James Madison was elected the fourth president of the United States in 1808, and took the oath of office on March 4, 1809. Jefferson was eager to see Madison, his trusted counselor and Secretary of State, succeed him as president. Madison’s administration faced many of the same issues as Jefferson’s. The war between France and Great Britain, and its threats to American trade and sovereignty, continued to present problems, culminating in the War of 1812. Madison found himself dealing with a more contentious Congress and a less unified Republican party than Jefferson had experienced.
Madison was also hampered by mediocre, and at times incompetent, cabinet. He selected most of the members in order to placate Congressional factions. For geographical balance, New Englander William Eustis and South Carolinian Paul Hamilton were named as the Secretaries of War and the Navy, despite their lack of experience or military knowledge. To appease senators who rejected Madison’s first choice for Secretary of State, Albert Gallatin, the post went to the less qualified candidate Robert Smith. (Madison had to consistently rewrite Smith’s poorly-worded diplomatic dispatches.) Madison retained his trusted colleague Albert Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury.
Madison gradually replaced his original lackluster cabinet. Smith left after undermining the administration’s position in remarks to foreign diplomats. Hamilton resigned due to alcoholism. Both Eustis and his replacement John Armstrong resigned in response to military blunders during the War of 1812. Even Albert Gallatin left to head the Russian Mediation and eventually negotiate the Treaty of Ghent with Madison’s approval. Madison’s later cabinet secretaries proved to be good choices, including James Monroe (State 1811-17), William Jones (Navy 1813-14), Benjamin Crowninshield (Navy 1815-17), Alexander James Dallas (Treasury 1814-16), William H. Crawford (War 1815-16, Treasury 1816-17), and Richard Rush (Attorney General 1814-17).
The War of 1812, and the British and French challenges to American trade leading up to the war, consumed much of Madison’s attention during his first six years in office. Domestic issues, such as the recharter of the Bank of the United States, received attention at the end of his second term. When the First Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791, then-Congressman Madison opposed it as unconstitutional. Congress chose not to recharter the bank in 1811, also questioning its constitutionality. After Madison’s experience of financing a war with a near-empty treasury, his perspective changed. He vetoed a new bank bill in 1814, not on constitutional grounds, but because it did not do all that was necessary to reestablish the public credit. Madison signed a new bill in 1816 chartering the Second Bank of the United States.
Madison had faced loud public criticism, particularly during the war. Peace brought not only prosperity but a new feeling of nationalism to the country, and high regard for Madison as he left office. John Adams evaluated Madison’s presidency in these words: “Notwithstanding a thousand faults and blunders, his Administration has acquired more glory, and established more Union, than all three Predecessors, Washington, Adams and Jefferson put together.”
Montpelier as a Summer Retreat
While serving as president, James Madison made yearly summer sojourns to Montpelier. With Dolley by his side, Madison's retreat to Montpelier generally fell sometime between late July and early October, lasting for several weeks.