Secretary of State

James & Dolley Madison

Before Thomas Jefferson won the 1800 presidential election, he chose for secretary of state his close friend and ally James Madison.   Madison arrived in Washington in May 1801, two months after Jefferson’s inauguration, having been delayed by his father’s death in February. James and Dolley Madison, Dolley’s nine-year-old son Payne Todd, and Dolley’s sister Anna stayed at the President’s House with Jefferson for three weeks until they moved into their own lodgings. 

As secretary of state, Madison communicated with foreign embassies in Washington, American ministers and consuls abroad, and state and territorial officials across the country. His duties ranged from writing reports for Congress and publishing the laws, to overseeing the patent office, issuing passports, and placing the Great Seal of the United States on documents. Madison also served as Jefferson’s closest advisor, and along with Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, formed a “republican triumvirate” that discussed issues in light of their shared vision for the American republic.  

Two significant foreign policy matters dominated Madison’s service as secretary of state: the Louisiana Purchase, and French and British violations of neutral shipping rights. The Louisiana Purchase was an unexpected opportunity. The administration instructed special envoy James Monroe and U. S. Minister to France Robert R. Livingston to purchase New Orleans. Instead Napoleon offered the entire Louisiana territory, which he had acquired from Spain. The Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States and extended its border to the Rocky Mountains, fit Jefferson and Madison’s ideal of an expanding republic of yeoman farmers. Yet because the Constitution did not spell out a method for acquiring territory, they debated the constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase. In the end, they adopted a broad construction based on the premise that all nations had the right to acquire territory through treaties. 

The question of American shipping rights was not so neatly resolved. When war resumed between France and Great Britain in 1803, both nations attempted to prevent the United States from trading with their enemy. Madison demanded that Great Britain drop its blockades and give up impressment (the practice of capturing British-born sailors who were naturalized Americans, and forcing them into the British navy). Madison wrote a 204-page pamphlet related to the subject, An Examination of the British Doctrine, Which Subjects to Capture a Neutral Trade, Not Open in Time of Peace. Neither rational arguments nor the economic pressure of American embargoes changed French and British policies. The unresolved issues carried over into Madison’s presidency, leading to the War of 1812. 

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"Accept my heartiest Congratulations on thy advancement to the secretary's office."

-John Dickinson to James Madison, April 7, 1801