Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Campaigns and Elections

The Campaign and Election of 1808

In line with the precedent established by Washington, Thomas Jefferson refused to stand for a third term, endorsing instead his friend Madison as his successor. Jefferson's wish was fulfilled by a Democratic-Republican caucus in Congress, although not without some opposition. The fifty-seven-year-old Madison, along with Jefferson's vice president, George Clinton, headed into the contest fearing the worst.

Jefferson's embargo of all trade with England and France had devastated the nation. New England states spoke openly of secession from the Union. The Federalists, convinced that they would ride the national anger to victory, renominated—without the benefit of a formal caucus—their 1804 contenders, Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina and Rufus King of New York.

Anti-Madison newspapers swung into action with stories and cartoons that ridiculed Madison's small physical stature and the controversy associated with the embargo. "Why is the embargo like sickness?" asked one critic. "Because it weakens us." More serious were the Federalist charges that Madison had supported the embargo to build up domestic manufactures at the expense of foreign trade. A strong contingent of anti-Madison Democratic-Republicans were convinced that Madison's quiet demeanor sheltered a strong Hamiltonian-Federalist—one who favored a strong central government—in disguise. It took all of Jefferson's prestige and charm to convince dissident Democratic-Republicans, who had rallied around fellow Virginian James Monroe, not to stray into the Federalist camp out of spite for Madison. Even George Clinton, who had accepted the vice presidential nomination, denounced the caucus process and announced his own candidacy for President.

By the time the electoral college delegates cast their individual ballots on December 7, few political pundits harbored any doubts about the election's ultimate outcome, though the contests in Rhode Island and New Hampshire were still shrouded in some doubt. The results announced by Congress on February 8, 1809, came as little surprise: Madison had swamped the opposition. He won 122 votes to Pinckney's 44. The hapless Clinton garnered only six electors from his home state. Madison carried twelve states to Pinckney's five, all of which were in the New England region. The Virginia dynasty had remained intact.

The Campaign and Election of 1812

In the four years from 1808 to 1812, Madison's popularity fluctuated between extreme lows and incredible highs, depending upon the state of affairs with Britain. From the moment he assumed office in 1809, Madison was consumed by Britain's continued violations of America's neutral rights at sea. Nothing he did seemed to satisfy his critics. Challenges to his alleged pro-French policies reached fever pitch in the New England states, which had been impoverished by the actions that Jefferson and Madison took to cut off trade with England.

Some congressmen from the Midwest and South, determined to drive the British from Canada and the Spanish from west Florida, called on Madison to confront British-instigated Indian attacks in the Ohio River Valley. In June 1812, Madison sent Congress a special message listing American complaints against Britain. Not a declaration of war, which offended Madison's strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, the message asked Congress to decide the proper course of action. Later that month, after much debate, the House (79 to 49) and then the Senate (19 to 13) voted the nation into the War of 1812.

Madison's nomination for a second term came just fifteen days prior to his war message to Congress. On May 18, 1812, Madison received the endorsement of congressional Democratic-Republicans in their nominating caucus. Nevertheless, roughly one-third of Republican legislators boycotted the caucus altogether, vowing not to participate in renomination of the President. For second place, the caucus chose John Langdon of New Hampshire. Langdon declined the invitation, leading the caucus to select the venerable Elbridge Gerry, the "Gentleman Democrat" from Massachusetts and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, for the vice presidency.

A rebellious group of New York Democratic-Republicans who had participated in the caucus boycott supported the mayor of New York City, DeWitt Clinton, the nephew of former Vice President George Clinton, who had died in office. Clinton supporters hoped to forge a winning coalition among Republicans opposed to the coming war, Democratic-Republicans angry with Madison for not moving more decisively toward war, northerners weary of the Virginia dynasty and southern control of the White House, and disgruntled New Englanders who wanted almost anyone over Madison. Dismayed about the prospects of beating Madison, a group of top Federalists met with Clinton's supporters to discuss a unification strategy. Difficult as it was for them to join forces, this assembly of notables nominated Clinton for President and Jared Ingersoll, a Philadelphia lawyer, for vice president.

The Clintonians, who had no official party name, tailored their message to the region and the audience. They said one thing to war Democratic-Republicans, another to peace Democratic-Republicans, and something else again to antiwar Federalists. Their tactics turned the honorable John Quincy Adams, son of the former Federalist President John Adams, against his former party colleagues. The elder Adams, in fact, not only endorsed Madison but also agreed to head Madison's electoral ticket in his home district of Quincy, Massachusetts.

While the New England and mid-Atlantic opposition gave 89 votes to Clinton, Madison carried eleven states and 128 electoral ballots. He won all the southern states as well as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Vermont. The Federalists had seriously weakened, if not completely destroyed, their status as an established party by their fusionist strategy. To be fair, it is unlikely that any other strategy would have achieved victory against a seated President waging what many at the time called the Second American Revolution. (See Foreign Affairs section for more on the Second American Revolution.) No incumbent wartime President before or since Madison has ever lost his bid for reelection.