James Madison: The Constitutional War President

By Folsom, Burton, Jr. | Ideas on Liberty, February 2003 | Go to article overview

James Madison: The Constitutional War President


Folsom, Burton, Jr., Ideas on Liberty


Is it possible for a president to run a war effectively and obey the Constitution at the same time? Most historians would say no; after all, they persistently rank Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt as two of the nation's greatest presidents. Lincoln and Roosevelt, as war presidents, centralized power, restricted liberty, and suspended key parts of the Constitution during their stints in office. Historians like men of action, especially when these actions seemingly help win wars.

However, James Madison, the first war president in U.S. history, did not set such a precedent. War emergencies, he argued, were tests to obey the Constitution, not ignore it. His conduct in the War of 1812 is illuminating, and worth reviewing.

The War of 1812 was peculiar in that the United States was not under attack, or even the threat of attack. Many, therefore, have argued that the war was avoidable. American commerce, however, was being restricted by the Napoleonic Wars between France and Great Britain. Furthermore, Britain was seizing American ships, kidnapping ("impressing" as it was called) sailors, and stirring Indians in the Northwest to launch raids on American soil.

In the diplomacy that led to war, Madison did not hold press conferences or buttonhole senators. He let Congress debate the problem and pass laws to deal with it. Macon's Bill No. 2, which Congress passed and Madison decided to sign, guided our policy in the two years before war. It offered peace and trade to either France or Britain if either would leave our trade unhampered.

When Britain persisted in halting American ships and seizing the sailors, Madison believed the United States should go to war. But he did not act on this belief until Henry Clay, leading a delegation of congressmen, urged him to support the war publicly before Congress voted on it. This Madison did, and Congress voted (79-49 in the House and 19-13 in the Senate) to go to war.

Once war was declared, it had to be funded. The previous year, Congress had refused to re-charter the Bank of the United States, and so the nation had no central bank to borrow from. Direct taxes were another possibility for raising money, but Madison avoided them during much of the war.

Instead, Madison, as commander-in-chief, worked with Congress to finance the war in part by privatizing it. The navy, for example, lagged far behind Britain in ships and manpower. Therefore, Madison urged private shippers to attack Britain, from the American coast to the British Isles. An estimated 526 merchants-turned-hunters stalked and attacked vulnerable British ships, commercial or naval. Any profits, from cargo or ransom, were split among captains and crew.

Some of these private ships were sunk quickly by the British, but others pestered and perplexed their enemies. The Yankee, from Bristol, Rhode Island, and the American, from Salem, Massachusetts, each won over $1 million in booty. Thomas Boyle, of Baltimore, took his Comet into British waters and won 40 hit-and-run skirmishes, and then outrageously declared Britain to be blockaded. America's mosquito fleet demoralized the Royal Navy and forced Britain to convoy all of their trade in the Atlantic Ocean.

The U.S. army, of course, needed cash for troops and arms. Madison, as co-author of The Federalist Papers, was suspicious of centralized power and argued persuasively for limited government at the constitutional convention.

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