James Madison versus James Polk: Pairing Presidents XXI

James Madison versus James Polk:

In the 1960s a popular poster bore the sentiment, "War is not healthy for children or other living things." It's often not very healthy for nations or the popularity of presidents either. History books, on the other hand, are often too kind to wartime presidents. That's certainly the case with James Madison (1809-17) and James K. Polk (1845-49), who occupied the White House during two of the nation's least popular conflicts: the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.

Unpopular recent wars such as Vietnam and the Gulf Wars are more typical than unique. Ex post facto glorification of warfare notwithstanding, World War Two stands nearly alone in U. S. history in that it generated little domestic opposition. Conscription has never enjoyed support; Americans will volunteer for wars, but being drafted is a different matter.

How they are smiliar:

Madison and Polk were Southerners that owned slaves–more than a hundred in the case of the Virginian Madison, and 25 for the Tennessean Polk. Neither felt that Congress should interfere with slavery, though Madison did not object to emancipating them on an individual basis. (He also favored colonization for liberated slaves.) Polk didn't even wish to discuss slavery, but he very much favored expanding the institution. Both supported the concept of states' rights, though it was more theoretical in Madison's case.

The most obvious similarity is that each president involved the United States in wars whose motives were questioned. How one assesses either man depends upon the value one places upon steadfast leadership versus the wisdom of going to war in the first place.

James Madison

The War of 1812 cannot be divorced from the European context that led to the development of the first party system (Federalists versus Democratic-Republicans). The French Revolution began four years after the American Revolution ended in 1783. George Washington did not feel the U.S. was powerful enough to take sides in the conflict. The French Revolution passed through various phases before Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, and the revolution's assault on monarchy invariably drew France into a European-wide war. To simplify, Federalists like Washington and John Adams feared that French radicalism could spill into the United States, whereas Democratic-Republicans like Thomas Jefferson admired the revolutionaries. Jefferson agreed, however, that the U.S. needed to stay out of the European conflict, especially since powerful Great Britain headed the anti-Napoleon coalition. Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 sought to preserve American neutrality by banning trade with either side.

The problem for Madison, Jefferson's successor, was that the embargo was very unpopular. He campaigned to repeal it and kept his word, an act that increased British raids on U.S. ships and sometimes led to impressments, the commandeering of U.S. sailors on the pretense that they were actually British citizens. This caused such outrage that "war hawks" gained control of Congress and demanded war against Britain. They were also furious that the British, from their base in Canada, armed Native Americans in the Northwest Territory (today's Midwest). Madison obliged war hawks and the War of 1812 was on.

The actual reasons for war were not as clear-cut as they appeared. The French also raided American ships and the precise border between Canada and the United States was anybody's guess. Anglophobia, anti-Indian racism, and politics perhaps played a big role, as did Madison's lack of restraint. The war went so badly that Washington and Jefferson appeared prescient for keeping the U.S. out of the European conflict that Madison brought to North America. Americans won some skirmishes, but mostly they lost. Even victories exacted horrifying tolls, as happened in Tecumseh's War against the Shawnees. In 1814, British troops burned much of Washington, D.C., including the White House and the U.S. Capitol, the latter of which hadn't even been finished! The war went so badly that citizens in the Northeast spoke contemptuously of "Mr. Madison's war" and some openly favored the British. Daniel Webster (NH) opposed Madison's 1814 conscription plan with such vitriol that the president dropped it. In December of 1814, some New England leaders gathered for the Hartford Convention. Among the things discussed were suing for a separate peace with Britain, or Northern secession from the Union! Had not Britain been overly occupied with Napoleon, the American experiment might have died at the age of 30. In a very real way, Napoleon saved the United States.

Or perhaps he saved it twice! Napoleon was exiled in 1814, escaped, and had to be defeated again (Waterloo) in June of 1815. From September of 1814 through June of 1815, the British led the Congress of Vienna, which planned for a post-Napoleonic Europe. The war-weary Brits were anxious to end their silly conflict in America and signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. No land changed hands and the only thing of consequence that came out of it was that Britain refused to return slaves that escaped to their lines. Had not the 1815 Battle of New Orleans ended in American victory on January 18, 1815, before news of the treaty made its way across the Atlantic, the War of 1812 would surely have been viewed as what it was: a dangerous folly.

