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

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  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Gene H:

    I rank Madison fourth on my Presidential Hit Parade. As most here know, Jefferson remains my favorite followed by Lincoln and Washington. FDR sits at five.

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