Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Poor James Madison!

I see that one Michael Lind, billed as the Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is patting himself on the back for listing George Bush (43) as only the fifth worst president. But what really caught my eye was his nominee for fourth worst: none other than James Madison.

I would agree that Mr. Madison was a poor president. He got us into a war that was totally unnecessary and for which we were utterly unprepared -- not a good combination. Mr. Lind makes the case for the prosecution:

"Madison, the 'Father of the Constitution,' was a great patriot, a brilliant intellectual -- and an absolutely abysmal president. In his defense, the world situation during the Napoleonic Wars was grim. The United States was a minor neutral nation that was frequently harassed by both of the warring empires, Britain and France. But cold geopolitics should have led Washington to prefer a British victory, which would have preserved a balance of power in Europe, to a French victory that would have left France an unchecked superpower. Instead, eager to conquer Spanish Florida and seize British Canada, Madison sided with the more dangerous power against the less dangerous. It is as though, after Pearl Harbor, FDR had joined the Axis and declared war on Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

"It might have been worse. In 1812, Madison wrote Thomas Jefferson to ask what the former president thought of waging war simultaneously against Britain and France. Alarmed, Jefferson replied that this was "a solecism worthy of Don Quixote." Instead, the United States fought only the British, who torched Washington, D.C., while Madison and first lady Dolley fled to Virginia. Gen. Andrew Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans (waged two weeks after the United States and Britain, unknown to Jackson, had signed a peace treaty) helped Americans pretend that the War of 1812 was something other than a total wipe-out."

But fourth worst? Worse, for example, than Franklin Pierce, whose foolish support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act started the Union on its final descent into Civil War? Worse than Jimmy Carter, whose craven weakness earned us the contempt of the Middle East, a contempt we are still dealing with today?

Ironically, Madison's presidency illustrates the vagaries of history. In the end, Madison got very, very lucky. Great Britain got tired of the war, and the United States was blessed with canny negotiators, including Henry Clay and future president John Quincy Adams. The resulting Treaty of Ghent, negotiated without the benefit of Andy Jackson's victory at New Orleans, extricated the United States from the war on reasonable terms. In the aftermath of Jackson's victory, the United States perceived itself as the victor. They had fought the British to a draw, or better, and shown themselves to be a power to be reckoned with.

Should Madison get the credit, as well as the blame? On the one hand, he really doesn't deserve it. But on the other, the fact is things turned out well. So long as Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and others (Steven Decatur, Oliver Hazard Perry and Winfield Scott, for example) are not deprived of their shares, perhaps poor James Madison may have some too.

For further reading, I heartily recommend
Gary Wills' brief book on Madison's presidency. Wills pulls no punches recounting Madison's numerous blunders, but in the end appreciates him for all his failings.

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