Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Foreign Affairs

Just prior to James Madison's assumption of office, Congress passed the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which replaced Jefferson's failed embargo. It allowed the resumption of world trade with the exclusion of trade with England and France, thus barring French and British vessels from American ports. In the event that one of these nations removed its restrictions against American trade, the President was empowered to remove restrictions against that country, leaving the restrictions in place against the other.

When neither country replied, Congress passed Macon's Bill No. 2, a perplexing law that removed all restrictions on American trade, including those against France and Britain, empowering the President to reimpose the restrictions on France or Britain only after one of them had repealed its restrictions on American trade and the other had failed to follow suit within three months. France met the challenge through the Cadore letter of August 1810, leading Madison to implement the provisions of Macon's Bill No. 2 in two stages, first in November 1810 and then in March 1811. The British insisted that American ships would continue to be seized until France lifted all restrictions on British trade. This proclamation essentially treated U.S. exports and the merchant marine as part of the British war strategy.

Congress voted for military preparations and, in April 1812, a ninety-day embargo. When Madison came before that body with his list of complaints against the British, which included the continued impressment of American sailors, the arming of Indians who attacked American settlers, and the trade restrictions embodied in the British Orders in Council, the House lost little time debating the issue, voting for war on June 4. The Senate, however, debated for more than two weeks and would not sanction war until June 17. In a regionally divided vote, Congress declared war on Britain the following day.

Second War for Independence

For Madison and the War Hawks, the declaration amounted to a second war of independence for the new Republic. It also provided the opportunity to seize Canada, drive the Spanish from west Florida, put down the Indian uprising in the Northwest, and secure maritime independence. In the preparations for battle, it became clear that most of the War Hawks wanted a land invasion of Canada above all else. Accordingly, the United States moved quickly to mount an offensive against Canada. The plan was aimed at separating Upper Canada (Ontario) from the Northwest, thus cutting off the Shawnees, Potawatomi, and other pro-British tribes from British support. Unfortunately, the move ended in disaster for American forces. By the fall of 1812, one American force had surrendered at Detroit, another had been defeated in western New York near Niagara Falls, and a third never even managed to get across the Niagara River. In just a few months, much of the Northwest Territory had fallen to British forces.

Things went better for the Americans in the spring of 1813. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory over the British fleet on the southwestern tip of Lake Erie, following the sacking of the Canadian capital city of York (present-day Toronto), enabled the United States to send a force commanded by William Henry Harrison, who would become the ninth President of the United States, against the Native American leader, Tecumseh, at the Battle of the Thames River in western Ontario. A vengeful force of Kentucky militia beat the Indians badly. The following spring, General Andrew Jackson's Tennessee militia, aided by Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee allies, slaughtered what was left of the late Tecumseh's forces at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, deep in the Mississippi Territory (present-day Alabama).

Burning of the White House

Events swung back against the Americans in late spring of 1814 as the British, who had now defeated Napoleon, went on the offensive. British ships raided American ports from Georgia to Maine, occupying half the district of Maine in the process. They also launched an invasion down the Champlain Valley that was repelled after an American naval victory on Lake Champlain in September 1814. British forces were more successful in targeting the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. The seat of American government fell, with British troops torching the White House and most other federal buildings in retaliation for the burning of the Canadian Parliament buildings in York. Their offensive stalled in Baltimore, however, as they were unable to blast their way past Fort McHenry. It was this battle, in fact, that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," which became the American national anthem in the 1930s.

Victory at New Orleans

Next, the British turned their attention to New Orleans, hoping to use the city as a bargaining chip in the coming peace negotiations. A massive British Army of 6,000 soldiers moved against the city, which was protected by Andrew Jackson's diverse command of 4,000 regular soldiers, Kentucky and Tennessee militia, and New Orleans citizens, including many free blacks and slaves and nearly 1,000 French pirates. When the British charged across an open field a few miles below the city on January 8, the entrenched Americans laid down such heavy fire that 2,000 Redcoats fell dead within minutes. Those who survived the first blast simply threw down their weapons and withdrew. Only seventy Americans died. Unbeknownst to either army, the battle came two weeks after a peace treaty had been signed in Ghent, Belgium.

Repercussions of War

Although Madison fared poorly during the war, the victories against Tecumseh and at New Orleans lifted American spirits and returned Madison to a high point of public respect. If nothing else, the war swelled national pride, broke the Indian threat in the Northwest, and reaped tremendous political benefits for those lucky enough to have fought and survived. The Battle of the Thames River alone, for example, was used to produce a President of the United States (Harrison), a vice president, three governors of Kentucky, three lieutenant governors, four U.S. senators, and twenty congressmen. General Jackson, moreover, emerged as a genuine war hero, equal in public esteem to George Washington. The 2,200 dead Americans undoubtedly left behind families proud of the men who had won the Second American Revolution.

Not all Americans, however, had wrapped themselves in the flag of patriotism. New England states seldom met their quotas of militiamen, and many New England merchants and farmers traded freely with the enemy. After the British offensive included northern ports, some New England Federalists talked about seceding from the Union. In an attempt to block secessionist sentiment, moderate Federalists called a convention in Hartford, Connecticut, to propose a series of constitutional amendments protecting sectional rights. The convention leaders brought their proposals to Washington just as news broke of the Battle of New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent. To most of the nation, the participants of the Hartford Convention looked like traitors, or at least unpatriotic troublemakers. Their antiwar criticism and regional concerns helped to doom the weakened Federalist Party as a national entity on the political scene.