Ranking James Madison

by Jonathan Hobratsch

Today’s blog responds to James Madison. I find Madison to be one of the most overrated presidents, and I give many reasons for this below. 

Check my previous posts to find the rankings of previous presidents. 

James Madison 4th President (1809-1817)

Score: 63/125 total points (50.4% ideal)


Appointments: 4/10

Madison probably decided to follow Jefferson’s theory of cabinet appointments. That is, appoint one or two people worth listening to, and then appoint politically powerful mediocrities from regions where you need to maintain support.

Madison initially wanted Albert Gallatin as Secretary of State, but the choice faced so much opposition that he retained him at Secretary of the Treasury where he had served under Jefferson. Gallatin proved so wise as both an advisor and as an economist that Madison should be given a lot of credit for retaining him.

The rest of Madison’s appointments were mediocre or worse. His Secretary of War, William Eustis, had no real military experience, except as a surgeon. His Secretary of the Navy, Paul Hamilton, was an alcoholic. Both were incompetent decisions when war with Britain seemed increasingly likely.

Madison’s first move to improve his cabinet was to make amends with James Monroe by removing the incompetent Secretary of State Robert Smith and place Monroe in Smith’s place. Monroe, the favorite of the conservative faction of the party, had expected to become Secretary of State, but Madison chose to shun him since Monroe had run against him for the nomination. Instead, Madison agreed to accept Smith, a nonentity for the post, who was the brother of a powerful politician from Maryland. Smith was an opponent of Gallatin, and the two often feuded. Arguments between Smith and Gallatin led to Madison’s decision to make peace with Monroe. Madison also believed Smith was disloyal and carrying on secret agreements with the British.

The War of 1812 revealed how incompetent the cabinet was as a unit. When some in the administration revealed critical flaws as secretaries during the war, Madison initially refused to replace anyone.  Pressure mounted after several early defeats and Madison was forced to make some changes.

Eustis at War obviously had to be replaced, but his selection of John Armstrong upset Monroe, and the two began feuding. Armstrong was also soundly incompetent and opted not to defend Washington DC, which was captured by the British and partly burned. Having no immediate replacement, Madison had Monroe operate as both Secretary of State and Secretary of War. The alcoholic Hamilton was replaced by the much more able and sober William Jones at Secretary of the Navy. Jones handled the naval department rather well and can be given some credit for US naval victories.

It took a war for Madison to figure out the importance of quality cabinet members. Ultimately, Madison’s political appointments do contain some all-stars, such as Albert Gallatin, and later cabinet selections of George Crawford, Benjamin Rush, William Jones, and James Monroe.

Madison did much better in appointing Supreme Court justices, despite some problems with finding someone. After two nominees rejected justiceships and a third was rejected by the Senate, Madison was able to secure Joseph Story, despite former president Thomas Jefferson objecting to the choice. Story became the most influential Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and operated much as John Marshall did in establishing a strong federal Union. Story would serve for nearly three and half decades on the court. While a good pick for the nation, Story’s nomination backfired on Madison, who had hoped to weaken Marshall’s ideological influence on the court. Instead, Story became a powerful extension of Marshall’s power long after Marshall’s death.

Madison also hoped that his second Supreme Court appointment, Gabriel Duvall, would weaken Marshall’s influence. However, Duvall proved insignificant, giving his opinion only 18 times in his 23 years on the court. It is said that in his last few years that he was too deaf to hear anything in the courthouse.

Although the presidential nominee did not appoint the Vice Presidential nominee in earlier elections, it is worth noting that VP George Clinton opposed the presidency of James Madison, and played a lead role in meddling in the administration, including influencing the Senate to oppose Gallatin’s move from Secretary of Treasury to Secretary of State.

Overall, Madison’s appointments were soundly blunderous, but retaining Gallatin, and appointing Story to the Supreme Court stand out. Additionally, Monroe and Jones were good choices. It took Madison about 6 years to find a cabinet that could function properly.

