Skip over navigation

James Madison

Secretary of State

Dolley Madison

Secretary of State, page 2

page 1 of 2

The presidential election of 1800 was one of the most dramatic political contests the United States has ever seen. James Madison's career was bound up in its outcome, although while the great controversy ensued, he awaited news updates at his home in Montpelier, suffering a bout of ill health. The main players in the contest–Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton–were all men Madison knew personally and for whom he had strong feelings.

The presidential race began as a contest between the leader of the Federalists, President John Adams and the great representative of the Democratic-Republicans, Thomas Jefferson. Aaron Burr ran alongside Jefferson for the Vice Presidential spot. Jefferson won in the Electoral College seventy- three votes to Adams's 65. Since the College had not been designed with institutionalized political parties in mind, the government was thrown into confusion when Burr himself received seventy-three electoral votes. Following the Constitution, the election was sent to the House of Representatives, to see if Jefferson or Burr would become President. Federalists in the Congress supported Burr over Jefferson, seeing him as a less harmful Republican. For six days, neither candidate received majorities in the House.

The election was at a standstill until Alexander Hamilton came forward and, in a remarkable move considering his ideological opposition to Jefferson, supported the Virginian over his fellow New Yorker, condemning Burr as "deficient in honesty," and "the last man in the United States to be supported by the Federalists." Hamilton's influence and strong words tipped the scales in favor of Jefferson, who was finally elected on February seventeen, 1801, with Burr named as Vice President. When Jefferson finally took office on March 4, he named his old friend James Madison his Secretary of State.

The Madisons arrived in Washington on May 1, and lived in the White House until the fall, when they were given their own residence nearby. Madison's State Department consisted of ten men–the Secretary himself, his chief clerk, seven other clerks, and a messenger. Its chief preoccupation was foreign affairs, and Madison found his official business all-consuming. He worked very hard as Secretary of State, and also worked very closely with the President.

When Madison came into office, foreign affairs were relatively peaceful. Britain and France were headed toward agreement, with the Treaty of Amiens being negotiated. Problems arose, however, when Spain ceded back to Napoleon's France the vast stretch of land known as Louisiana, the middle portion of the area that is today the continental United States. This cession gave France control of much of the Mississippi River as well as the important trading port at the river's delta in the city of New Orleans. Jefferson and Madison both watched with apprehension, wondering whether Napoleon would send a fleet to the Mississippi to begin taking actual control of the territory. However, as war with Britain began to loom again for the French, no such action was taken.

Early in 1803, Jefferson sent James Monroe, a future president of the United States, to France to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Madison supervised the effort from the State Department, drafting the articles of the plan, and authorizing Monroe to offer a price starting from ten million dollars for the land. By mid-April, the French had agreed to the offer, and Monroe returned to America having been the agent for a virtual doubling in size of the territorial reaches of the United States of America. Madison was greatly satisfied by the outcome of the negotiations, as it gave his country total control of the Mississippi and strengthened America's power and independence from European influences.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us