James Madison: The American Franchise

James Madison: The American Franchise

In 1810, the most populous state in the Union was Virginia, with 975,000 people, followed by New York (959,000), Pennsylvania (810,000), and North Carolina (556,000). The newest state, Ohio, which was admitted to the Union in 1803, held 231,000 people, nearly reaching the population of New Jersey (246,000). In addition to the seventeen states, five western areas had been designated as territories: Michigan (5,000), Illinois (12,000), Louisiana-Missouri (20,000), Indiana (25,000), and Mississippi (31,000). Two other regions, Alabama (9,000) and Arkansas (1,000), also had significant populations. Almost all of these new western lands supported Madison and strongly supported the War of 1812.

Emergence of the New West

Despite the fact that these western territories held only about 2.5 percent of the nation's total population in 1810, they were destined to yield great political influence: their populations had great potential for growth while the territories themselves could be divided into numerous states. Understandably, over the next generation, this potential western vote captured political attention and dominated the national agenda. A whole new breed of politicians emerged in these years, men dedicated to representing the "new West" by supporting cheap and even free land (Homestead legislation), internal improvements, and Indian removal. In his State of the Union address in 1815, Madison proposed support for Henry Clay's American System, which embraced policies designed to tie the East to the West in a national market. These policies included a national bank, protective tariffs, and a national system of roads. Ironically, all three of these items had first been proposed by Hamilton and opposed by the Democratic-Republicans in the 1790s.

Decline of Federalist Power

During the Madison presidency, the Democratic-Republicans dominated Congress. In the four congressional terms, the Federalists never held more than 31 percent of the membership of the House of Representatives and the Senate. By the end of Madison's term of office, the Federalist Party had lost its status as a national political organization. Even Abigail Adams, the wife of Federalist President John Adams, declared her support for Madison in 1812.

Unifying the Country: Heroes and Transportation

Although most Americans still farmed and the poor condition of roads continued to isolate them from one another, a new bond of unity linked much of the nation together in the Madison years. For all the opposition of the New England region to the War of 1812, almost all other Americans looked with pride upon the exploits of Generals William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. When Commodore Oliver Perry defeated the British squadron on the Great Lakes, a new seam in the national fabric was stitched into place.

Travelers, moreover, still walked westward on foot more often than they rode. It took weeks and months to move slaves from upstate Virginia overland and across the mountains, following old Indian trails, to link up to the Natchez Trace for a final journey to the slave markets in Natchez or New Orleans. Yet the signs were everywhere that changes in transportation would create a new electorate less regional and less isolated. In 1815, for example, a stagecoach company advertised a regular thirty-six-hour run between Boston and New York City. And Robert Fulton's newly invented steam-powered paddle wheelers would soon be adapted for use on inland rivers; this was an innovation that would usher America into a veritable transportation revolution, bonding the nation together into a national market that would only be broken by civil war.

Issue of Slavery

Slavery had not yet become the ultimate test of regional identity when Madison took office. Indeed, in 1810, no one in the nation would have believed that a tremendous upsurge in the world demand for cotton, which would divide the nation into half slave and half free by 1830, was just around the corner. Most Americans applauded the newly enforced end to the importation of slaves from Africa, which occurred in 1808 and was facilitated by U.S. ships that patrolled the southern ports. It had become respectable, moreover, for southern slave masters like James Madison to support the American Colonization Society's plan to transport blacks back to Africa as the solution to the so-called race problem in America. In 1816, when Madison left office, the American electorate was, for the most part, of one mind about most things. It would, however, be a short-lived unity.