Party Leadership: 4/10

As the angular 6’2” Thomas Jefferson left the White House, a 5’4” figure of equal historical stature took his place. Madison, like Jefferson, was not an orator, as neither had the voice for speaking. Unlike Jefferson, Madison, “The Father of the Constitution,” did not have the quiet charisma of the “Author of the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was the kind of short egghead that didn’t often inspire leadership. He had to rest on his credentials. Fortunately, there were many.

Like with Jefferson, the radical conservative faction of Republicans called the Old Republicans led by John Randolph believed that Madison had also departed from the values of 1798 Resolution, two idealistic States Rights manifestos. Randolph and his faction had lent strong support for James Monroe in the election of 1808, but the all-powerful Democratic National Caucus and other establishment figured aided Madison over Monroe. Madison would face regular congressional opposition from a spiteful Randolph, especially after the War of 1812, when Madison adopted many Federalist policies that he found necessary through experience.

As mention in the appointment section, Madison faced opposition from his own VP George Clinton, who led the more moderate faction of the Republicans.

Despite opposition from two wings of his party, Madison, more so than Jefferson, deferred to Congress. While Jefferson may have set a precedent of the president as party leader, Madison seemed oblivious to it or opted to decline the party leadership role. This trend of the president as an inactive leader would continue with Monroe and John Quincy Adams.

Madison also saw his party lose tremendous support in the early part of his presidency, but their lead in both houses of Congress was large enough that the kept both houses by a large margin. Losses were gained back following the War of 1812.

Madison showed moments of excellent leadership during the War of 1812, but he was rather rudderless prior to the war. Following the war, Madison took a stand and shifted the party mightily to the center. In all, Madison was a flawed party leader as president who retired from office just about the time that he completed his learning curve. Madison might have been a more assertive leader throughout a 3rd term if we consider his trajectory.

Economics and Finance: 6/10

Madison followed Jefferson by continuing a policy paying off the national debt and keeping taxes low. However, the War of 1812 changed things. The war stifled trade far more than Jefferson’s embargo. Additionally, the national debt and taxation greatly increased in order to afford the war effort. Madison’s presidency saw the first significant national debt increase.

In regards to the National Bank, Madison ignored Secretary of Treasury Gallatin’s plea to renew the State Bank. Instead, Madison allowed the Republican-dominated Congress to make the decisions. They promptly killed the bank by refusing to renew its charter. However, Madison saw the necessity of the bank when its absence posed a major problem during the War of 1812. Thus, Madison upset party purists and endorsed the Gallatin and Federalist-favored Second Bank of the United States.

Additionally, Madison also learned from his experiences that the Federalists were likewise correct on the benefits of a high protective tariff in order to compete with British trade and to build revenue. Therefore, he signed the protective Tariff of 1816, which unusually gained some Southern support.

Despite increased spending during the War of 1812, Madison was able to exit office with a budget surplus, most likely from tariff revenue and a resurgent post-war economy.

Business and Labor: 2/5

This was not a major issue for early presidents. The War of 1812 certainly proved a burden to both business and labor, especially in the mercantile Northeast. Additionally, Madison refusal to endorsed federally funded internal improvements hampered the growth of American business as new trade routes could not be added or improved.

Naturally, the end of the war allowed for an improved environment for both business and labor.

Social Welfare: 2/5

This was not a major area of consideration for the early presidents. In the past, Madison was wary of any form of social welfare at the federal level, but he maintained the naval hospitals and pension systems left by his predecessors. In addition to keeping these, he expanded pensions following the War of 1812 to include orphans and widows. Thus, social welfare was still restricted to the military or ties to the military.

Civil Rights and Liberties: 8/10

Madison stands alone among presidents in mostly refusing to restrict civil liberties in a time of warfare or national emergency. He did not pass an Alien & Sedition Acts as Adams had. In this, he opposed Jefferson’s suggestions that Madison crack down on opposition.

Additionally, Madison did nothing to intervene in New England when this region’s leaders considered secession in Hartford.

