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James Madison.

[Detail] James Madison.

The New Nation and Foreign Relations

When Thomas Jefferson won the contested presidential election of 1800, Madison served in his cabinet as Secretary of State until 1808, when he was elected to succeed Jefferson as president.

Madison inherited serious economic and foreign relations problems resulting from the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts. These laws had been enacted in response to actions by the two warring countries—Great Britain and France—that made foreign trade dangerous at best and virtually impossible at worst. These two acts stopped trade with those nations, which hurt American businesses. Great Britain had angered Americans by impressing American sailors—taking them off U.S. ships and forcing them into the British Navy on the grounds that they were British deserters, further enflaming Americans by firing on the U.S. ship the Chesapeake in American waters in 1807, killing three sailors and injuring 18 others.

President Madison wrote Jefferson on October 19, 1810, responding to information that France had taken steps to improve relations with the United States. He expressed the hope that the British would do likewise. He commented on the acquisition of West Florida and expressed recognition that the annexation may "…bring on not a triangular, but quadrangular contest."

The U.S. annexation of West Florida (currently the lower regions of the states of Mississippi and Alabama), resurrected a number of outstanding issues with the British. Madison discussed those issues, a few days after the correspondence with Jefferson, in a letter to William Pinkney, special envoy to Britain. Madison asserted the rights of the United States to territory and warned that the nation would not permit any attempt by the British or other European state to annex East Florida or the island of Cuba. He concluded the letter with an observation regarding the Congressional elections and the weakening of the "British Party" in the United States.


A year later, in a private letter to Joel Barlow, American diplomat in France, Madison discussed the continuing restrictive French and British policy regarding neutral rights on the seas. He expressed some agitation about how slowly the British were settling reparations for the Chesapeake Affair and suggested that it was nothing more than a "diplomatic ruse."

  • According to Madison, how serious was British and French interference with American shipping?
  • Why did he believe that the annexation of West Florida might result in war?
  • Why was Madison unwilling to have Florida or Cuba fall under the influence of the British or other European nations?

In 1812, with American merchants suffering because of trade restrictions and the British showing no signs of changing their policy towards the United States, Madison asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain. The war continued for two years, with limited success for the United States. Correspondence from July 1814 indicates that Madison and others were concerned about an attack on Washington, D.C. In August 1814, the British attacked Washington, D.C., burning and looting government buildings.

Read Madison's August 24, 1814, diary entry, in which he describes the meeting with cabinet members at Bladensburg, Maryland, a few miles northeast of the capital. Madison writes of the hostility in the capital to the president and especially towards his Secretary of War, General John Armstrong. Five days later, on August 29, 1814, the President documents conversations with Armstrong regarding war plans. The entry reveals the low morale of the militia and the officer corps' firm opposition to Armstrong. He further remarks that officers "would tear off their epaulets if Genl. Armstrong was to have any thing to do with them."

  • What reasons did Madison note for the opposition to General Armstrong? How did Madison himself seem to view Armstrong's job performance?
  • How did Armstrong respond to Madison's "frank conversation"?
  • What similarities and differences do you see between administration politics in the Madison era and in later periods in U.S. history?

The War of 1812 ended with a treaty signed in December 1814, although General Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British at New Orleans did not occur until January 1815. The war itself achieved little. With the end of the war between Great Britain and France, many of the problems that had caused economic and diplomatic woes for the United States also ended.