The waging of war is the greatest challenge any person in national authority can face. It is an all-consuming task. It is an undertaking that can destroy both leader and nation. Of all governments, Constitutional Republics face the greatest challenge. Conscripting armies, rationing materials, the issuing and obeying of unquestionable orders; all of these go against the very nature of a Constitutional republic. In a time where national sovereignty is at stake, it is tempting to overlook the importance of core principles such as the consent of the governed and rule of law. How many republics across the globe have transitioned into military dictatorships that started as temporary states of emergency? As Abraham Lincoln so famously reflected in Gettysburg in 1863, “…we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived (in liberty) and so dedicated can long endure…”
Challenging a leader in time of war walks the fine line between democracy and undermining the war effort. The prospect for a wartime election was inevitable in our Constitution’s provision for a short four-year term for the Commander-in-Chief. Lincoln handled this admirably, when in 1864 he was challenged by none other than George McClellan, a Union General that Lincoln had relieved of command earlier in the war. Franklin Roosevelt also prevailed in a wartime re-election, earning an unprecedented fourth term. Richard Nixon easily prevailed in 1972 in a contest against “peace” candidate George McGovern. Most recently, George W. Bush won re-election over John Kerry in 2004 in the midst of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In wartime elections, the incumbents usually make the successful case that wartime is not the time to oust incumbents. As Lincoln’s 1864 campaign slogan famously said, “Don’t change horses in midstream.” Opponents during these elections usually take the tact that they would be able to run the war more efficiently than the incumbent, while carefully trying to avoid any criticism of the military which would come off as unpatriotic.
However much more we remember the great tribulations of Civil War and the masterful statesmanship of Lincoln, his administration was not the first so tested to preserve the republic’s democratic nature during wartime. In the closing months of James Madison’s first term, only the sixth term since the ratification of the Constitution, war came to the United States. Great Britain pursued a hostile policy toward the United States on the high seas; ignoring the flag and seizing cargos and crews at will. This led to the Non-intercourse Act of 1809, which cut off trade with Britain (and France) until the situation improved. By 1812 the situation had become unbearable. On June 1st, Madison spoke to Congress in what would become known as his “War Message.” Madison explained the many grievances against American sovereignty, and the many diplomatic steps that had been taken to resolve the issue peacefully. This is the first time an American President has made the case for war to the American people through their representatives. It became a precedent that has been followed by every wartime President since. He offered those representatives a stark choice, “Whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations and these accumulating wrongs or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights...”
The House of Representatives did, for the first time, declare war. It was far from unanimous however. A house divided by party and region, voted 98-62 in favor of war, with 14 members abstaining. All 39 House Federalists voted against the war declaration. Republicans from the south and west voted for war, but 23 Republicans from New York and New Jersey did not.
This decision to go to war was made with the re-election campaign looming large. Madison has been re-nominated little more than two weeks prior to delivering his War Message. The nomination itself was clouded by the prospect of war. Madison was forced to consider both national and political goals at the same time. The Republican “War Hawks” pressured Madison to act aggressively. Others urged caution, as Samuel Harrison of Vermont wrote to Madison on May 11th, “…You may lay aside all expectations of a new election to the presidency, if you do declare war. On this single criterion depends your support, or neglect at the ensuing election…”
Madison was nominated by a vote of the Democratic-Republican Party nominating caucus on May 18, 1812. The regional split appeared at the caucus, as third of the delegates, primarily from New England, boycotted the proceedings.
The Federalist Party, on the other hand, wanted to both avoid war and a second Madison term. The Federalists, almost solely from the New England region were weary of the “Virginia Dynasty,” which had elected four of the first five chief executives. The Federalists also felt Madison was too close to France, and too hostile towards the British, with whom they shared a mercantile interest. As former Secretary of State Timothy Pickering wrote, “…I would vote for any man in preference to Madison. I am disposed that neither Thomas Jefferson nor James Madison have dared resist the will of Napoleon; because I presume they stand committed to him.”
