In Search of America: Transatlantic Essays, 1951-1990

By Marcus Cunliffe | Go to book overview

6
Madison as Commander-in-Chief

The essays commissioned by Ernest R. May dealt with the success or otherwise of the handful of American presidents in acting as constitutional commanders-in-chief when they had a foreign war on their hands. My contribution was an assessment of James Madison's performance, more favorable in tone than that of some other commentators, including Henry Adams. In editing, I have struck out or altered infelicities here and there but left the essay basically intact.

Esteemed as a Founding Father and respected as a president, James Madison is not much celebrated for his performance as commander-in-chief in the War of 1812. Political opponents denounced his folly in having led the country into war at all, and his administration's mismanagement of the war once it was declared. Federalist critics in Congress charged that he had been pushed into the conflict by such Republican "war hawks" as Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. Madison, they asserted, only pretended to be warlike during the summer of 1812 so that he could secure the Republican renomination as president. According to one of his senior generals, James Wilkinson, who writes with a heavy irony, the "meek and amiable republican," "the wise and virtuous President Madison," was dominated by the active members of his cabinet.1

Historians have reacted comparably. Less heavy-handed than Wilkinson but

____________________
1
James Wilkinson, Memoirs of My Own Tunes ( Philadelphia, 1816), 3: 359, 367.

-115-

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