James Madison, Presidential Power, and Civil Liberties in the War of 1812

Coauthored with Ritika Singh, Published in What So Proudly We Hailed: Essays on the Contemporary Meaning of the War of 1812, October 31, 2012.

In November of 1814, the White House lay in ashes, burned to the ground by British troops. President James Madison was living in temporary quarters at the so-called Octagon House, having returned to Washington after flee- ing the city. His government had seen division and humiliation, and it had not yet seen Andrew Jackson’s redemptive after-the-fact triumph in New Orleans, which would come a few months later. In a letter to Virginia gover- nor Wilson Cary Nicholas on November 25, 1814, Madison reflected on the difficulties that the nation faced in prosecuting the war:

You are not mistaken in viewing the conduct of the Eastern States as the source of our great difficulties in carrying on the war; as it cer- tainly is the greatest, if not the sole, inducement with the enemy to persevere in it. The greater part of the people in that quarter have been brought by their leaders, aided by their priests, under a delusion scarcely exceeded by that recorded in the period of witchcraft; and the leaders are becoming daily more desperate in the use they make of it. Their object is power.

It was not a stray comment on Madison’s part. In a letter to former president Thomas Jefferson more than two years earlier, he had complained that “the seditious opposition in Massachusetts and Connecticut, with the intrigues elsewhere insidiously co-operating with it, have so clogged the wheels of the war that I fear the campaign will not accomplish the object of it.” And in a letter to a New England sympathizer in September 6, 1812, he lamented:

I will not conceal the surprise and the pain I feel at declarations from any portion of the American people that measures resulting from the National will constitutionally pronounced, and carrying with them the most solemn sanctions, are not to be pursued into effect, without the hazard of civil war. This is sure not . . . a course consistent with the duration or efficacy of any Government.3

Nor was Madison much, if at all, exaggerating the situation. The behavior of at least some of the Federalist opposition—which involved marshaling state resources to oppose federal policy, openly siding with the enemy against Washington, and frankly contemplating the dissolution of the union—looks as positively disloyal in retrospect as it did to Madison at the time.

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