Although President Madison` was reluctant to enter into a war with Great Britain, he acquiesced as early as November 1811 to repeated calls from members of his party to a buildup of American arms. On the fifth of that month, he appeared before Congress to issue his call to arms. It was actually in the middle of his campaign for reelection to the presidency, on June 17, 1812, when Congress declared war of the British, marking the official start of the War of 1812. When Madison swore in for his second term, his primary occupation was the fulfillment of duties as Commander-in-Chief of a nation at war.
The War of 1812 was also known as the Second War for Independence. It was fought primarily because Americans detested the heavy-handed treatment their countrymen received from the British on the high seas. It was a constant irritation tothe young nation that men on American merchant ships who engaged in trade with the French were repeatedly taken captive by British naval officers and impressed into military service for the Crown.
Even though Madison was reluctant to go to war, the Federalists, concerned about their commercial interests, labeled the conflict "Mr. Madison's War," and their opposition to it made sure and swift American engagement in the struggle difficult to pursue. The militias in some of the New England states did not rise up readily to fight the British, and when Maine (still at this time part of Massachusetts) was threatened, the Massachusetts militia refused even to defend the northern part of their state from British attack. The people of Maine felt very injured, and were glad to acquire state independence some years later in 1820.
America's fighting was done by state militias and volunteers, and in the first part of the war went badly. General William Hull failed in his attempt to invade Canada, instead surrendering to the British at Detroit. Several other attempts at invading Canada also failed. President Madison responded to these defeats by focusing on building up the navy, sending fleets into the Great Lakes to defend the United States from British attacks from Canada. The American navy saw victories in the first year of the war: three of its ships, named the United States, the President, and most famously the Constitution, nicknamed "Old Ironsides," were more formidable than any ships in the British navy. Though outnumbered by the very large British fleet, the American ships held their own in close naval combat.
The Americans suffered naval setbacks, however, with the onset of the British blockade of the Atlantic coastline. The most remembered event in the war occurred when the British landed south of Washington, D.C. and, on August twenty-four, 1814, after defeating an American army at Bladensburg, Virginia, marched into the capital city and set fire to it. The White House was one of the buildings which was destroyed–it was hollowed out in the fire. President Madison had evacuated the city before seeing his house in flames; Dolley Madison, evacuating after her husband, saved a precious, life-size portrait of George Washington while leaving some of her own belongings behind in the conflagration. Many Americans viewed the First Lady as a heroine for this action. The President reacted to the destruction of Washington by firing his Secretary of War and replacing him with James Monroe, who continued to serve simultaneously as Secretary of State.
The burning of Washington marked a turning point in the war. The image of their capital in flames had the effect of rallying Americans to a spirited defense of their country, and the British were soon turned back in their attempts to capture the city of Baltimore. America won a great victory in their defense of Fort McHenry–the battle which was the inspiration to onlooker Francis Scott Key's poem, "The Star Spangled Banner," which would become the lyrics to America's National Anthem.
A British fleet was also turned back at Lake Champlain in New York, while on its way to re-supply an army of 10,000 which was marching through New York from Canada, in an effort to invade New York City from the Hudson River. The naval battle took place on September eleven, 1814, and the victorious American commander was Captain Thomas Macdonough. The British army was forced to retreat back to Canada after communication with the northern fleet was cut off. Subsequently, the British surrendered Lake Erie and lost their sense of determination to win the war when the famous Duke of Wellington would not take command of the British forces fighting in North America. By December 1814, the U.S. and Britain were negotiating a peace at Ghent in Belgium.
The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814. News of the peace did not reach many Americans for several months, and one of the most famous battles of the war occurred early in 1815. The Battle of New Orleans was fought between a force commanded by future president Andrew Jackson and a British force which was attempting to take control of that very important port city on the Mississippi delta.
For all intents and purposes, the Americans had won a great victory with the end of the War of 1812. One of the major results of the war was the effective end of all foreign threats to America's lands in the Northwest Territory. A great spirit of American pride overswept the country, and President Madison was one of its chief political benefactors. During the last several years of his presidency, he was tremendously popular, and the fortunes of the Federalists who had opposed him and the war were dismal. The party which had been so crucial in the Founding era disintegrated after the War of 1812, exiting the national stage with hardly a whimper.
The chief event of the last part of Madison's presidency was the incorporation of a Second National Bank. Madison supported the effort this time around, and he also called for an amendment to the Constitution which would authorize federal support for internal improvements such as roads and canals. The amendment effort fizzled out, and as his last official act as President, Madison vetoed an internal improvements bill which had been passed by Congress without any movement toward the Constitutional amendment he favored.
The elections of 1816 brought James Monroe into office. President Madison left the White House in February 1817, and retired happily with Mrs. Madison to his home at Montpelier in Virginia. He looked forward to the rest retirement would afford him, though he still had a very active two decades ahead of himself.