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November 29, 2012

The re-election of James Madison

WB Strickland's image of the USS United States capturing the HMS Macedonian

Did the October 25 capture of the HMS Macedonian by the USS United States help Madison win re-election in November 1812?

At times, it looked as if the election of 1812 would be a close one.  At any rate, its outcome was more important than remembered. Even as late as July 3 1813, the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser in Australian was speculating on who the winner was. Their information, which came from across the sea on the 12th January of that year, supposed that they could have been wrong about a DeWitt Clinton victory, but “The electors of Vermont are said to be in favor of Mr. Clinton.”

Clinton appeared to be favored among the Australians: as part of the British empire they were subject to attacks by American privateers. But, Australia, and England, had other points to think about in American foreign policy. Trade was a big issue, with Americans purchasing from the British empire pre-maturely after news that the Orders in Council had been revoked.

Both agricultural and mercantile interests favored trade. Trade not only with the British empire and her allies, but also other enemies of Napoleon, the rebels in Latin America and the new government in Brazil, where the Portuguese monarchy was in exile.

This trade was lucrative, and the British empire seemed to think of President Madison as a Napoleonic ally, and not the independent actor he was. The empire speculated that interests in favor of trade may turn against Napoleon, and therefore stop the war with Britain.

But with a war came political rewards. The Gazette hoped that agricultural and mercantile interests would unite against Madison for a Clinton victory, “but it is probable that the military and naval operations will be more effectual in turning the scale. The [HMS] Macedonian is brought into port. This we consider to be worth at least ten, votes to Mr. Madison. The electors will be influenced by the popular feeling of the moment; and there is perhaps no feeling which will be so universally cherished by Americans of all parties, as that of exultation of a naval triumph.”

One can only speculate how history might have been different had James Madison lost his re-election bid.  Would Clinton have prosecuted the war differently and boosted moral in the New England states?  Could he possible even have changed sides, and declared war on Napoleon?  Would a leadership change allowed both sides to save face and end the war earlier, or even allow Canadian discontents to forgive the “invasion” and switch sides?  Could it have affected or fostered alliances with rebels in South America?  Could a more competent cabinet have prosecuted the war more effectively?

It seems we sometimes take Madison’s Presidency, and his re-election, for granted.