The Federalists feared that they did not have a candidate that could compete with Madison in a national election, so they embarked upon a radical path. The Federalists combined with the northeastern Republicans and formed the “Fusion” party ticket. They eventually settled on nominating New York’s DeWitt Clinton for President, a Republican. Clinton was seen as giving the best chance for a defeat of Madison, yet he was far from an enthusiastic choice, “No Federalist will vote for Clinton, except from the despair of getting in a federal President. It is not out of regard to him they support his pretensions, but from their utter inability to run in any man of their own side,” wrote the anonymous “Boston Patriot” in the Republican Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette on September 12, 1812.
Campaigns in the early nineteenth century were conducted in print and by surrogates, as travel was so difficult. Clinton’s New York supporters formed a “Committee of Correspondence” which issued what was basically a platform for the campaign. It did not come out completely against the war, but did not make vague statements critical about Madison’s execution of it. Madison was criticized as having taken the United States to war without adequate preparation, while Clinton would be an effective war leader, but one who would seek to end the war soon. However in New England Clinton was portrayed as a peace candidate, while in the south a strong war leader who would bring victory. This deception was denounced by Madison’s surrogates. Madison was portrayed as the natural defender of the Constitutional order; the sure hand guiding the nation in a time of crisis. The nature of the Clinton campaign turned John Quincy Adams, who would become the final Federalist President, against his fellow Federalists. Adams even pledged to be an elector on behalf of Madison, representing his home district in Massachusetts.
The Clintonites portrayed the potential re-election of Madison in the starkest terms imaginable. As the anonymous “Statesman” wrote in the Boston Weekly Messenger on November 6th, “If you have not mercy on your defenders – if you like to see human blood and national glory trifled with, go! Do all you can to support Madison…but if there remains in you bosom one single unextinguished spark of patriotism, go! Vote against him!”
The voting took place from late October until early November, yet no results were known until the first week of December, 1812. The states had fallen along regional lines, as expected. The solid south, along with Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Ohio gave their 128 electoral votes to Madison. It is worth noting that the three states outside the south were states on the front lines of the war. The other New England and Mid-Atlantic states cast their 89 electoral votes for Clinton. Madison had been re-elected. Vice President-elect Elbridge Gerry offered his congratulations to Madison on December 12, “I am happy, extremely so, in the prospect of your re-election; for the reverse of this would, in my mind have given Great Britain a complete triumph over our most meritorious administration…and would have been considered by her and probably all of Europe as a sure pledge of the revocation of our independence…”
It had been proven that our republic could withstand war politically, as well as militarily. The commander-in-chief could be publically challenged: he could respond to that challenge on a political level without using his military power, and preserve both the nation’s sovereignty and its democracy at the same time.
Sam Agami earned a M.A. in American History and Government from Ashland University, in Ohio, in 2013. He teaches Civics in the Virginia Beach City Public Schools, as he has since 1999. A native of New Rochelle, New York, he now lives with his wife, Deanna, in Norfolk, Virginia.
1 Stagg, JCA. “Miller Center.” James Madison: Campaigns and Elections-. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.
2 Harrison, Samuel. “Page 1 of Samuel Harrison to James Madison, May 11, 1812.” James Madison Collection. The Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.
3 United States presidential election of 1812 | United States government | Britannica.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-1812
4 “The Blog of 1812: “…we Do Earnestly Hope That the Respectable State of New York Will Not Uselessly Waste Her Strength and Influence on a Candidate That Cannot Succeed…”.” The Blog of 1812. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.
5 “Presidential Campaign of 1812.” RealClearHistory. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.11
6 Scott King, Quentin. “Henry Clay and the War of 1812.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.Henry Clay and the War of 1812 by Quentin Scott King
7 Weisberg, Herbert F., and Dino P. Christenson. “Changing Horses in Wartime? The 2004 Election.” BU Personal Websites. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2016.