The Unimperial President

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

madisonMost wartimes presidents are not known for their preservation of civil liberties. Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and Roosevelt’s internment of Americans of Japanese descent are infamous examples. During the War of 1812, President James Madison, whether through principles or practicality, or a combination of both, set an example that no other president has followed. Biographer Ralph Ketcham deemed Madison the “unimperial president.”

The War of 1812 was, bar none, our most unpopular war. The New England states, run by Federalists, opposed the war in both word and action. Massachusetts refused to send their militia to repel a British invasion of Maine. Vermont smugglers drove herds of cattle north to Canada to feed British soldiers.

There was open talk about secession. In 1814, New England states met at the Hartford Convention to discuss an end to the national compact. Madison made no effort to prosecute Federalist newspapers or prevent the Hartford Convention.

Had Madison cracked down on the Federalists, secession and the Civil War may have started 50 years earlier. The nascent nation of Madison’s presidency required a different approach and Madison had the right temperament and philosophy at the right time.

Madison’s record on the detention of U.S. citizens by the military is the exact opposite of what we find  today. One example is the case of Samuel Stacy. Stacy was arrested by the military on July 1, 1813, as a spy and a traitor for aiding the British in their near-capture of Sackets Harbor on the New York side of Lake Ontario. Stacy petitioned the Supreme Court of New York for a writ of habeas corpus and Chief Judge James Kent issued the writ. When Major General Morgan Lewis refused to hand Stacy over to the court and sought to try him by court martial, the chief judge held Lewis in contempt, claiming that Lewis is “assuming criminal jurisdiction over a private citizen.” Madison agreed with the court that the military lacked “any color of authority” to detain Stacy and try U.S. citizens in courts martial, and on July 26, 1813, through Secretary of War Armstrong, ordered Stacy released. I find it hard to imagine Madison pushing a National Defense Authorization Act through Congress allowing for the indefinite detention of American citizens.

The late chief justice William Rehnquist, in his book All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime, saw Madison as “too weak and inert to abridge anyone’s civil liberties.” Regardless of whether Madison acted based on reasons of principle or practicality, isn’t that the point of a republican form of government? The Revolution was fought to rid ourselves of an imperial monarchy. Great pains were taken to ensure that the presidency didn’t turn into another monarchy. George Washington stepped down after only two terms when he could have become a king. Our founders paid more than lip service to our republican form of government.

It is unlikely that Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus had any effect on the outcome of the Civil War. Likewise, Roosevelt’s internment of Americans of Japanese descent had zero effect on the outcome of World War II. These suspensions of civil liberties did leave a stain on the reputations of both men.

Today we still suffer from Presidents who lack a commitment to our republican form of government. Madison’s example of a successful prosecution of a war while maintaining a commitment to civil liberties has been forgotten.

H/T: Benjamin Wittes and Ritika Singh (pdf), Ingrid Brunk Wuerth (pdf).

27 thoughts on “The Unimperial President

  1. “The late chief justice William Rehnquist, in his book All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime, saw Madison as “too weak and inert to abridge anyone’s civil liberties.”


    Blessed are the weak.

    Thanks, Nal for the article on one of my heroes.

  2. Excellent article. If only we had a news media that would more actively research what is going on and report it. We persecuted U.S Citizens in our “War” on terror simply because they looked different. Please, let’s stop this madness.

  3. Thanks David. I learned someting about Madison that I didn’t know. If only we could learn from out past! The quote from Rehnquist is very telling, considering the source!

  4. nal:

    Madison is great but so far removed from the vast number of politicians today. Most progressives would not like Madison because of his views on entitlement programs and other government spending. Probably many who call themselves conservative as well.

  5. >> The War of 1812
    >> Massachusetts refused to send their militia to repel
    >> a British invasion of Maine.

    What “British invasion”? It was the US which attacked Canada for the purpose of land acquisition (read: land theft). Jefferson stupidly advocated for it and saw the takeover of Canada as “just a matter of marching”. The US military invaded and got its collective ass handed to it, and was sent packing back to Washington.

    1812 was a war of US aggression, not British or Canadian aggression. Only the selectively ignorant, historical revisionists and the poorly educated believe otherwise.

