would produce economic interdependence and “powerfully cement” the Union together. In opposition, John Randolph pointed out that a protective tariff was in effect a tax on consumers. “On whom do your impost duties bear?” he demanded. The burden of these taxes on “the necessaries of life” would fall on two classes: “on poor men, and on slaveholders.”66 Randolph had, as usual, cut to the heart of the matter. On this occasion his rhetoric was in vain, and the tariff passed the House, 88 to 54; but Randolph played the part of Cassandra to the new nationalists. Many times in the future, the political alliance of poor men with slaveholders would frustrate the hopes of tariff protectionists.

The same month, Congress passed an act authorizing a Second Bank of the United States, the result of cooperation between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Dallas and Calhoun, who chaired the relevant House committee. It chartered the Bank for twenty years, with a capital of $35 million, of which $7 million would be provided by the federal government; in return the administration would get to choose five of the twenty-five members of the board of directors. (By comparison, Hamilton’s Bank had had a capitalization of only $10 million.) The congressional delegations of the South and West supported the proposed bank even more strongly than those from the Northeast, partly because it was a Republican Party measure, partly because their agricultural constituents looked to the new bank for credit.67 Scarcely any discussion addressed whether a national bank was constitutional, the issue that had so bitterly divided Hamilton and Jefferson a generation earlier. Madison had indicated in his message that he considered the constitutional question to have been settled by the precedent of the First Bank, and almost everyone in Congress accepted this resolution of the matter. “I seem to be the only person,” complained the aging quid Nathaniel Macon, “that still cannot find the authority for a bank in the constitution of the U.S.”68 Madison, after

66. Calhoun, Annals of Congress, 14th Cong., 1st sess., 1329–36; Randolph, Jan. 31, 1816, ibid., 842; Dangerfield, Awakening of Nationalism, 15–16.

67. “If the votes of the two houses be combined, New England and the four middle states gave 44 votes for the Bank and 53 against it; and the southern and western states gave 58 for it and 30 against.” Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton, 1957), 240.

68. Nathaniel Macon to Joseph Nicholson, March 3, 1816, quoted in Risjord, Old Republicans, 167.

signing the Second Bank’s charter on April 10, 1816, happily appointed five Republicans as the government’s directors.

Congress also made a start on addressing the country’s transportation needs, appropriating $100,000 to build a segment of the National Road through Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). The road represented an ambitious plan, crossing the Appalachian barrier, intended to link Baltimore in the Chesapeake with St. Louis near the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri. It was a favorite project with Republican nationalists like Speaker Henry Clay. Madison raised no constitutional objection and signed the bill.69 The extension of the National Road accommodated the westward movement of white settlement prompted by the defeat of Tecumseh’s confederation. In Indiana Territory these settlers had multiplied from 24,520 in 1810 to 63,897 in 1815, according to a specially commissioned census, leading to pressure for Indiana statehood. Accordingly, on April 19, 1816, Madison signed an act enabling Indiana to draw up a state constitution.

Unfortunately the productive Fourteenth Congress ruined itself with the electorate by overreaching. More than two-thirds of its members were defeated for reelection or decided not to run again. The so-called salary-grab bill triggered this massive popular repudiation. Congress had voted itself a pay raise, from six dollars a day while in session to fifteen hundred dollars a year. By no means unreasonable, the new annual salary was less than twenty-eight federal civil servants earned. The president received a munificent salary of twenty-five thousand dollars, out of which he had to pay for running the White House. (Multiply these numbers by 100 for something like present-day equivalents.)70 Given the nationalist agenda, it made perfect sense to strengthen the national legislature by making service in it more attractive to talent.71 The electorate, however, would have none of it: Their wrath fell on Federalist and Republican alike. All told, of the eighty-one members who voted for the bill, only fifteen won reelection. Even some who voted against it were punished with defeat, on the grounds that they should not have accepted the money.72 It was a sad end for one of the most talented of American Congresses and helped perpetuate a pattern of low pay, high turnover, and all too common congressional ineffectiveness.

