It’s finally time for another election without an incumbent president! The two pillars of American partisanship, Hamilton and Jefferson, were gone. What was next for America?
The Last Four Years
Thomas Jefferson’s second term wasn’t nearly as smooth as his first. While the nation had been enjoying the peacetime economic boom, tensions were starting to rise again with Europe. Of course, Britain and France were at war again. This led to, you guessed it, more naval spats that threatened the US’s neutrality. Again, the British pulled the pretty dickish move of attacking American ships and impressing their crew to serve in the Royal Navy. They were searching for British deserters, but often took American citizens, as well.
The most infamous conflict was dubbed the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. In 1807, the British blockade of French ships led them to the American coast. From those ships, many deserters had left to join the American military. A British ship with the badass name, the HMS Leopard, suspected that the USS Chesapeake was harboring several of these deserters, as it sailed off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. After the Chesapeake refused to comply with a search warrant, the Leopard fired its cannons at them. Three were killed and eighteen were wounded. The Leopard sent a boarding party, who captured four deserters, only one of which was an actual British citizen. The attack was a huge embarrassment to America. Not only did the Leopard terrorize our ship, but it did so right off the coast of Virginia! Many Americans were already calling for war. But, by definition, it was too soon for the War of 1812.
Jefferson didn’t respond with war. He didn’t want to exert the power of the federal government in that way. Plus, the British military was strong and we might not be able to beat them a second time. Instead, Jefferson chose the more passive-aggressive route, an embargo! The Embargo Act of 1807 prevented all foreign trade for Americans. Jefferson hoped that cutting them off from the sweet, sweet US market would hurt the British like it had in the lead up to the Revolution. But he wasn’t so lucky. The embargo was tough on the American economy, both for northern manufacturers and for southern farmers. Many saw it as an overstep by the government and an infringement of their rights. Smuggling was rampant and, in the end, it didn’t sway the British or French to play nice.
On domestic issues, Jefferson made a surprisingly big move against slavery by outlawing foreign slave trade. Though he himself owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life, he believed it was an immoral and dying institution (as did most founding fathers). The Constitution guaranteed that no federal law would inhibit slavery for the first twenty years of its governance. With that time frame over, Jefferson saw a moment to act. He wanted to hinder the growth of slavery, since the upcoming generation of politicians were not as eager to end it as he had imagined. The law went into effect at the beginning of 1808. Jefferson had huge moral failings when it came to slavery, but he deserves some credit here. It was a huge step towards ending the practice at the time, though we all know that the issue was far from over.
George Washington gets a lot of credit for starting the two-term only trend, but no tradition is good until a second person joins in. Jefferson followed his lead and decided to step down after his second term, reaffirming that the presidency was not meant to be a life-long appointment for the power hungry.
The Embargo Act was understandably unpopular, as was Jefferson’s overall strategy to avoid war with Europe. The Republicans saw the embargo as a power grab by the executive branch. On the other side of the aisle, the Federalists believed Jefferson was too weak to handle the European war. Not to mention, he was buddy-buddy with the annoying French! Jefferson’s shaky popularity reinvigorated the dying Federalist party. While the embargo hurt all aspects of the American economy, New England sea merchants (already Federalist-leaning) specifically felt that it was part of the southern plot against them.
You may already have an idea about which way this election was going to swing, but 1808 did introduce one exciting new feature, a contested party caucus! The Republicans had been using the caucus system to determine their candidate for several election cycles at this point, but it had always been a sure win for Thomas Jefferson. Now, the party nomination was up for grabs. The favorite was James Madison. He was Jefferson’s right-hand-man and the current Secretary of State.
But not all Republicans were happy with Madison as the nominee. The Republicans that were opposed to Jefferson (and by extension, his bro Madison) were called the Tertium Quids, meaning “a third something,” in Latin. The Quids supported two other candidates, Ambassador to Britain James Monroe, and Vice President George Clinton. Monroe recently had a falling out with Madison, following the break down of the Monroe-Pinkney Treaty (half-namesake William Pinkney was surprisingly not related to brothers Thomas and Charles C Pinckney). The Treaty would have been an extension of the Jay Treaty, which had prevented war between the US and Britain under Washington’s administration. Since Jefferson had opposed the original treaty as Washington’s Secretary of State, he refused to bring Monroe’s new version to the senate. Thus, Monroe became the face of intra-party opposition, who thought they could also attract some displaced Federalists in the general election.
Luckily for the Jeffersonians, Madison overcame Monroe’s challenge and won the Republican nomination. James Madison was a Virginian and a slave owner, much like Jefferson. He was short and had a small frame, but he had a big resume. He helped create the Virginia Plan, which became the framework for the Constitution. He then wrote the Federalists Papers with Alexander Hamilton to promote its ratification. Madison won a competitive seat in the House of Representatives, beating James Monroe (for the first time!) in a district that had been drawn to dilute his chances (one of the first instances of Gerrymandering, before it had a name!). To fulfill the campaign promises that won him the election, he wrote the Bill of Rights. As Hamilton became increasingly extreme in his quest to give the federal government more power, Madison joined up with Jefferson to found the Democratic-Republicans. Madison later became Jefferson’s Secretary of State, and ultimately, was the one to secure the Louisiana Purchase. Needless to say, Madison had a profound effect on virtually every aspect of American government. But while he had plenty of his own merits to stand on, all in all, a vote for Madison was a vote for a third term of Jefferson.
For vice president, the Republicans kept the current office holder, George Clinton, on the ticket to secure the northern vote.
The Federalists, on the other hand, looked at Madison’s long list of accomplishments and decided to RE-NOMINATE recent presidential losers Charles C. Pinckney and Rufus King. Despite Pinckney’s huge 1804 loss, the Federalists felt that Jefferson had weakened his party just enough to make the Pinckney dream come true. They deserved to lose this one.
While the 1808 election wasn’t quite the blow out that 1804 was, the country was still decidedly behind the Republicans. Only New England let their contempt for the Embargo Act sway their vote.
James Madison takes it! The final tally was 122-47. He became the fourth president of the United States. And George Clinton also won for vice president! Making him one of only two VPs ever to serve under two different presidents.
What Did It Say About America?
Despite Jefferson’s rough second term, The Republicans were still on top. Although things were heating up with Europe, they had faith that Madison would pull us through!
Was It The Right Decision?
Yeah, I’d say so. Of course, he was another slave owner. But the Federalists weren’t really offering another option, at this point. Madison was such an important architecture of the American government structure, that he was destined to lead it someday. Compared to Monroe, though? Well, that remains to be seen. Jefferson and Madison probably should have taken Monroe’s treaty more seriously, because the War of 1812 was on the horizon.