  6. P Smith – WHY I NEVER!!

    The US has never been an aggressor! Just ask our dear friends in Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador, Viet Nam, Iraq . . . oh never mind!

    Our Northern neighbor has been very kind to allow us to forget what we tried. The lead up to the war of 1812 is fascinating and sheds interesting light on a lot of our founders, not much of it positive. It is not taught in school sadly.

    The public argument was largely won by the hawk side though as we regularly invaded Caribbean and Central American nations for the next 45 years, mostly in an effort to spread slavery against the wishes of the locals. This history is also never taught.

    As for our founders – each one of them was real person. That means they did good things and bad things. How we survived the bad things and how we used the good things has a lot more to do with dumb luck than with divine intervention. We survived some horrible Presidents (the little 5 before Lincoln, W(although if we actually survive his maladministration is yet to be seen)) and remain a net positive. But we are giving in to the angels of our worst nature. Madison’s better angel would be welcome today

  7. The War of 1812 wasn’t fought b/c the British were attacking US ships? OMG. I’ve delved into a lot of history as an adult (it was boring as could be in school), but never looked much at this war. P Smith’s post is more consist with all other US wars so I’ll check out the links provided. This just bursts my bubble of thinking I’m a fairly well educated person. Another hole of ignorance replaced!

  8. . “Two of the Massachusetts members [of Congress], Seaver and Widgery, were publicly insulted and hissed on Change in Boston; while another, Charles Turner, member for the Plymouth district, and Chief-Justice of the Court of Sessions for that county, was seized by a crowd on the evening of August 3, [1812] and kicked through the town.”

    oh if only we could do this to the war hawks today…..

    I’ve been reading the wikipedia entry on the war. It was more complex than attacking ships and annexing Canada, both contributing factors. And historians don’t agree with each other. It seems that the war between the US and Britain was bound to happen and both sides found reasons for it. Gotta read some more. History is fascinating reading and unending.

  9. Paul,

    I too wish the media acted more responsibly and actively researched some of the things that our government is doing. The liberal media bias is of course a myth that has served authoritarian types very well. My view is that
    mainstream media is big business. Big business is inherently conservative and antithetical to progressive values. Notwithstanding MSNBC and their slant, the vast majority of news media assists the dissemination of the message that those in power seek to convey. Of course those in power will do just about anything to retain it.

    As contrasted with Madison, we had “W” who couldn’t wait to declare himself a wartime president. The media failed miserably in investigating and questioning the justification for war. I guess they were to busy arranging which unit they would be embedded with. The prosecution of the war was likewise not questioned for years. Asking President Bush about an exit strategy years into the Iraq war was oftentimes answered with; I listen to the Generals, their the ones that have the knowledge of the status of the boots on the ground.

    Not once can I recall a pointed question of the President about his declaration of wholesale delegation of authority for war decisions to “the generals”. His war. The war decision of course purely political. But while it rages on and on and the American public starts to grow inpatient, suddenly the commander in chief is nothing more than a puppet for the generals and their NeoCon facilitators.

    Much like the stain on Lincoln and Roosevelt, there will forever be a historic stain on the Bush administration. The irresponsible, nee, complicit mainstream media share some of the responsibility. It is a wonderful thing that there is more easily available access to alternative news sources by way of the Internet. This blog has provided more enlightened commentary and thoughtful information in a month than is available in a year of mainstream media news broadcasts. Alternative media news sources in the final analysis may be the key to preservation of the Republic.

    I for one am damn happy that the Alts, are keeping an eye on Obama’s continued pursuit of Obama administration policies that are hostile to civil liberties and privacy.

    Without privacy there is no liberty. In the immortal words of Kristoferson as related by Janis, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”.
    In the final analysis it is the citizens responsibility to be well informed. I am grateful that the contributors to this blog assist in that effort.

  10. P Smith:

    What “British invasion” [of Maine]?


