James Madison’s Career Before His Presidency


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

The election of John Adams as president back in 1796 and the following quasi-war with France seemed at the time to have marked the nadir of Republican fortunes. No one felt the discouragement of the Republicans in 1796 more than James Madison. James Madison’s career as the de facto floor leader of the opposition forced him to watch as Alexander Hamilton’s plans were implemented one by one.

Official Presidential portrait of John Adams
The election of John Adams discouraged the Republicans very much. (Image: White House Collection/Public domain)

Madison’s Decreasing Influence

The Jay Treaty was “so full of shameful concessions, of mock reciprocities, and party artifices that no other circumstances than the particular ones which mark our present political situation could screen it from universal execration.”

Washington was “completely in the snares of the British faction” and “laboring” to “rear every obstruction as well as to remove every facility to an improvement of our commercial relations with France.” 

There seemed no point in protesting that “the bill for establishing a national bank” was “not warranted by the constitution,” since other Constitutional Convention members were sitting in the same House who insisted precisely the opposite. 

“An awful scene seems to be opening upon us,” Madison wrote to Jefferson. In December of 1796, he decided not to seek reelection to Congress and stayed in Virginia for the next four years, tending to the affairs of his increasingly frail father and speculating in western land. The one bright spot was the end of his long bachelorhood and his sublimely happy marriage to the vivacious widow, Dolley Payne Todd, in September 1794.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Oil painting of James Madison
James Madison was offered the post of secretary of state. (Image: White House Collection/Public domain)

Quest for Restoring Republicanism

The sudden collapse of Federalist political fortunes in the last two years of the Adams administration and the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency—what Jefferson liked to call the revolution of 1800—seemed suddenly to have brought the sun from behind the clouds. 

The day after his inauguration, Jefferson offered Madison the post of secretary of state. Together, they planned a “rule of conduct” to undo the enormities of Alexander Hamilton and restore strict republicanism. 

Together with Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, the three men saw themselves as a sort of Roman triumvirate, called to rescue the republic from the grasping hands of would-be aristocrats.

Madison’s day-to-day responsibilities as secretary of state were more humdrum, passports, diplomatic correspondence, ships’ cargo manifests, filing patents. “I find myself in the midst of arrears of papers et cetera, which little accord with my unsettled health,” he sighed.

Learn more about the catastrophic blunders that John Adams suffered.

James Madison’s Career

Madison’s chief problem was how to deal with British arrogance on the high seas. He composed a densely thought-out treatise, An Examination of the British Doctrine, Which Subjects to Capture a Neutral Trade, in 1805. 

But treatises were non-sufficient answers, and rather than face the prospect of outright war with Britain, Madison not only endorsed Jefferson’s Embargo but spared “no pains to stop every leak by which the effect of the Embargo law might be diminished.”

Portrait of Henry Clay
Henry Clay was outraged that the suffering Great Britain had inflicted on the U.S. was not being addressed. (Image: Transylvania University/Public domain)

What surprised Madison was how little credit he and Jefferson and Gallatin received for their labors. The eccentric John Randolph of Roanoke, as the new floor leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, denounced nearly everything Jefferson’s administration did as “apostasies” from true republicanism. 

Anglophobe Congressmen from the western frontier blamed Jefferson and Madison for doing too little to punish the Great British Satan. Their most talented figurehead, the Virginia-born Henry Clay, was outraged that “the injuries we have received from Great Britain remain unredressed.”

Learn more about the conflicts between Thomas Jefferson’s political philosophies and the reality of American life.

War Hawks Demanded War 

Henry Clay was the War Hawks’ chief and inevitable leader, and his answer to the British menace was always, annex Canada. “I am for resistance by the sword,” said Clay in his first speech to Congress, “The conquest of Canada is in your power.” Of course, you might think, given the United States Army, that might have been an overreach. But, Clay resumed,

I trust I shall not be deemed presumptuous when I state, what I verily believe, that the militia are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet. Is it nothing to us to extinguish the torch that lights up savage warfare? Is it nothing to acquire the entire fur trade connected with that country and to destroy the temptation and the opportunity of violating your revenue and other laws?

But Clay’s War Hawks couldn’t assemble enough political mass to control the administration successfully. So when Jefferson wearily announced that his second term as president would also be his last and that he would be “shaking off the shackles of power” for “the tranquil pursuits of science”, the Republican congressional caucus gave Madison its blessing as the next Republican nominee for the presidency.

Common Questions about James Madison’s Career Before His Presidency

Q: What was Madison’s way of dealing with British arrogance on the high seas?

When James Madison’s career path led to him becoming Secretary of State, he wrote a treaty named An Examination of the British Doctrine, Which Subjects to Capture a Neutral Trade. But after that, he endorsed Thomas Jefferson’s embargo.

Q: What was one of Henry Clay’s main criticisms toward Jefferson’s government regarding the Great Britain?

Henry Clay advocated being aggressive against the Great Britain. He was concerned that the injuries America had sustained from the Great Britain were not being addressed.

Q: Who became the next nominee for the presidency among those favoring republicanism after Thomas Jefferson resigned?

Those who favored republicanism nominated James Madison to run for the presidency.

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