Allyn Cox: British Burn the Capitol, 1814, a 1974 mural on the ceiling of the Hall of Capitols in the US Capitol, Washington, D.C.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is now upon us and most Americans don’t know what to do with the occasion, whether to celebrate it or simply disregard it. The war that began two hundred years ago was such a strange and partisan war and one that was waged so ineptly that the country may want to forget that it was ever fought. But historians are not going to allow us to ignore it completely. They are turning out a spate of studies of the war and of James Madison, the president who led the country into it.

Like so many of America’s wars, it was a “war of choice.” We initiated it. It was in fact the first time under the new federal Constitution that Congress formally issued a declaration of war. Unfortunately, since World War II we have fought five significant wars without any of them being formally declared.

From the outset the War of 1812 was peculiar. First of all, it was a small war within a larger one, a sideshow for the British, who were engaged in a titanic two-decade-long struggle with France for supremacy in the Atlantic world. When the US Congress declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, the British were dismayed and bewildered, for at that moment they were desperately trying to head off a war they did not want.

In retrospect many historians have been equally bewildered. The country’s professed reasons for going to war seemed to bear little relation to the interests of the states and the parts of the country that most eagerly wanted it. In his war message of June 1, 1812, President Madison declared that war was necessary because Great Britain was seizing American ships in violation of the right of a neutral nation to trade noncontraband goods with belligerents and more important, was stopping American ships and impressing American seamen, claiming they were deserters from the Royal Navy.

But if these were indeed the major reasons for going to war, why was it that the majority in Congress that voted for the war (79–49 in the House of Representatives and 19–13 in the Senate, the closest vote for a declaration of war in American history) came almost entirely from the sections of the country—the South and West—that owned few ships and were supposedly least affected by British impressment and the violations of America’s maritime rights? And why too did most of the congressional opponents of the war come from the section of the country, New England, that was most involved in overseas shipping and thus presumably most hurt by the British naval oppression? Representatives from Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee cast more votes for the war than those from the New England states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In fact, New England congressmen voted 20–12 against the war, and most of the twelve votes in New England in favor of the war came from congressmen representing the frontier areas of New Hampshire and Vermont.

To explain these apparent anomalies historians have tried to find some hidden western and southern interests that lay beneath the professed war aims. Some have argued that westerners supported the war because they wanted land and had their eye on conquering British Canada. Others have argued that the westerners were less interested in land than they were in eliminating British influence over the Indians in the Northwest.

But with only ten votes in the House of Representatives, western congressmen could not by themselves have led the country into war. In fact, it was the representatives from Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia that supplied nearly half (thirty-nine) of the seventy-nine votes for the war. To explain why these southern states would back a war on behalf of maritime rights, other historians have suggested that the South actually hoped that a war would help in the seizing of Florida from Spain. Yet none of these explanations of hidden western and southern interests can make sense of the sixteen votes that Pennsylvania provided for the war, the most votes by any state.

What does make sense among all these seeming oddities is the fact that support for the war was entirely a party issue, with most Jeffersonian Republicans being for the war and all the Federalists against it. But this too is strange, for it was the Jeffersonian Republicans who from the very beginning of America’s national history had been most opposed to military establishments and the use of military force in international affairs. By contrast, it was the Federalists who had been the most fervent advocates for a robust European-type state and for building a formidable military establishment that they hoped would enable the country sooner or later to take on the European powers on their own terms.

Both Democratic-Republican presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and their Republican colleagues in Congress had strenuously sought to prevent any augmentation of the country’s military establishment. In January 1812 the Republicans in Congress actually voted down any increase in the size of the navy that was to fight the war they voted for six months later. The Republican Party feared military establishments and war-making because these were the means by which governments had traditionally enhanced executive power at the expense of liberty. Indeed, the Republicans seemed to believe that America’s military posed a greater threat to the United States than it did to Great Britain. Armies and navies, declared John Taylor of Caroline, the conscience of the Republican Party, “only serve to excite wars, squander money, and extend corruption.” Even a strong navy, warned a Republican congressman from Philadelphia, might become “a powerful engine in the hands of an ambitious Executive.”