    Maine, then part of Massachusetts, was a base for smuggling and illegal trade between the U.S. and the British. Until 1813 the region was generally quiet except for privateer actions near the coast. In September, 1813, there was a notable naval action when the U.S. Navy’s brig Enterprise fought and captured the Royal Navy brig Boxer off Pemaquid Point. The first British assault came in July, 1814, when Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy took Moose Island (Eastport, Maine) without a shot, with the entire American garrison of Fort Sullivan surrendering. Next, from his base in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in September 1814, Sir John Coape Sherbrooke led 3,000 British troops in the “Penobscot Expedition”. In 26 days, he raided and looted Hampden, Bangor, and Machias, destroying or capturing 17 American ships. He won the Battle of Hampden (losing two killed while the Americans lost one killed). Retreating American forces were forced to destroy the frigate Adams. The British occupied the town of Castine and most of eastern Maine for the rest of the war. The Treaty of Ghent returned this territory to the United States. The British left in April 1815, at which time they took 10,750 pounds obtained from tariff duties at Castine. This money, called the “Castine Fund”, was used in the establishment of Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

  11. On FDR: A hundred years from now the historians will no longer be controlled by those East Coast snots from Harvard and Yale who think that the Roosevelt Family were ordained and coud do no wrong. These are the schucks who ridicule Harry Truman as the “failed haberdasher”. Hey, at least Harry had to work for a living and learned from his failures. FDR was so caught up with self that he knew he was dying and did not bother to take five minutes out of this social fabric to tell his Vice President that we had an atomic bomb. FDR ignored all the intelligence about the Japs coming on to bomb Pearl Harbor. FDR was a fool and a naive when it came to dealing with Uncle Joe at the Yalta Conference and other matters.

  12. FDR wasn’t a saint. He tried, and succeeded, to save capitalism from itself by giving working people a bigger share of the profits they were responsible for providing to corporations.
    The recent financial meltdown and the concomitant transfer of wealth from the masses to the elites lifted the curtain a bit and maybe now we’ll finally start to dismantle this system that can only survive by enslaving and impoverishing those who do the work that provides the profits the 1% illegally accrue to themselves.

  13. Nal,

    One of the best and most informative pieces I have ever read….. Thank you…. I love your last two lines…..

  14. Nal,

    Great post and thanks … Madison is one of my favorites! I have 2 copies of Ketcham ‘s biography of Madison … one very well used with margin notes and one pristine for the bookshelf.

  15. Great job, David. Madison is probably my second favorite President next to Jefferson. That Rehnquist didn’t like him is just gravy. :mrgreen:

  16. The late unlamented Chief Justice Rehnquist mistook strength of character for weakness. That is the problem with authoritarians. Madison was a President I wish more of his successors would emulate.

  17. OS,

    I think it’d be a great character strength if more presidents…. And people in general thought like Madison……

  18. The acts of President Lincoln in suspending Habeas Corpus were justified and necessary to preserve the union. We are not talking AFL-CIO here. But the FDR acts of putting Americans in concentration camps because they had Japanese ethnicity was 100% repugnant to our Constitution and our way of life. It is a war crime. All those East Coast snob historians from Harvard and Yale can stop shoring up the Roosevelt pedestal. A hundred years from now FDR will be seen as a self centered, spoiled rotten brat living off mommy’s money and her stipend right down to her death, dumb smoker who died of it, War Criminal, and slow to understand what a real economic stimulis is. The self centered lame brain did not even think to advise his next in line Vice President and next in line Commander in Chief in time of War that we had an atomic bomb. And all those snot nose Harvard historians refer to Harry as the failed haberdasher. Thank dog for those who learn from experience rather than be born with a silver spoon up their arse. Please dont equate Lincoln, our greatest President in time of war, with FDR– the War Criminal.

  19. Here’s another question no one ever answers about the war of 1812:

    If the British and Canadians were the “aggressors”, why didn’t they keep the northeast after defeating the US troops? They had the strength to hold it, but went back across the border and let the US keep its land.

  20. The Indians had a strong role in that war too. Leaving them out would be like omitting mention of the Spanish from the Spanish Civil War.

  21. Thank you for the article David. Regardless of the historical disagreements of the war, Madison preserving the civil liberties of the peoples in war times was the main point of the article. Maybe there is hope for today.

    Speaking of differing perspectives of history, has anyone read Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s new book (or seen any episodes of the tv series)? I was curious whether either is historically accurate. I could not find a meaningful critique online anywhere.

  22. Hey, that was a super piece of writing! Lots of remarkable details, I am ecstatic that I located it.

    I am definitly going to book mark your webpage! :-)

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