In regards to the native population, Madison was initially relatively tolerant towards Native Americans. He met often with leaders of various tribes and was active in encouraging them to adapt to the Western customs of the 19th century by encouraging them to take up property, farming, etc. Madison initially wanted some territory formally owned by the Native Americans to be returned to them as part of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. However, he bowed down to pressure from General Andrew Jackson and his allies.

In regards to enslaved people, Madison was as enlightened as Jefferson about the evils of slavery, but he didn’t seem to have the same feeling of guilt for slavery as Jefferson had. While Jefferson probably had occasional sleepless nights thinking about the contradictory nature of the ideals of American and our country’s tolerance of slavery, Madison accepted the conventions of his day and doesn’t seem to have bothered himself with questioning it very much. However, he made a public statement calling for greater enforcement of the slave trade ban.

Madison’s defied American political tradition of the past and future by restraining himself from passing significant restrictive laws during a time of warfare and national emergency. For this, I give him high marks in this category despite making little effort to rid the country of slavery.

Domestic Unrest and Criminal Justice: 3/10

Domestic unrest was at its worst since the Revolution. As stated, dissent for the War of 1812 was great in New England where leaders and merchants were still attempting to interact with Great Britain as if they were still trading partners. Additionally, as stated, some New England leaders were meeting in Hartford to discuss secession. Madison avoided exacerbating unrest by refusing to send in an army to quell opposition.

The capture and burning of Washington DC, as well as an invasion of the homeland,  is certainly a high-level domestic unrest in the lives of everyone.

All periods of unrest during Madison’s presidency were reactions to a war that Madison that could have been avoided. I do take into account that Madison did not abuse the justice system during warfare.

Immigration and Citizenship: 4/5

Madison continued Jefferson’s lenient pro-immigration policy, which had reduced the number of years for naturalization from 14 years to 5 years. Naturalized immigrants were a major voting bloc of Madison’s party.

However, immigration virtually halted during the War of 1812. In 1815, following the end of the War of 1812 and the end of the Napoleonic War, immigration surged. Immigrants came mostly from Germany, Britain, and Ireland.

I give Madison credit for accepting an immigration increase without retaliating with nativist rhetoric or policies.

Infrastructure and Domestic Improvements: 2/5

Although he wanted funding for internal improvements, he vetoed infrastructure bills, because he believed he needed a constitutional amendment to make the funding legal. In this area, Madison’s rhetoric (greatly favoring such projects) did not meet his actions.

Had Madison signed improvement bills it would have likely accelerated modernization in the country. Instead, Madison’s veto further entrenched the debate on whether or not federal internal improvements were constitutional or not. While not the major cause of the American Civil War, this was one of the four secondary causes after the slavery issue.

Energy, Resources, and Environment: 0/0

This area does not count towards Madison’s rating.

Misc. Domestic: 8/10

Madison presided during the near total collapse of the Federalist Party. Many New England Federalists were working towards secession as a reaction to both Jefferson’s embargo and the War of 1812. The war, which was technically a draw, was reframed as a victory. Additionally, the Federalists were reframed as a “British party,” disloyal and potentially traitorous for opposing the war effort. Federalists outside of New England quickly converted to Madison’s party or kept quiet. The result was that American become virtually a single party state outside of New England.

While a one-party state is not desirable, Madison’s move to embrace Federalist policies is preferable to partisanship. Madison learned from his experiences and adopted practical suggestions from the opposition.

Foreign Diplomacy: 4/10

About half of Madison’s presidency was during warfare. Madison’s diplomatic opportunities prior to the war and after the war were many. Despite having been a Secretary of State, his diplomatic efforts were generally underwhelming.

Prior to the war, a bill known as Macon Bill No. 2 was pushed through Congress in an attempt to get Britain and France to recognize America’s neutrality and to protect American merchant fleets from harassment. Neither Madison nor Nathaniel Macon (who the bill is named after) approved of this bill, but Madison signed it. The Macon Bill rewarded whichever of the two European countries stopped harassing American ships by embargoing the other country. Napoleon, who was already forcing all of Europe to embargo Britain, went along with the plan. This obviously enraged Britain and increased the seizing of US vessels. Napoleon then withdrew his promise and continued seizing ships as well. All in all, a disastrous response by Madison that only helped accelerate the chances of war.