69. See Karl Raitz, ed., The National Road (Baltimore, 1996).

70. See McCusker, How Much Is That in Real Money?

71. As Calhoun argued. Annals of Congress, 14th Cong., 1st sess., 1183–84.

72. C. Edward Sheen, “The Compensation Act of 1816 and the Rise of Popular Politics,” JER 6 (Fall 1986): 253–74.

What made the Compensation Act such a political liability was the fact that the Fourteenth Congress applied the new salary to itself, rather than only to its successors. A generation earlier, while in the House of Representatives, Madison had proposed an amendment to the Constitution stating, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until after an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” The amendment had been approved by the First Congress along with the Bill of Rights but not ratified by the states. The prohibition that the state legislatures had neglected, the electorate enforced with a vengeance. The conflict of interest involved in Congress setting its own salary has remained a touchy matter; in 1992, more than two hundred years after its submission, Madison’s limitation on the right of Congress to vote itself a raise was finally ratified by a sufficient number of states. What had been intended as the Second Amendment to the Constitution became the Twenty-seventh.

But before it went out of existence, the Fourteenth Congress held one more session, in the winter of 1816–17. This strange practice of bringing the former Congress back after its successor had been elected, allowing legislators who had been repudiated at the polls a final chance to make history, became known as the “lame duck” session. It reflected the slow transportation and communication in the young republic, its rationale being that a month might not be long enough to sort out election returns and for the newly elected members to travel to Washington. The lame duck session long outlived this justification, for it persisted until the adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933.

These particular lame ducks repealed the salary increase for their successors but not for themselves, then resumed work on their nationalist agenda. The Bank of the United States was scheduled to pay $1.5 million to the federal government as a “bonus” in return for its charter. Clay and Calhoun proposed that this bonus, together with the regular dividends the BUS would pay to the government as a stockholder, be earmarked for roads and canals. On behalf of the Bonus Bill, Calhoun waxed eloquent. “We are under the most imperious obligations to counteract every tendency to disunion,” he declared. “Let us, then, bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space.”73 The conquest of space beckoned to the American spirit in Madison’s day no less than in John F. Kennedy’s race to the moon.

Marked regional differences in attitude toward the Bonus Bill appeared. New England and much of the South opposed it, feeling that

73. Annals of Congress, 14th Cong., 2nd sess., 854.

they had little to gain from encouraging the development of the West and the out-migration of their own people. By contrast the Middle Atlantic states were eager, expecting commercial benefits from a transportation system linking the Hudson and Delaware Rivers with the Ohio and the Great Lakes. In order to maximize support for the Bonus Bill, Clay and Calhoun did not specify which projects would get aid, leaving as many congressmen as possible hopeful. Even with all their legislative skillfulness, the Bonus Bill passed but narrowly, 86 to 84 in the House and 20 to 15 in the Senate. Then it went to the president for signature.

On March 3, 1817, his last day in office, Madison vetoed the Bonus Bill on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. Neither the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution nor the “general welfare” clause, Madison declared, could be stretched enough to authorize federal spending on roads and canals. Clay and Calhoun felt dumbfounded. “No circumstance, not even an earthquake that should have swallowed up one half of this city, could have excited more surprise,” commented Clay. As recently as last December 3, the president had urged Congress to create “a comprehensive system of roads and canals, such as will have the effect of drawing more closely together every part of our country.”74 What was the problem? In the first place, Madison wanted an amendment to the Constitution to authorize federal aid to internal improvements; Jefferson had originally called for such an amendment back in 1805. Only thus could the two presidents reconcile their desire for better transportation with a strict construction of the Constitution. Having abandoned his earlier constitutional objections to a national bank, Madison could not bring himself to do the same with internal improvements. In the second place, Madison felt deeply suspicious of the kind of fund the Bonus Bill would create. A pool of money available for whatever roads and canals each Congress wanted would be an invitation to corruption and logrolling. Madison preferred an integrated national plan for internal improvements, such as the $20 million program Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin had drawn up back in 1808.75

Intellectually respectable as Madison’s conception was, it was politically impractical. The amendment for internal improvements found opponents not only among state-righters but also among broad constructionists who did not want to establish the precedent of having to amend the Constitution

