Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War
Published: May 30, 2012
Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence by Hugh Howard
New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.
As reviewed by Ted Odenwald
The United States was not prepared to declare war against England in the War of 1812. There was little money available; there were few well-trained troops; the navy was far inferior to that of England; there was violent opposition–particularly in New England—against fighting; America’s President, John Madison, was in no way qualified to lead a nation into war. Yet Madison felt compelled to declare war. For years England had been impressing American sailors to fill the crews needed to maintain control of the seas—especially in the ongoing battles with Napoleonic France. English ships repeatedly harassed American ships in American waters. The English blockaded American ports, upsetting the flow of imports and exports. The British had incited Native Americans, Tecumseh and “The Prophet,” to attack American territories. Madison knew that his country must fight to retain its independence.
Flirting continuously with disaster, the U.S. military demonstrated that it was unprepared for any major conflict on land or sea. Seeking to attack the “soft underbelly” of Canada, a poorly led American force was humiliated at the Battle of Detroit—an ominous beginning to the war. In what was probably the worst blunder of the conflict, Secretary of War Armstrong failed to heed warnings that the bridge at Bladensburg, MD, was strategically crucial to the protection of the capital, thus leading to the destruction of Washington. The commander of Fort Warburton, responsible for stopping warships from sailing the Potomac River into Washington, gave up without firing a shot and then destroyed the fort. Even the American victory at New Orleans was tainted by the fact that the war had ended months earlier. Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the American fighting ships managed through scrappiness and good seamanship to attain several impressive, if small victories. American citizens could only boast that their commanders had provided the best quotations: “Don’t surrender the ship,” “I have not yet begun to fight,” and “We have met the enemy, and he is ours.”
Howard presents detailed accounts of James and Dolley Madison’s significant roles during this war. For the President, the war was probably the most excruciatingly painful time of his life. He was especially tormented because “he had crafted a great deal of the blueprint for the nation’s government;” but the basic foundation of that government was now threatened. The lack of troops, shortage of funds, and violent opposition from within his divided nation weakened Madison’s ability to lead. A nasty bout of yellow fever was debilitating, nearly killing him. Several of his cabinet members proved to be as incompetent as some of his key military leaders. Always a quiet, stoic, self-controlled man, he withdrew ever more deeply into a semi-depressed state as military disasters threatened political collapse.
Dolley Madison was the perfect complement for her more introverted husband. She was widely regarded as an important social and political figure: “…her instinctive gift for political gesture served [her husband] extraordinarily well; her mere presence made him more formidable.” She was called the “Presidentress” as “…she created and directed a great social enterprise that…had political overtones. She could claim dozens of dear friends and hundreds of valued acquaintances in the capital. She was accustomed to being the epicenter of the culture that changed with every season and electoral cycle.” Though she suffered greatly seeing her beautiful home and city reduced to ashes, she had the presence of mind (and the trust of her husband) to gather and safeguard important documents. She also preserved the iconic portrait of George Washington.
Howard’s research has produced incisive portraits of significant figures during the war. Among his featured characters was Comte Emile Eduardo de Villon, whose false claims to possessing documents that exposed a British conspiracy influenced America’s decision to declare war. American general William Hull’s inability to make command decisions or to act led to the disastrous defeat at Fort Detroit. Well known American warriors Stephen Decatur, Oliver Hazard Perry, and William Henry Harrison gave their country a few victories. British Vice Admiral Alexander Cockburn attacked American cities along the Eastern seaboard and was responsible for the destruction of Washington. Albert Gallatin, Madison’s Secretary of the Treasury, and his wife, Hannah, were prime political movers as well as confidants of the presidential couple. Captain Joshua Barney led a flotilla of small boats (one cannon per vessel) that effectively employed guerilla tactics against the British warships, utilizing smaller bodies of water, which afforded poor maneuverability for the much larger opponents. It was also Barney’s valiant stand at Bladensburg that slowed the British advance. Twenty-two year old Henry Carroll, secretary to peace negotiator Henry Clay, observed the friction between his master and fellow negotiator John Quincy Adams. He also witnessed evidence that the British were in no hurry to end the war, especially since Napoleon had been defeated—thus, perhaps, explaining why America was willing to settle a treaty that did not address issues that had led the countries into war: impressments of sailors, harassment of traders and fisheries, or reparations for lost goods and vessels.
The War of 1812 was not America’s greatest military endeavor. But it was important for the fledgling nation to assert itself as a sovereign entity which refused to be bullied. If the War for Independence was “…a war of our infancy,” Madison’s war “was that of our youth, and the issue of both, wisely improved, [would] long postpone, if not forever prevent, a necessity for exerting the strength of our manhood.”
Ted Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 41 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.
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