As Britain and France struggled for supremacy and repeatedly violated American neutral rights, with Britain the much greater violator because of its control of the seas, both Presidents Jefferson and Madison sought desperately to find some peaceful alternative to the use of military force. Ever since the Revolution, Americans had used nonimportation and nonexportation movements in order to bring pressure on Great Britain. Hence it was natural for the Republicans to try to impose economic sanctions on the two belligerents during the Napoleonic Wars; it is still a device we cling to as a substitute for military action. In 1807–1808, President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison even resorted to the drastic step of prohibiting all Americans from engaging in any form of international trade. This embargo, said Jefferson, was a grand liberal experiment in “peaceful coercion” that if effective might do away with the instrument of war altogether and usher in an enlightened era of universal peace. With the exception of Prohibition, Jefferson and Madison’s embargo is the greatest example in American history of utopian thinking brought to bear on a matter of public policy.

Although the embargo destroyed America’s overseas trade and devastated the country’s seaports, Jefferson and Madison persisted in its enforcement for fifteen months, even to the point of virtually warring against their own citizens. Indeed, both would have extended the embargo longer if they could. The Republican administration, which professed a belief in minimizing executive authority, gave the army and navy sweeping powers to suppress smuggling along the Canadian border, powers that were blatantly contrary to the search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment.

Since the embargo and the various other economic sanctions that the Republicans tried were forms of warfare, when they failed to stop the British violations of American neutrality the Republicans thought they had no alternative but an actual declaration of war. Popular historian George C. Daughan agrees. In his book, 1812: The Navy’s War, he ignores all the various supposedly hidden causes of the war and instead takes President Madison at his word that the major reason for America’s going to war was the British impressment of American sailors. “Impressment,” Daughan concludes “was at the heart of the dispute between the two governments.”

Although Daughan is very critical of the brutal conditions in the Royal Navy that led to so many British sailors deserting and joining the American merchant marine, he does concede that the British had a problem. The British Admiralty estimated that as many as 10 to 15 percent of the 145,000 seaman in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars deserted to the American merchant marine. Since the British felt they were engaged in a life-or-death struggle with France and had to recruit ten to twelve thousand new seamen every year to man the Royal Navy, they could not give way on the need to recover their British deserters.

Yet it was intolerable to the Americans to have ships of the Royal Navy stopping American vessels on the high seas and seizing some of their sailors. Although the British never claimed a right to impress American citizens, aggressive royal naval officers were often not careful in distinguishing between British and American sailors, who looked and sounded so much alike. Because the British never conceded that the United States had the right to do to them what they did to the United States, that is, stop British ships and impress American deserters—not that there were any of them—British policy smacked of neocolonialism. It was as if the former mother country had not really recognized the independence of the United States.

Since the Federalists, led by Josiah Quincy and Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts, were increasingly emphasizing America’s British heritage and the need to side with their British cousins against the despotism of Napoleon, the Republicans became more and more sensitive to the fluid nature of the country’s national identity. In the end the Republicans’ declaration of war became an assertion of their Americanness. If Americans did not fight for their rights on the high seas, declared President Madison, then they were “not independent people, but colonists and vassals.”


As Daughan indicates, the Republicans were not at all prepared to assert their Americanness militarily. They entered the war against one of the two great superpowers of the day about as ill-equipped militarily as any nation could be. The War Department had only eight clerks, and it did not acquire a quartermaster until just before the war began. Its army had fewer than seven thousand regular troops scattered around the periphery of the country. Its navy was equally weak, with only sixteen ships capable of waging war on the high seas. By contrast, Great Britain possessed a regular army of nearly a quarter of a million men and the most powerful navy in the world, with over six hundred warships in active service.

The president owned the war from the beginning. The Federalists derisively called it “Mr. Madison’s War” in a pamphlet that went through nine editions. Like Jefferson, Madison thought that invading Canada would be a simple matter of marching and that a few troops of militia could do it. As for the navy, Daughan writes, the president “expected little or nothing.” Eventually he would change his mind about the navy.

