Thursday, January 24, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Four, Wrong Man Wrong War

Just to note: Sober Nate Silver recently posted a statistical review of Presidential popularity to determine how a two-term President would fare by historians' measurements during the second term.  Not much to relate to the ongoing character series I'm doing here, just noting it for people with an interest in Presidential history.

That said, time to move onto our fourth Federal foreman, our fearless Founder James Madison.

This was the guy when it came to the creation of the Constitution.  It was his "Virginia Plan" that formed the basis of most of the final product: he had a hand in the writing of the legal language in the document itself: he was a key defender of the final product - alongside Hamilton and John Jay - being one of the contributors to the Federalist Papers.  You would think Madison would prove one of our more effective Presidents, someone who knew the system well enough to manage and moderate it, forging a term of office that would rank among the top five ever.

Re-review that link to Silver's article.  It has James Madison at 15th overall ranking by historians.  And to be honest, that's a bit high.  Mostly because two-term Presidents get more positive views by historians (save the more glaring disasters like Nixon, Coolidge, and Bush the Lesser) while one-termers get more unflattering judgments.

Why am I dissing a guy ranked at 15th as overrated?  Mostly because his actual performance as President left a bit to be desired.

If you look back at the first three guys I've reviewed for character, you'll note a common thread: the push for war.  Europe had been ablaze for decades as a consequence of the American rebellion, especially France and Great Britain being at each others' throats during both the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Empire.  Each of the new Presidents - Washington, Adams, Jefferson - had to cope with the foreign policy nightmare of getting entangled with an overseas war that our young nation could ill afford.  Sheer logistics aside - the thing that hampered England and France during the American tussles - the fledgling United States had been working on stabilizing our finances at home and with our overseas trading.  The one war we did get into - the Barbary Coast War during Jefferson's tenure - was against an overseas power that was par to the nation's strengths and over specific grievances that hampered our Mediterranean trade.

All other times, our Presidents kept us out of war on Europe, a large-scale enterprise involving tens of nations and millions of lives that showed little sign of ending thanks to the revolutionary zeal of France at the beginning and then later the military skill and conquering hunger of Napoleon.  Washington did so because of his Passive-Negative character (note well his farewell address begging America to avoid all permanent alliances).  Adams' Active-Negative character made him intelligent enough to know how hard a war would be, and worried enough about his legacy to avoid starting something he couldn't finish.  Jefferson's Active-Positive sentiments allowed him to be open-minded and capable of trying alternative solutions, hence the Embargo acts that actually did no good.

Problem was, during all those years the pressure from other politicians (and sometimes from the public at large) to go to war grew.  A boiling pot of resentments and outrages at various actions by Great Britain or France (sometimes both) driving the popular mood into a war-hawk mentality.

Into this came a Passive-Positive president like Madison.

The one word to describe P-Ps... uh, that doesn't sound so good, let's stick with Pass-Pos's... anyway, the word is Compliant: they are amenable, well-liked, have low-self-esteem masked by outward friendly behavior.  Like Passive-Negative brethren, the Pass-Pos reacts to situations rather than lead or innovate. These are the types of guys you'd want running the farm when the farm's operating in the black, everybody knows their roles and are competent at those jobs, and there's no sign of oncoming drought or famine for the next, oh, twenty years or so.  In short, this is a Caretaker.

For all of Madison's work getting the Constitution created, it wasn't always his initiative driving him to do it, nor any ambition on his part to lead.  Madison's mentor was Jefferson, to whom a lot of Madison's ideas originated and toward whom Madison dedicated a lot of work.  The name on the Virginia Plan was Edmond Randolph, not Madison (even though most knew Madison was the primary source).  Madison was bright, well-educated, capable... but he answered to and sought approval from so many others.

What this meant was that sooner or later under his administration the push for war by the War-Hawks (an actual yet informal group in Congress: this is where John C. Calhoun pops up, the bastard) would finally give way.  It didn't help that the causes for war - ongoing British impressment of sailors off American ships, growing frontier tensions with the natives and with Spanish and British colonists along the borders - were still hot topics by Madison's first term of office.  It also didn't help that the War-Hawks were primarily a generation that had come of age and political influence after the American Revolution: they had little first-hand experience with war and didn't realize what the costs would be.  For example, a good number of the Hawks believed invading Canada and seizing it as more territory for the US of A would be sweet, simple, and quick.  Whatever wisdom Washington, Adams and Jefferson had that kept us out of war was in short supply with Madison, who followed more than led.

