President James Madison
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President James Madison

James Madison (1751-1836) was the principal architect of the United States Constitution, the Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson, and the fourth president of the United States. During the Revolution, he helped draft Virginia's state constitution and served in the Continental Congress. In the years immediately following the war, he grew convinced of the domestic and international disasters that would follow unless the national government was reformed, and therefore joined those calling for a constitutional convention. He teamed with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to publish the Federalist Papers. After the Constitution's ratification, he served in the United States Congress from 1789 to 1797.

In June 1812, convinced of the inevitability of war against Britain, President Madison sent a message to Congress listing British violations of U.S. neutrality rights, including the presence of British ships in American waters and the impressment of American sailors. Britain repealed the Orders in Council, its aggressive naval policy, but it was too late. Congress had already passed a declaration of war, and the War Hawks pushed for full engagement.

The American forces, however, were outmatched by British forces, in part because Jefferson’s party had drastically cut military expenditures and programs, leaving the U.S. forces seriously underfunded and under-trained. Nonetheless, the war ended in stalemate, mainly because the British were also occupied with events in Europe. The signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814 ended the war and restored the status quo. The treaty did not mention free trade or sailor’s rights.

Two weeks after the signing of Treaty of Ghent, but before news of the treaty had reached America, American troops won a decisive victory in the Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson’s troops defended the city, killing more than 2,000 British troops while losing only thirteen men. The timing of the Battle of New Orleans inspired the popular misconception that the U.S. had won the war and had forced the British to surrender and sign the treaty. Even without officially “winning” the war, the U.S. did succeed in protecting itself against one of the world’s premier powers, for which reason the War of 1812 has been called the “second war of independence.”