Although America’s land war on the Canadian border soon proved to be pretty much a disaster from the beginning to the end, the war at sea, especially during the first year, as Daughan delights in demonstrating, was a spectacular success. Daughan does a good job recounting the battles on land, but he comes into his own in describing the battles that took place on water. His accounts of the single-ship duels in which the Americans prevailed—the Constitution versus the Guerriere, the Wasp versus the Frolic, the United States versus the Macedonian, and so on—are especially exciting. Of course, as a naval expert the author uses many nautical terms, such as “warping the ship” or gaining “the weather gauge” in his accounts of the battles, but he offers a helpful glossary for landlubbers.

The British were naturally stunned by the American victories at sea. No nation before had ever been able to beat them so often in these one-on-one naval encounters. Britain’s foreign secretary, George Canning, told Parliament that the defeat of the Guerriere by the Constitution threatened nothing less than “the sacred spell of the invincibility” of the Royal Navy.

Convinced that the British would make short work of the country’s tiny fleet of warships, President Madison instead counted on privateers, the seaborne militia, to be America’s navy. The privateers certainly did better than the land-based state militia, which repeatedly refused to leave their states and cross the border into Canada. By the end of the war the privateers may have captured at least two thousand British merchantmen.

But even after the initial successes of America’s warships, Madison continued to be confused about the official navy’s role. Should it protect American merchant vessels along the coast or should it engage the enemy on the high seas or should it just stay in port? Instead of concentrating on the navy, Madison remained fixated on the invasion of Canada. Unfortunately, as Daughan points out, the president “appeared unaware of how important naval supremacy on lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain was to his Canadian project.”

Slowly the president’s and his fellow Republicans’ view of the navy changed. Indeed, this is the theme of Daughan’s book—the Republicans’ gradual realization of the importance of the US Navy to the country’s security. Daughan’s previous book, If by Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—From the American Revolution to the War of 1812 (2008), told the story of how the fledgling American navy came into being. Although 1812: The Navy’s War covers all aspects of the war, including diplomacy and the land battles, it is essentially a continuation of that earlier work.

By 1813 the Republicans began accepting the idea of a permanent naval establishment. Following the victories of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in September 1813 on Lake Erie and Commodore Thomas Macdonough a year later on Lake Champlain, the situation decisively shifted in favor of the United States. When the Duke of Wellington, the renowned British military leader, advised his government in the fall of 1814 that no victory in America could be achieved without naval superiority on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, a peace treaty based on the status quo ante bellum was just a matter of time. In the treaty that was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, “the maritime disputes about free trade and sailors’ rights,” writes Daughan, “were not even mentioned. The war seemed to have settled nothing.”

But as Daughan recognizes, it actually did settle many things, including a reaffirmation of American independence and a strengthening of the Americans’ sense of their nationhood. President Madison himself learned a lesson from the war. In February 1815 he warned Congress not to dismantle the military establishment that had been built up during the war. Our experience during this conflict, he said, “demonstrates that a certain degree of preparation for war is not only indispensible to avert disasters at the outset, but affords also the best security for the continuance of peace.”

The short biographies of Madison by Richard Brookhiser and Jeff Broad- water reviewed here naturally focus on Madison’s great accomplishments that preceded his presidency. In 1786 he shepherded Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom through the Virginia legislature. In 1787 he helped organize the Philadelphia Convention and created the Virginia Plan that was the working model for the federal Constitution. During the ratification process he wrote twenty-nine papers of The Federalist, generally considered the most important work of political theory in American history. In 1789 he pushed through the Bill of Rights in the first Congress. And in the 1790s he helped to found the Democratic-Republican Party.

Brookhiser has a number of biographies of the Founders to his credit. Like the others, this life of Madison is a sprightly narrative. In it, he emphasizes Madison’s contribution not only to constitutionalism, but, more important, to “American politics, the behavior,” he rightly says, “that makes constitutionalism work: the ways and means of acquiring, conferring, and rebuking power, the party organizations and partisan media that are the vehicles of interest, ambition, and thought.”

