In Honor of Veteran’s Day: President James Madison and the Little Known War of 1812

(Veterans Day: 11/11/11. 11th hour, 11th day, 11th month – 11:00 am, November 11th, end of World War I)

The Buildup to War: Kidnapping Our Sailors

In their war with each other, both France and England started interfering with American shipping. Fighting against Napoleon’s navy, Britain suffered a shortage of sailors. The British started boarding American ships and kidnapping the crews to serve in the British Navy. This was illegal and intolerable.

Madison initially resisted calls for war. He strongly opposed the debt and taxes necessary for a war effort. He declared, “Armies and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.”

But more and more Americans called for a “Second War of Independence” to restore honor and stature to the new nation. An angry public elected several prominent “war hawks” to Congress.

The Formal Declaration of War

Finally, on June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress for a formal Declaration of War. The declaration was passed along party lines. (Not surprisingly, Congress put party politics above the public’s interest. What else is new? “There is nothing new under the sun.”)

Madison assumed the war would last a couple of months. His strategy was to quickly invade and capture Canada, and use Canada as a bargain chip against Britain.

Northeast Governors Refuse to Let Their Militias Fight

Unfortunately, the governors in the Northeast refused to allow their state militias to fight in “Madison’s war.” (This is also nothing new.) With the governors undermining the president, America’s campaign against Canada ended in defeat. This led to a full blown protracted war.

Native American Indians Align with Britain

On the north western frontier, the British encouraged Chief Tecumseh to form a confederacy of two dozen tribes to drive the Americans out of the Ohio Valley. The Brits provided the Native American Indians with modern rifles, gun powder, and explosives.   

William Henry Harrison Prevails in the Ohio Valley

Madison strategically appointed William Henry Harrison to eliminate the Indian threat. Madison’s choice was brilliant. Harrison was victorious, and he became an American hero. This ultimately led to his presidency.

Andrew Jackson Prevails in the Southwest Frontier

On the south western frontier, Madison strategically appointed Andrew Jackson to defeat the Creek Indians and the British who were determined to drive the Americans out of the south. Again, Madison’s choice was brilliant.  Jackson was victorious. He also became an American hero, ultimately leading to his presidency.

The British Army Marches on Washington D.C.

When the British defeated Napoleon, they turned their full military might against America. They landed an army off the Chesapeake Bay in August 1814, and marched on Washington D.C.

As the British army approached the capital city, James Madison borrowed his secretary’s pistols and rushed to the front of the American lines.  He became the only sitting president to engage in combat with his troops. His pistols were worthless against the British long rifles and cannons. Hence, Madison helped out with an artillery battery. 

President Madison Retreats

Some historians opine that as the rockets and bullets started whistling past Madison, he panicked and fled. Other historians believe that the army forcibly escorted Madison from the front lines in order to protect the president. Whatever the truth, Madison went from the front lines to the rear, where he led the army in retreating from the city.

The U.S. Marines were left behind with orders to stall the British advance so that the president and army could retreat in safety. Grossly outnumbered, the “always faithful” valiant Marines stood their ground. They were slaughtered. None fled. None survived. But they accomplished their mission.

Dolley Madison Evacuates the White House

 In his retreat from the city, Madison had one very important unresolved detail: Dolley was waiting for him in the White House.

Confident of an American victory, Dolley Madison, ever the hostess and socialite,   prepared a celebration feast for her husband and the victorious American generals.  She anxiously waited in the White House for her husband. Dolley finally received his message, which read, in essence, “Run for your life!”

The brave Dolley kept her wits about her. She loaded two wagons full of irreplaceable government documents. She also personally saved the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.

After Feasting, British Commanders Burn the White House and Capital

When the British commanders entered the White House, they discovered the feast waiting for them. After pigging out, they burned down Dolley’s beloved White House.

They then burned the rest of the capital to the ground, except for the headquarters of the Marine Corps. Marine legend is that the British saved the Marine headquarters out of respect for the bravery the Marines had demonstrated during the battle.  

Andrew Jackson’s Victory in New Orleans

 After the burning of Washington D.C., Madison predicted that the British would try to capture New Orleans. He was right. This would block all shipping on the Mississippi River. Hence, Madison ordered Andrew Jackson to race to the defense of New Orleans.

Jackson miraculously slogged 45 miles with his troops, cannons, and supplies through the muddy Louisiana swamps in one day. This gave him time to prepare for the arrival of the Royal Navy and Army. Though outnumbered and outgunned, Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans

Peace Treaty and the War Ends in a Tie

A month later, Madison learned that his negotiators had already signed a peace treaty ending the war before the Battle of New Orleans. The war had ended in a tie. Neither side made major concessions.

Aftermath: the Era of Good Feelings

Because of the timing, most Americans believed that the Battle of New Orleans had forced the British to surrender. This is false. However, perception is often more important than reality. Andrew Jackson became a war hero, and was regarded by many as the man who won the war. 

The public perception was that America won the War of 1812.  They won this “Second War of Independence.” This put the British Empire in its place once again. America’s honor was restored, and its independence guaranteed. American was now a world power.

This perception contributed to the post-war euphoria that persisted for a decade.  Madison’s reputation as president improved. Americans finally believed the United States had established itself as a world power. This decade became known as, “the Era of Good Feelings.” It became a decade of unprecedented prosperity

Since Washington D.C. had been burned to the ground, there was a groundswell to return the capital to Philadelphia or New York City. Dolley Madison successfully defeated this movement. 

Final Points

Most Americans know little, if anything, about the War of 1812, except the composing of the national anthem

  • The war laid the foundation for the presidencies of William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson
  • The “victory” was a shot in the arm for the struggling economy
  • America could have lost it independence and been dragged back into the great British Empire. 
  • The U.S. capital might have been returned to Philadelphia or New York City. 
  • Dolley Madison’s role in saving the government documents, and the official portrait of George Washington, guaranteed her place as a hero in American history.
  • Finally, short, shy, sickly, timid, James Madison became the only president to engage in combat with his troops, which greatly enhanced his reputation.

(Sources: Personal tours of Montpelier; “James Madison,” “War of 1812,” Wikipedia; “War of 1812,” History,

(Other articles: or (“Court Case Friday,” “Historical Tuesday,” “Sunday Sermon.”)

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