Recounting bicentennial of Madison's inauguration

Posted: Sunday, March 08, 2009

Two hundred years ago, on March 4, James Madison was inaugurated as the fourth president of the United States.

Courtesy Of The Virginia Historical Society
Courtesy Of The Virginia Historical Society

Madison was a small, sickly man remembered fondly as our shortest and lightest president. As some may already know, he is called the father of the Constitution and author of the Bill of Rights. His amazing work at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, creating our Constitution based on his Virginia Plan as its framework, and his work in the drafting of the Bill of Rights in 1789, a promise he'd kept to the people after the ratification of the Constitution.

These accomplishments, along with Madison's fight for religious liberty, are what most people remember him for. His presidency has been called a failure, many attributing Madison's genius as a legislator, but not as an executive. Yet unfortunate circumstances plagued Madison's presidency, a number of which he had little control of, notably his quite incompetent cabinet. Before I outline Madison's presidency, let us first look back to March 4, 1809, in remembrance of this memorable day in American history.

Imagine yourself then in Washington, D.C., the capital of our country. Though it was a more underdeveloped town than now, around the Capitol, the sun shone brightly and excitement was in the air. People from all over the country flooded to see Madison elevated to the seat of the presidency.

The day began with guns fired in a dawn salute at the Navy Yard and nearby Fort Warburton. At day-break, the local militia went into position for escort duty. By mid-morning, crowds and carriages were gathering around the Capitol, where Madison would make his inaugural address in the unfinished yet grand Hall of Representatives.

Madison traveled from his house on F Street in a carriage, escorted by the cavalries. The party moved down Pennsylvania Avenue where over ten thousand people were lined to greet them as they got closer to the Capitol. Arriving at noon, Madison went into the Capitol, meeting his predecessor, the tall Thomas Jefferson, and accompanied by Madison's wife, Dolley, and the men who would become Madison's cabinet, they entered the hall. After taking their positions, the public was allowed in.

When all settled, Madison was escorted by congressmen to the front of the chamber. He was dressed in a black American-made suit of the wool of merino sheep and delivered his address immediately, reading it in a low trembling voice hardly heard by those present, looking also barely able to stand, yet gained confidence as he continued. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Marshall. Afterwards, Madison and Dolley, noted by her graceful manner and elegant dress (a linen cambric gown and an elaborate bonnet of purple velvet with white plumes that day), proceeded back out with militias lined to their F Street house, acknowledging the enthusiastic crowd along the way as the guns roared.

Later that evening, the Madisons held the first presidential inauguration ball at Long's Hotel on Capitol Hill. Everyone was allowed to come. The Madisons began the evening with dancing at 7 p.m. The couple greeted everyone - Dolley charming and queen-like, Madison pale, spiritless and exhausted, feeling the weight of office already on his shoulders.

At one point, the ball became so overcrowded that the windows were smashed to relieve the suffocation. Yet the night was a success, and after dinner, the new president and his wife took their leave of the company, who departed at midnight.

Madison was president from 1809 to 1817, executive over the War of 1812. As president, he practically lifted off of Jefferson what had not already been "completed."

Madison had been Jefferson's Secretary of State, so more than anyone else, Madison knew what he was up against. The primary issue which comprised Madison's difficult administration was the conflict with Britain on their consistent impressments of American sailors. Britain claimed that many were British deserters and forced them into their military to fight the war against France.

The day of Madison's inauguration, the hated and failing Embargo Act of 1807, which Jefferson's administration had set up to force respect from Britain by means of trade, was repealed.

In Madison's first term, by various means of negotiation, Madison tried to prevent war. It came to a point when the administration had to decide whether or not to go to war and on June 1, 1812, Madison declared war against Britain. Shortly after, he was reelected. With battles on land and at sea, the War of 1812 didn't seem to accomplish much, resulting in the climatic burning of Washington, D.C. on Aug. 24, 1814. Yet American pride carried the nation and by 1815, peace with Britain came and for the last two years of his presidency, Madison rode on popularity.

Madison is not remembered as one of our great presidents, like Washington and Lincoln, yet as John Adams stated, "notwithstanding a thousand faults and blunders," the Madison administration "has acquired more glory, and established more union than all his three predecessors ... put together." This day, this week, and always, let us remember President James Madison.

• Sarah Everett is a local college student and a fervent scholar of James Madison.

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