Though the War of 1812 was dubbed “Mr. Madison’s War,” his role in the prosecution of the war was relatively ineffectual. Elected in 1808, President James Madison was intimately familiar with the ongoing diplomatic and trade conflicts with Britain. As Secretary of State under President Jefferson, he was the principal architect of the “restrictive system” of trade embargos designed to force Britain to relax its control of Atlantic trade. Madison’s support of this failed system lasted well into the war itself.
Madison’s attempts to resolve disagreements with Britain peacefully was viewed by some in his own Republican party as a sign of weakness. A group of pro-war Republicans, led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay, argued that military force was the only option left to combat British imperiousness. These “War Hawks” were not a majority of the party, but over time, their influence acted on more skeptical party members.
President Madison eventually did bring a declaration of war to Congress, but his leadership in planning for war was mostly absent. Republican ideology was intensely skeptical of the concept of a national standing army, preferring to rely on state militias, and the Madison administration, following in the footsteps of Jefferson, did much to starve national military forces of men and material support. His influence on Congress was minimal, and in retrospect, it is hard to understand how he, or the War Hawks for that matter, felt that the United States had the necessary military resources to prosecute a war on multiple fronts.