During the war, diplomatic efforts by the Madison administration to cobble out a good peace treaty that also benefited America were underwhelming. The Treaty of Ghent, for the most part, did nothing. Boundaries were unchanged. Madison’s main reason for going to war, ending British impressment of American sailors and the protection of other maritime rights, were ignored in the treaty. Madison initially demanded these rights and well as territorial acquisitions in Canada. He got none of these. However, the British ended the practice of impressment on their own, as the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo made impressment unnecessary. America never invaded Canada again. American and Great Britain were never at war with each other again.

Madison also had a major diplomatic opportunity outside of the war with Great Britain. Madison continued Jefferson’s policy of attempting to acquire Spanish Florida. Here, Madison lost control of the situation. Floridians in the West declared independence from Spain and requested that Madison defend them from Spanish retaliation. Madison did not act, but the governor of the Mississippi Territory did without seeking Madison’s approval. Despite this autonomous reaction, Madison took advantage of the situation by proclaiming West Florida as part of the United States. Madison later failed in an attempt to stir up unrest in East Florida against the Spanish government in order to take the larger eastern portion of Florida.

Overall, Madison’s score for foreign diplomacy is less than average. However, by taking on the world’s leading power diplomatically and militarily without suffering a certified defeat helped position the US as a diplomatic and military force worthy of respect among the European major powers. For this, his grade is at least elevated to where I place it.

Peace, Defense, and Warfare: 8/20

The bulk of Madison’s presidential legacy hinges around the War of 1812. Jefferson’s embargo, which had expired, as well as the before mentioned Macon Bill No. 2 had already set the seeds for an upcoming war. America was no friend to the major European powers.

Madison had cause for war. The seizing of US ships, British impressment of US sailors, British involvement in encouraging American Indian raids on settlers, and British interference in American trade, as well as America’s own desire for expansion were all justifiable reasons for the War of 1812.

The War Hawks in Congress, such as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun expected the British to be too involved in fighting Napoleon to be of any real threat. This was a miscalculation. While Britain’s primary battle was against Napoleon in Europe, Britain’s secondary squad of military and naval forces proved to be much tougher than Clay, Calhoun, or Madison anticipated.

The War Hawks hoped to use the war as a means to expand west into Native American land, using the alliance between some of the tribes and the British as a cause for taking the land. Additionally, America could also expand North into British Canada and take what could have been part of America during the Revolutionary War if the Battle of Quebec had been successful during that war. One of the issues was whether or not Canada should only be used as a bargaining chip to gain maritime rights in the event of its capture.

Overall, the country was divided on the war. Jefferson’s embargo had crippled the New England economy, which required a steady flow of trade, especially with Britain. Thus, New England and other coastal trade cities disapproved of a new war. The South and interior of the country contained most of the Warhawks since they were mostly self-sustaining. However, some voters in coastal cities were enraged by years of impressment and other violation of maritime rights, despite benefiting from British trade.

While Madison could have prevented war with Britain, he went through Congress for our first formal declaration for a major war. Once approved, Madison had to rebuild the military that he and Jefferson had dismantled during the previous administration.

Madison’s time as commander in chief was rather lopsided. His military failed in its attempt to capture Canada, it saw Detroit’s surrender, and Washington DC’s capture and burning.  Additionally, the British blockade was killing American trade. However, it did see enough successes late in the war to reach a stalemate.

The American Navy scored many victories against the legendary British Navy; albeit not against their best admirals. It had repulsed British attempts to capture Baltimore and New York. Lastly, as an agreed peace treaty was being sent to America, Andrew Jackson scored his great superfluous victory against the British, which became a major morale builder and was central into reframing the war as a victory when it was actually more of a draw.

In the end, Americans lost life and property was damaged, and in the end, the treaty established the status quo. America did promise never to invade Canada again and the British promised not to encourage American Indian raids again. The peace treaty did not guarantee a protection of US merchant vessels from British ships or guarantee the end of impressment; however, no major violations occurred after Napoleon’s defeat and exile in 1815. If Napoleon had won at Waterloo and maintained his empire well into the 19th century, then it is possible a 3rd war with the British could have occurred at a later date.

