A Fighting first couple
Please visit our sponsor.
Howard evokes a stirring image of President Madison returning to the national capital in ruins
The Madisons and the War of 1812
Hardcover. 365 pp.
2012. Bloomsbury Press.
To many Americans, the War of 1812 is a mere footnote in our history, a struggle between the U.S. and the British that is notable to history students only because it's easy to learn when it took place. Casual observers don't know why the war happened, couldn't name the important battles, and probably won't have a good idea on who was victorious at the end. The Revolutionary War had George Washington and the Founding Fathers, the Civil War had Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and scores of famed American soldiers, and the modern wars have left an indelible imprint on the country. The War of 1812, however, was waged by a bookish commander-in-chief who stood 5'4" and weighed about 90 lbs, so the importance of the war, much like the importance of that President, James Madison, is often overlooked.
Hugh Howard -- a historian who has written several books on the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary-era America -- examines this frequently neglected event in our history in his new book, Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War: America's First Couple and the Second War of Independence (2012, Bloomsbury Press). Despite the fact that the United States won its independence from Great Britain in 1783, British ships had been steadily harassing American merchantmen on the high seas. Britain was locked in a war with France and used that as an excuse to ignore American neutrality, stop American ships, and impress American sailors into the service of the Royal Navy. The United States protested the actions of the British, but the attacks continued to increase as Thomas Jefferson finished his Presidency (1801-1809) and James Madison moved into the White House for his two terms (1809-1817).
The Jefferson and Madison Administrations sought various solutions that would guarantee British recognition of American sovereignty and neutrality, but Britain continued actively intercepting American ships and impressing American sailors into service. To add insult to injury, the British were also inciting Native Americans in the northwestern frontier to rise up against the United States. When the United States could no longer resist taking action without being humiliated on the world stage, President Madison declared war.
As the title suggests, Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War looks at the War of 1812 from the perspective of President Madison and his wife, Dolley, who was a dynamic hostess, unofficial adviser to her husband, and true patriot. There are other books on the War of 1812 that go into deeper details about every major battle from Canada and down along the Atlantic coast, but Howard's book is unique in that it follows the powerful First Couple and clues the reader in to what the Madison's were like under siege. We see leadership qualities in President Madison, but we also see the courage and determination of Dolley Madison as she attempts to keep Washington moving as usual even while under imminent threat of a British invasion. Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War also shows the valuable role that Madison's Secretary of State, James Monroe, who would succeed Madison as President, played as Madison's confidant and as a leader who acted without hesitation.
The most fascinating part of Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War is not surprising. Hugh Howard details the frantic preparations towards the end of August 1814 as the British inched closer and closer to the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. At times, American military leaders couldn't figure out if the British invasion would head towards Baltimore, or if they would attack the national capital named after our first President. While families gathered up their belongings and officials gathered important documents or relics of the young United States, the movements of the British made it clear that they were targeting Washington, D.C. As the British skirmished with American defenders in Maryland, President Madison -- who had no military experience -- rode out to join American troops and became the only President to ever command troops on the field of battle.
Howard's meticulous research and wonderful storytelling ability truly paints a detailed portrait of the unthinkable result of the British invasion. While President Madison rode to safety in order to elude capture at the hands of the British, Dolley Madison and the Madison family's slaves packed up as many important objects as she could save from the White House. Most famous of all, Mrs. Madison had a historic portrait of George Washington pulled down from the East Room and taken to safety in Virginia. Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War then recounts how the British invaded Washington, D.C. and set fire to all of the public buildings. Nearly 200 years later, it's still astonishing to imagine foreign troops occupying the nation's capital and burning down the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, and other symbols of America's independence. Howard evokes a stirring image of President Madison returning to the national capital in ruins, seeing the charred remains of the White House, and immediately finding a place so he could continue the business of the government.
Despite the humiliating burning of Washington, the U.S. showed its resiliency and proved that the United States of America wasn't a flash-in-the-pan experiment but an established nation that could hold its own with what was, at the time, the most powerful empire in the world. When the War of 1812 ended (in 1815, oddly enough), there was no clear victor, but it was obvious that the United States was here to stay. When the Treaty of Ghent was signed ending the war, there were not territorial changes and the treaty didn't include anything about the impressment of American sailors because the end of Britain's war against France no longer required the Royal Navy to continue the practice. In a strange way, the War of 1812 seemed to put to rest any major issues between the U.S. and Britain and the two countries grew close in the years afterward, much like a bully might respect the person he picked on if they only stood up to them.
Although it's difficult to explain exactly what the War of 1812 was all about, then-former President Madison did so in an 1818 letter to Jared Ingersoll. "If our first struggle was a war of our infancy," said Madison, "this last was that of our youth; and the issue of both, wisely improved, may long postpone, if not forever prevent, a necessity for exerting the strength of our manhood." To Madison, it seems that the Revolutionary War established American independence and the War of 1812 guaranteed its continuation. Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War is a wonderful book about an overlooked chapter in history that featured one of this country's darkest moments in the burning of Washington, but also gave Francis Scott Key the inspiration for our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner".
Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War: America's First Couple and the Second War of Independence by Hugh Howard is available now from Bloomsbury Press. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.