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Madison and the War of 1812

Lynne Cheney, author of “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered” in conversation with Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute. Created by Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute now i'm here with lynne cheney author of james madison a life reconsidered so he becomes president in 1808 succeeding his friend Thomas Jefferson Jefferson helped him become president right well Jefferson helped in many ways not least of which was by nominating very old vice presidents or being sure that he had very old vice presidents on the ticket so that Madison was the young up-and-comer and so Madison as president keeps the legacy of Jefferson going we have three Virginians in a row which is Jefferson Madison and then Monroe explaining the relationship to Monroe because Monroe and Madison was supposed to be friends but Monroe then kind of challenged Madison a few times but then they reconcile when Madison becomes president about right Madison and Monroe had such an interesting relationship I think that Monroe was maybe a little too full of self-regard and he always saw himself is able to do more than he could politically he was great in military service so he challenged Madison for the house of representatives in the first Congress and then he challenged Madison in his bid to be President did not sit well with dolly James never said anything about it but dolly was not happy I know they don't visit Monroe's house when they used to do it all the time but he then eventually makes Monroe the Secretary of State right yes you know I think I write in that chapter that a good cabinet member is hard to find and it was even more so in the early years of the Republic they're just simply wasn't a cadre of people who were you know working in that direction from whom you could choose and that made Monroe stand out all the more and he turned out to be a good secretary of state for Madison and he also served as Secretary of War did a good job now the two parties have now begun to solidify by this point the Federalists and the Republicans does somebody like Madison have some Federalists and his administration or have we gotten to the point where a president only appoints people of his body but by now the Federalists are nearly dead moribund there aren't many of them and I really can't think of anyone who Madison reached out to because he didn't need to the Federalists didn't represent a great political force so one of the things Monroe works with Madison on is trying to diffuse tensions with both France and England why are we having disputes with both those countries well both of them are disrespecting us on the high seas seizing ships taking cargoes the British are especially inventive at finding ways to increase their naval manpower by taking our sailors off our ships so we're having disputes with both but it is more serious with Great Britain and Madison believe that not only because he thought the depredations were worse but he thought that Britain represented our colonial past and that were we to yield to Great Britain would be backtracking on the rebel there was a bit of a split in the country because the New England states are still a little bit more loyal to Britain perhaps because of their trading and because of their you know heritage exactly there is a split and there is talk whispers even of secession during the war of 1812 so the war of 1812 with Britain comes about mainly because of trade and tariffs and impressment and sailors on the Seas it's basically a trading dispute at first well perhaps but it's also the case that the Republicans the Madison administration suspected that the British were fomenting Indian warfare on the frontier and that they were allied with the Indians who were creating havoc for American settlers as Indian side of course these people were coming into their territory so how does the war of 1812 begin with a declaration of war on the part of the Congress Madison was very careful to encourage them to do this to tell them to put the country into an attitude ready for war but he made sure he was very careful that it was a declaration on the part of Congress the forces involved were the Westerners who didn't like what the British were doing in their alliance with Indians many of the people who've ordered for the war had lost loved ones in Indian conflicts and the Speaker of the House and as a young sort of Wesner Henry Clay who helps push Madison and the country and to understanding why there should be a war is that right exactly some people have called it mr. clays war did he feel that he had to sort of stiffen Madison's backbone a bit well he might have felt that way you know it's all about perspectives but I don't think Madison's backbone needed much stiffening by this he had been working for years to prevent this war and I think finally regarded it as inevitable and he felt that he should go to the Congress of the United States declare war for political reasons a constitutional reason constitutional reasons but politics of course played in if the Congress votes a declaration of war then it's not all on the executive shoulders and it was not a very easy war we don't have a very good secretary of war that period we start losing on the Indian front so tell me about the war and the conduct of it well it was a disaster on land especially at the beginning not at the end though but at the beginning it was a disaster on land we had decided to invade Canada in order to kind of have a hostage I think that would make the British think twice about what they were doing at sea and what they were doing to support Indian attacks on the frontier but the invasions of Canada were just a disaster in one case general Hall was so worried about Indian attacks that he totally surrendered before any shots had been fired and gave up part of Detroit yeah we didn't have very good generals I read in your book no that's true and it's because they were left over from the revolution they were old too exactly they were long in the tooth the fate of the nation at sea was much different because you know when you've got a ship you can't retire the crew and just sort of let it sit there and then bring him back when you need them they keep practicing and so we were well practiced at sea and we accomplished some remarkable victories that Boyd the nation when the land campaign was going so badly it also gave us our national anthem it did during the invasion of Washington we had suffered a moment of great national embarrassment that the British would come and burn our public buildings but as they headed back toward the Chesapeake where the fleet awaited they organized an attack on Baltimore and it was a remarkable success for the Americans the British attack failed we killed the British commander and Francis Scott Key who by chance was watching this whole event from a ship in the harbor wrote the national anthem and the war of 1812 finally ends with a treaty a treaty that's actually signed before the Battle of New Orleans but we like to think that was still important well it was important because we had toward the end of the war been having more success on land even though the British were now sending large numbers of troops over here our generals were now in a new generation improving more successful that sort of capped the idea that the United States could be a power on land as well as on the water and so I think it was part of the war whether it came after the Treaty of Ghent or not and speaking of the whole war though was the war useless we just got back to where we started or it was the war a really important more to a thought no the people at the time called it the second war of independence and I understand why they came to regard it that way because now it was clear to everyone that the revolution wasn't just a one-off events that could be superseded by the British control in the United States once more you know it showed him as a wartime president and I think you have a wonderful phrase about it in your book that he had a genial manner but an audacity at being decisive explain that trait of Madison audacity in a very restrained way when he made a decision such as going to war for example he made sure that it was the Congress who declared it so it was audacious we'd never done anything like that before his was an interesting political personality not the kind of braggadocio and back-slapping that we all too often come to expect from politicians a restrained and intelligent manner that served him very well so was he a good president oh I think and one of the reasons that I wrote this book is because I don't think his contribution has been recognized I saw somewhere the other day that it was a ranking of presidents of a good one the people involved but he was somewhere behind zachary taylor and Grover Cleveland which is just bizarre I would rank him not above Washington of course but equal with Jefferson or perhaps even a little above and is that why you call it a life reconsidered that's part of it I think that he just has not generally not just in his presidential actions but just not generally and all his contributions been given the credit he deserves in some ways he's the intellectual foundation of our nation exactly thank you very much