During Madison’s administration, and often as a part of the War 1812, military actions against American Indian tribes increased. Madison had made orders to protect Indian lands of the Five “Civilized” American Indian tribes from settlers, but General Andrew Jackson routinely ignored these orders. Naturally, American Indian tribes retaliated and both sides soon committed atrocities. For instance, the Fort Mims Massacre saw 400 to 500 civilians murdered by the Creek.

Also, General Jackson occupied Spanish Florida after Creek Indians were crossing the border to attack and then retreating back over into Spanish territory for defense. Jackson eventually won the Creek War forcing Creek to cede most of their land, even though a faction of the Creek had helped Jackson fight the other faction.

Another American Indian war occurred in the Midwest, which was more closely allied to the War of 1812. An Indian Confederacy that opposed American expansionism led by Tecumseh, with the help of some British forces, became a formidable force. However, General William Henry Harrison scored major victories at Tippecanoe and at the Battle of the Thames, the latter in which Tecumseh was killed. The defeat of the Indian Confederacy was a major bargaining chip for peace during the War of 1812.

A third American Indian war—the Peoria War—occurred in the Illinois Territory as a reaction to Tecumseh’s defeat and America’s increased expansion. This war was primarily a collection of raids and counter-raids, and it was far less organized than the wars involving Jackson and Harrison. While an American victory, raids from this region would continue for the next few decades.

After the War of 1812 ended in February of 1815, Madison and Congress allowed for a month of peace before authorizing war against the Barbary Pirates, who were still harassing American ships. The Second Barbary War was a quick victory ending in a treaty which guaranteed an end to pirate attacks, monetary compensation from the Barbary States and a guaranteed freedom of trade throughout the Mediterranean.

Madison was not an effective Commander in Chief during the War of 1812. Both incompetent administrators and incompetent military officer, with a few exceptions, bogged him down. His victory against the Barbary States was much more decisive than Jefferson’s Barbary War, however. The War of 1812 is so central to Madison’s presidency that this area will count against him more than it would for other presidents that did not preside during a major war.

Scandal and Corruption: 3/5

Madison’s administration was relatively scandal-free. The presiding issue in this area was the Wilkinson Affair. General James Wilkinson, who had been tied to Aaron Burr’s conspiracy, was placed in charge of defenses in Louisiana. He had twice been the senior general in the US military, but in January 1812 Henry Dearborn was promoted over him by Madison. Perhaps because of this, Wilkinson became negligent.

Wilkinson’s soldiers were dying daily of malaria, dysentery, etc.  Wilkinson did nothing to improve conditions and rebutted any charges that he neglected his troops. The war probably saved him from a second court-martial (the first was following the Burr Conspiracy), since he was needed to defend the country. However, after two successive defeats in battle, Madison felt he had the leverage to remove the politically influential Wilkinson from command. In fact, Madison discharged him from the military.

This affair nearly ruined the reputation of the War Department.

Intangibles: 5/10

While Madison’s past accomplishments are tremendous, his presidency may be the most mediocre part of his life. Madison’s first two years are often criticized for being directionless. His domestic accomplishments are very few for a two-term president.

However, as Madison’s second term was winding down, we see the beginning stages of the Era of Good Feelings, when relative political harmony and some economic prosperity existed. Madison, who faced a tougher reelection bid for his second term, could have won a 3rd term if he wanted it; although, probably in a tight race. He was popular enough to be succeeded by his friend and inter-party rival, James Monroe.

Madison was initially a president that seemed out of his league, but by his 6th year, he finally showed the country what they probably wish he had shown from the outset. If the two major political parties had been more balanced, as they were during the Washington and Adams administration, then Madison would not have won reelection. Like with Adams, Madison best days were prior to his presidency.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Very comprehensive and well presented.


    1. historymonocle says:

      Much appreciated!


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