Madison began the War of 1812 with almost no Army and a small Navy.  Most manpower had to be raised by the states through their militias - say hello to the militia provision of the Second Amendment, by the by - and in terms of supplies and organization the United States wasn't ready one bit.  Another problem was that during all this time the national military had failed to churn out competent army leadership: most high-ranking officers were political appointments with almost little experience.  The state-organized militia leadership wasn't any better (and in a lot of cases, worse).  A more Active President might have made sure he had the right men leading his army first before declaring a war: Madison, well...

Hampering the war effort was the fact that the states and the population were NOT unified in their interest in going to war.  The states of New England, still pro-British and still pro-let's-not-do-anything-to-mess-with-trade, refused to raise militias as needed to help with any invasion of Canada.  Madison had little political influence: being a Southern and Democrat-Republican, he wasn't too popular with the Federalist-led New England populus.  Any decent war-time President (usually an Active) would tell you: get ALL the people rallied to the cause first, then declare war.  (I will grant that this was the first time a President had to do such a thing: Madison had no guide-book to follow)

For those who slept through this part of the history classes: the War of 1812 did not go well for the Americans.  Canada was NOT an easy pick as the War-Hawks believed: in fact, the war brought out a nationalist fervor in Canadians that led them to defend their commonwealth home (still a colonial holding at the time to the British) with enough determination and victories to provide a basis of pride and identity (Canadians remember this war with pride the way they remember with pride their service in World War II).  The British weren't even interested in fighting the first fourteen months of this war, due to focusing on Napoleon and European warfare instead.  Once Napoleon abdicated after his failures in Russia, Great Britain finally sent major forces into Canada and the United States.  This is the point where British troops seasoned against the likes of Napoleon's best faced American civilian militias that fled the battlefield faster than jackrabbits fleeing from hunting dogs.

During all this time, Madison and his Cabinet continued to mismanage the war.  Lacking the skills of an Active President, Madison kept relying on people still eager for war and failing to recognize better need of logistics and organization.  Over-reliance on militias that kept proving themselves unable to stay on the field longer than 30 seconds left Washington DC itself undefended in August 1814, leading to the great embarrassment of the British occupying our nation's capitol and burning nearly every building to the ground.  Only an organized defense of Baltimore by officers who had enough military experience to know what they were doing staved off complete defeat.

British indifference to the whole war - plus the fact that both sides kept winning then losing battles preventing any momentum - was pretty much the only reason the Treaty of Ghent was completed.  The causes of the war - naval impressment, native uprisings along the frontier - were long done: England finished its war on Napoleon and had no need of impressment; the war itself killed off much of the hard-line Indian leadership like Tecumseh and essentially pacified the native tribes of the Great Lakes region.  Canadian resistance to invasion proved the War-Hawks wrong and ended most thoughts of warring with our northern neighbors (save for one more territorial issue, will cover it later).  The treaty itself retained the status quo: all occupied areas reverted back to original ownership.  The only significant change was that the United States got British (formerly Spanish) Florida out of the deal, which made sense to the British giving up a tempting piece of territory that the southern slave states would want sooner or later.

The only reason any American would remember the War of 1812 is the final battle, the great victory at the Battle of New Orleans... which historians will always note came two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent only because ship travel kept news of the treaty for another four weeks or so.  The British practically don't remember the war at all, a mere afterthought to the struggle against Napoleon.  Canadians, as mentioned earlier, remember every victory like they were hockey scores. ;-)

There was little else to say or note about Madison's two terms.  The war dominated most of the administration's focus, especially during the second term.  Most of the sound and fury during the war - the War-Hawk drum beats, the New England Federalist refusal to fight - pretty much died off on their own accord, not due to any influence on Madison's part.  In terms of political issues, Madison retained enough of a Republican view of federalism to veto a major roads and canals bill, yet was open to Federalist ideas of financial policy that retained the federal banking system and high tariffs that favored the New England business interests.

So why am I down on Madison as a Passive-Positive?  He was the wrong man for the wrong war.  Being Positive made him think well of things (relying on militias and not a standing army as the Founders hoped) without considering the consequences or think long-term: being Passive made him rely on the wrong people (War-Hawks) pushing for what needed to be done.  A Negative-inclined President would have paused before bending to a war cause or at least started the war on his terms rather than the War-Hawks' (who had no clue of how to wage war themselves); an Active-inclined President would have avoided war (Active-Negative) or at least made a more energized effort to get it organized and find competent leadership (Active-Positive).

So there we have the first four Presidents, and four examples of what each Character entails as promised from the first time I mentioned this (during my rant about Romney being a Passive-Negative).  Next up: James Monroe, and I'm gonna let you readers start guessing which Character he is.  C'mon, leave me some comments guessing (or at least showing me you're reading other resources on James David Barber's work on Presidential history).  C'mon, I dares ya.

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