Photo of James Madison

I read a short biography of Madison, our fourth president, in my Presidential reading series. The book is from the American President series, which was also the series I chose for George H.W. Bush. I suspect it will be the only option when I get to presidents like Taylor and Polk.

This one was interesting because it was the first biography of a President I’ve read that was pretty down on him. Madison was the “father of the constitution” and his significance as a Founding Father is pretty high. But that doesn’t guaranteed he’d be a good President.

It was under Madison that we got into the War of 1812, a war we didn’t need to be in, (which lasted until January 1815, for what it’s worth). It was under Madison that the British burned the White House.

The book was most interesting talking about the war. Since DC was captured and burned by the British, I’d always assumed it was a pretty big defeat for us. When the war finally drew to a close, we didn’t get any of the things we wanted from the British.

But most of the US at the time took it as a victory. Madison ended his two terms with very high popularity, and there was a sense of an emergent nation that could hold it’s own against world powers.

The book makes a good case that it was the nation’s first embrace of modernity. Engineers were celebrated as heroes. The engine of war turned to building steamships, canals, and a whole new infrastructure. Class distinctions and the role of the militia in the army melted away in favor of the more egalitarian naval practices.

It was a good character examination of Madison, but more than that, it got me interested in the War of 1812. I’ve known some of the naval exploits during that time–the USS Constitution and others did some amazing things–but this was the first time I got a good sense of the land war going on in the west and south.