Brookhiser seems to assume that “the game of politics” two hundred years ago was played pretty much as it is today. Consequently, he sometimes has difficulty understanding the various positions that Madison took on issues. Brookhiser passes off the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 as simply “position papers” for the Republican Party, and he dismisses Madison’s fear of creeping Federalist monarchism as nothing less than “paranoia” and “to speak plainly, nuts.” Of course, Brookhiser believes the Federalists were no better: they “had a closet full of maniacs.” This kind of scorn is common tendency of historians dealing with the 1790s. But the mutual fears that the Federalists and Republicans expressed in those turbulent years need to be explained, not dismissed as some sort of mental aberration.

Broadwater also talks about “paranoia” running high in the 1790s, but he seems to recognize that the period was very different from our own time. His biography is very solid and scholarly; in fact, it may be the best medium-sized life of Madison that we have, standing midway between Jack Rakove’s little gem, James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic (1990), and Ralph Ketcham’s superb but hefty 750-page James Madison: A Biography (1971).

All biographers seem to emphasize the same characteristics about Madison. They agree that he was probably as intellectually gifted as any politician in American history. He was certainly far more studious and well-read than most; but he was also harder working and better prepared for discussion and debate than most. Unlike most college-bound Virginia planters, who tended to go to the Anglican College of William and Mary, Madison went north for his education, graduating from the Presbyterian College of New Jersey in 1771. Although he stayed on for a year studying Hebrew and reading law, he was not interested in any career except politics.

He lived most of his life off his father and his father’s slave-supported plantation in Orange County, Virginia. He remained single until age forty-three when in 1794 he married the attractive twenty-six-year-old widow Dolley Payne Todd. Although Dolley told Madison that she was “not much of a politician,” she was much better at handling large groups than he was. Whether he could have survived the stresses of his presidency and the war without her is debatable. Certainly, as Hugh Howard’s Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence suggests, she complemented his shy and reserved nature in every way and made his presidency a social if not a political success.

Howard’s book makes no effort to be a comprehensive account of the war. Instead, he tends to select particular moments for detailed and intimate—you-are-there sorts of—descriptions of scenes or events. Sometimes it is the Naval Ball held at Tomlinson’s Hotel on December 8, 1812. At other times it is the battle between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon in June 1813. Howard sets up these short tableaux by theatrically introducing the scene in italics. So, for example, “ June 1814…Mr. Madison’s Sitting Room…The President’s House.” Or “June 1814…St. Leonard’s Creek…Patuxent River, Maryland.” Or “Nine O’Clock…Wednesday, August 24, 1814…Washington City,” followed by “After Ten O’Clock…Wednesday, August 24, 1814…The President’s House.”

In these last two scenes Howard describes in elaborate detail the burning of Washington by the British, surely the most humiliating moment in the war. Before setting fire to the President’s House, the British soldiers dined on the dinner that had been so suddenly abandoned by Dolley and her guests. As one British officer said, the soldiers found that “everything was ready for the entertainment of a ceremonious party.”

The burning of Washington and other defeats, the many misjudgments, the poor appointments, and the bureaucratic snafus all reveal that the War of 1812 was not Madison’s finest hour. He may have been at times a very successful practical politician, but he was not a decider. He was a legislator, not a natural executive; he was someone who sought to persuade, not command. Believing devoutly in republican principles, he was ill at ease in exercising executive authority. He was, as Henry Clay privately admitted, “wholly unfit for the storms of war.”

But in one important respect President Madison redeemed himself. Throughout all the administrative confusion, throughout all the military failures, throughout all the treasonous actions of the Federalists, Madison remained calm in the conviction that in a republic strong executive leadership—the leadership of a Napoleon or a Hamilton—could only endanger the principles for which the war was fought. Unlike the Federalists who during the Quasi-War with France in 1798 had passed the harsh Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress the opposition, President Madison, as one admirer noted, had withstood both a powerful foreign enemy and widespread domestic opposition “without one trial for treason, or even one prosecution for libel.” No subsequent American president has ever been able to constrain the growth of executive power in wartime as much as he did.