Our favorite Constitution author, James Madison, was going for a repeat win. But, as you may be aware, the War of 1812 started in 1812! It’s America’s first wartime election! And you better believe it complicated Madison’s chances.
The Last Four Years
I think the War of 1812 isn’t remembered well because there weren’t a lot of big MOMENTS that stick out in our historical memory. There were several reasons for the war, none of which incite the usual “Fuck yeah, America!” brand of war-time patriotism. There was never a turning point moment where war was inevitable, Madison just sort of gave into pressure, after hoping for a diplomatic resolution.
Perhaps the most justifiable reason for war was the aggression of the British Navy towards American merchant ships. The British continued their practice of impressment on the sailors they captured from American boats. They were looking for deserters, but if a few American citizens accidentally got taken too, who cares? The sea’s a crazy place, right? With Jefferson’s hugely unpopular Embargo Act repealed, Madison attempted to offer trade to Britain and France only if they agreed to stop messin’ around with American shipping. But the British were too riled up from the Napoleonic Wars to follow through. The attacks continued and war became inevitable.
The other major cause for the war was land and expansionism. Many Americans believed it would be easy to take Canada from the British. What were they gonna do, attack us with hockey sticks and syrup? Obviously, the more land America could conquer, the better. It was a theme consistent with the Jeffersonian plan for an agrarian society. Americans also wanted to secure the lands of West Florida, which was disputed territory with Spain, a British ally. America believed it should have been included the Louisiana Purchase, but the French had made an iffy agreement to return the land to Spain. Many Americans believed that a war with Britain would pressure Spain to withdraw its claim.
In correlation to the America’s increasing thirst for more land was confrontations with the Native Americans who already lived on that land. As settlers kept moving in to the Northwest territory, they were encroaching even more on the Native Americans’ homes. Some Native Americans were fighting back. The British saw this opportunity to hinder American “progress” and supplied guns to the Native American fighters. The violence got worse and Americans were pretty pissed that the British would interfere in their racism.
All of these issues led Madison to ask Congress to declare war in June of 1812, a few months before the election.
As with any conflict, there were doves and hawks. Literally, the term “war hawk” was coined in reference to the faction of Republicans that were pro-War of 1812. And it wasn’t just because time had finally reached the titular year for the war. All the reasons I listed above could be boiled down to fighting for America’s sense of HONOR. The British were making us look like fools out there in the ocean! And all land in the Americas should be ours if we want it! Back off, Europe!
Of course, some Republicans still believed war was a slippery slope to bigger government. They opposed the war and criticized the aggressive war hawks. Similarly, many New Englanders (traditionally Federalists) were feeling the economic hardship of war with Europe, since they relied on foreign trade the most. They felt that the French-loving Republicans should get over their beef with Britain so trading could resume.
The Federalists were pretty much done trying to win the presidency, at this point. Without any real national leadership, they didn’t have a strong chance to be competitive. There was some interest in nominating Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall (who continued to not have better things to do, apparently). But there was another path to victory. The Federalists aligned with some distraught Republicans to nominate a split ticket candidate!
That’s where DeWitt Clinton came in. Clinton was another Republican challenging Madison in the general election. He believed he could build a winning coalition of Madison-haters, both Republicans and Federalists. Clinton was a New York politician and the nephew of the recently deceased vice president, George Clinton. He offered voters a chance to end the southern dominance of the presidency. So far, one-term John Adams had been the only non-Virginian president! John Marshall would have been a strong choice for the Federalists, but he and Clinton were both from swing-state New York, and they couldn’t risk splitting the vote.
Buuuuut Clinton was kind of two-faced. To northern merchants, he argued against the war that threatened their trade routes. To war hawk southerners and land-hungry frontiersman, he argued in its favor. Basically, he’d say whatever he had to in order to become president. While the Federalists didn’t formally endorse him, he chose Federalists Jared Ingersoll as his running mate to form a split-ticket candidacy.
With Madison’s OG VP, George Clinton, dead and buried, Madison needed a replacement. This time, he picked Massachusetts politician Elbridge Gerry.
You might recognize Elbridge Gerry’s name, and that’s because he did something bad. As governor of Massachusetts, Gerry approved a redistricting of his state that rigged the state senate elections in favor of his party, the Republicans. The Federalist press in Boston called him out on it and created the term “gerrymandering,” in reference to one contorted, salamander-shaped district he had created. It should be noted, however, that Elbridge’s last name was actually pronounced like “Gary,” making gerrymanding the old-timey version of GIF vs JIF.
DeWitt Clinton did manage to win his home state of New York, but he couldn’t pull in the other major swing state, Pennsylvania. A few true Federalists that couldn’t stomach supporting Clinton gave their votes to former VP candidate Rufus King, but it wasn’t enough to earn any electors. Madison predictably swept the south.
With an electoral score of 128-89, James Madison won again! He became the third president to earn a second term (of only four total!).
What Did It Say About America?
Although a lot of people were critical of Madison’s handling of the conflict with Britain, consistency in head-of-state during wartime was important to Americans. Madison was a big name and intra-party squabbles weren’t enough to take him out.
Was It The Right Decision?
Yeah. Clinton was an opportunist who didn’t seem to take real sides in this election. It’s too difficult to say if he would have fared better with the War of 1812. Although, it should be noted that he was not a slave owner, unlike Madison. Clinton went on become governor of New York and is most famous for overseeing the construction of the Erie Canal.
Madison was a smart guy, but he had a tough road ahead of him. It was looking like the War of 1812 would turn into the Wars of 1813, 14, and 15.