James Polk
Yet the 1812 conflict was almost moral compared to Mexican War, an imperialist land grab that gave fodder to those who blamed the Civil war on a slaveocracy led by Southern elites. There is little doubt that slaveholders lusted for expansion, as cotton production quickly depleted soil. Polk brought a bellicose personality to the White House; he was like Andrew Jackson in personality and in determination to have his will done. He was also very Machiavellian.
Weeks before he took the White House, Polk consulted with his predecessor John Tyler and completed a plan for Texas annexation through a maneuver known as a joint resolution that required only a majority vote by both houses of Congress, rather than a 2/3 vote of just the Senate.

Polk also used a ploy to divert attention from plans to expand southward by kicking an old adversary: Britain. The border with Canada had been hammered out everywhere except in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon Territory). Polk encouraged war hawks crying "Fifty-four forty or fight!" This Congressional faction wanted the U.S. to annex land extending up the west coast to the southern reaches of Alaska (today's British Columbia and western Alberta.) Instead, a treaty extended the 49th parallel line to the Pacific Ocean. It allowed Polk to play peacemaker, but you know the deal isn't on the level when your Secretary of State is James Buchanan!

Oregon hid Polk's motive of buying Alta California, a huge swath of land that Mexico had no interest in selling. He sent John Slidell to negotiate, and when Mexico said no, clamored for war on the grounds that Slidell had been insulted, but that didn't convince many outside the South. (The pro-slavery Slidell would later join the Confederacy and serve it as an ambassador.) Instead, Texas provided the perfect ploy. On April 26, 1846, Congress approved a declaration of war based on Polk's assurance that Mexico had "invaded" Texas. Not so! Maps of the former Lone Star Republic reveal that the Nueces River as its western and southern border. Polk sent Zachary Taylor to Texas to occupy lands between the Nueces and the Rio Grande River, where troops had a small set-to with Mexicans wondering why Taylor was in their country. In short, Polk manufactured the war! It was already on by the time the North found out it had been duped. Tax resistors such as Henry David Thoreau launched protests, Polk was burned in effigy throughout the Northeast, and war critics included Frederick Douglass and Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln. The war was won rather speedily and the Treaty of Guadalupe forced Mexico to cede about a third of its land, basically most of today's Southwest and Great Basin. From this point forward, the existence of the slaveocracy concretized in Northern minds.

How they were different:

Madison was one of the greatest political theorists in the nation's history. Had he never served as POTUS, he might have enjoyed a status akin to that of Benjamin Franklin. Madison penned much of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, and the Virginia Resolution opposing the Alien and Sedition Acts. He and Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party. Polk was a schemer, not a theorist.

Madison followed Jefferson's footsteps in expanding federalism in ways that countered stated beliefs in states' rights. He allowed the re-charting of the Bank of the United States because Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin convinced him it was necessary. He also used federal power to (try to) prevent white settlers from encroaching on Indian lands in the western Appalachians. He even used his power tyrannically on at least one occasion by refusing to dismiss the incompetent James Wilkinson from military command in Louisiana Territory because it was politically expedient to keep Wilkinson.

Polk kept his pledge not to seek a second term, but probably wouldn't have gotten one! He did, however, create the Department of the Interior and promised New Granada (Columbia) that the U.S. would stay out of Latin America. Did he mean it? Historians aren't sure.

Madison enjoyed a long retirement. Polk, though only 49 when he became president, was exhausted by the presidency and died three months after leaving office.


Do we rate a person's entire career, or just time in office?  Do we value forceful leadership in time of war and celebrate the expansion of the nation, or do we ask if the war should have been fought in the first place? Do we evaluate how a person uses presidential power, or how well they mesh within the entire system of American democracy? Do we value forthright action or truthfulness?

Currently, scholars rank Madison # 12 and Polk #10. I couldn't disagree more. First, Madison was a far better president than Polk and should be ranked above him. Second, Polk's high status reflects a tendency of past historians to romanticize the South. Polk is among those presidents directly responsible for the Civil War. Consider: no Texas annexation or manufactured crisis, no Mexican War. Perhaps the United States would have purchased lands from Mexico in the future, but without Polk's actions, there would have been no California gold rush, no Compromise of 1850, no need to organize territories for a transcontinental railroad, therefore no Kansas-Nebraska Act.  It would be facile to say that the Civil War would have been avoided–the inherent immorality of slavery remained. But without Polk, who linked slavery and Manifest Destiny, slavery might have been become as a dying institution instead of a robust one. The War of 1812 was stupid; the Mexican War was immoral.

With Madison, though, we must separate theorist from president. After all, few would evaluate Lyndon Johnson without reference to Vietnam. In my view, it's to the middle of the pack for both Madison and Polk.

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