74. Presidential Messages, I, 561, 569–70; Annals of Congress, 15th Cong., 1st sess., 1371.

75. See John Lauritz Larson, “ ‘Bind the Republic Together’: The National Union and the Struggle for a System of Internal Improvements,” JAH 74 (1987): 363–87; Drew McCoy, The Last of the Fathers (Cambridge, Eng., 1989), 92–103.

every time someone called a federal power into question. As the congressional salary amendment abundantly demonstrated, amending the Constitution is a protracted and imponderable process. If the advocates of internal improvements threw their weight behind such an amendment and it failed, they would be worse off than before. As for another Gallatin Plan, this ran up against all the local prejudices that have made Americans perennially suspicious of comprehensive national plans in general. The chance of such a program being approved in the first place, and then faithfully carried out over many years, was nil.

In the light of hindsight, Madison’s veto of the Bonus Bill seems a mistake. Faced with a choice between theoretical consistency and practical politics, Madison chose theory. By rejecting the “good” because it was not the “best,” Madison not only slowed the economic development of the country but, uncharacteristically, missed an opportunity to cement the Union together.76 With the chance to set the United States firmly on the course of development missed, the country would grope its way toward undefined possible futures.


In those days before national party conventions had been invented, presidential candidates were nominated in Congress. On March 16, 1816, the caucus of Republican members of both houses, meeting together, nominated Secretary of State James Monroe of Virginia over Secretary of War William H. Crawford of Georgia by 65 votes to 54, with 22 absentees. Daniel Tompkins, the governor of New York, received the vice-presidential nomination. Madison, who had been grooming Monroe to be his successor, felt gratified and relieved. Crawford’s candidacy showed surprising strength, considering how inhibited he had been about opposing his senior cabinet colleague. Its appeal reflected discontent at the perpetuation of the “Virginia dynasty” of presidents.77

A dull presidential campaign ensued, its outcome a foregone conclusion. Senator Rufus King of New York served as standard-bearer of the Federalists’ forlorn hope. Like congressional elections, the balloting for president occurred across the calendar, with states choosing their members of the electoral college on different days and by different methods— in ten states by popular vote, in nine by the state legislature. The strength that the Federalists had shown in the middle states during the war years

76. See John Lauritz Larson, Internal Improvement (Chapel Hill, 2001), 63–69.

77. Lynn W. Turner, “Elections of 1816 and 1820,” in History of American Presidential Elections, ed. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. et al., (New York, 1985), I, 299–311.

melted away. The congressional and presidential elections occurred with virtually no interaction between them; the Federalist Party did not turn popular dissatisfaction with the “salary-grab bill” to its advantage. And so, while the electorate drastically purged Madison’s Congress, his chosen presidential successor won handily in the electoral college, 183 to 34, with King carrying only Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware. The Federalists had not even bothered to nominate a running mate for King, so their electors scattered their vice-presidential votes among several candidates.

Monroe’s easy victory reflected the spirit of national self-satisfaction and self-congratulation following the War of 1812, from which the incumbent Republican Party benefited. While the Federalists’ quasi-war with France in the 1790s had divided their party between Hamiltonians and Adamsites, the Republicans’ War of 1812, once it was over, actually strengthened their party’s grip on power. Though Madison’s administration could be faulted for incompetence, no one could accuse it, as the Federalists had been accused, of militarism and authoritarianism.78 The Republican way of waging war on a shoestring, if militarily risky, had been politically safe. The Federalists had taxed; the Republicans had borrowed. The Federalists had recourse to repressive legislation (the Alien and Sedition Acts); the Republicans did not—partly because mobs like that in Baltimore in 1813 did their dirty work for them.79 However valid Federalist complaints that the War of 1812 had been unnecessary and mismanaged, they were politically futile. The antiwar Federalists found themselves stigmatized as disloyal; the Hartford Convention now looked almost treasonable and became a huge political liability. No one offered an effective rebuttal to Commodore Decatur’s toast.

78. See Roger H. Brown, “Who Bungled the War of 1812?” Reviews in American History 19 (1992): 183–87.

79. Antiwar Federalists suffered repeated violence. In Baltimore a mob destroyed a press, killed two people, and badly injured several others, including the elderly Revolutionary hero “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, who never recovered from his beating (see Hickey, War of 1812, 52–71).

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