President James Madison: Domestic & Foreign Policy

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  • 0:04 James Madison
  • 1:06 Domestic Policy
  • 3:43 Foreign Policy
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn about the domestic and foreign policies of President James Madison. Along the way, we'll explore some key themes and developments, such as the War of 1812, the re-chartering of the national bank, Native American affairs, and others.

James Madison

Many of America's presidents have been men of commanding stature. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both dignified, powerful men who commanded respect, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall. Abraham Lincoln was America's tallest president, standing 6 feet 4 inches tall. As we know, on top of that he sometimes wore a top hat! America's shortest president was James Madison, standing at just 5 feet 4 inches tall.

James Madison, the 4th president of the United States, wasn't exactly known for his physical presence. By modern standards, he might be regarded as ''nerdy.'' But what he lacked in stature, he more than made up for with the brilliance of his mind. James Madison is considered the ''Father of the Constitution'' because he was primarily responsible for its drafting. A Democratic-Republican who favored a limited federal government, Madison was a brilliant Founding Father who profoundly shaped the American Republic. Let's learn about his presidency by focusing specifically on his domestic and foreign policy.

Domestic Policy

Before his presidency, James Madison was Thomas Jefferson's Secretary of State. He was elected president in the Election of 1808 and served as president for two terms, between 1809-1817. In many ways, Madison carried on the policies of his predecessor, President Jefferson.

One of the major domestic issues facing Madison was what to do about the national bank. The First Bank of the United States had been championed by Alexander Hamilton and chartered in 1791, for a term of 20 years. With the charter set to expire by 1812, Madison was faced with a dilemma. As a Democratic-Republican, he tended to oppose a national bank, believing it was an overreach of federal power. In 1811, the Democratic-Republicans allowed the charter to expire. However, after the War of 1812 broke out, Madison came to realize a national bank was a virtual necessity for waging war. He finally signed off on a bill to charter the Second Bank of the United States, which was basically a replacement national bank after the expiration of the First Bank of the United States. Many of Madison's fellow Democratic-Republicans were furious and claimed he had ''sold out.''

Also, like Jefferson before him, Madison took a relatively accommodating approach to Native American relations, especially compared to subsequent presidents like Andrew Jackson. He preferred that Native American groups voluntarily assimilate into American culture. Depending on the circumstances, there were even occasions where Madison authorized government troops to protect Native lands from being acquired by white settlers. Even so, as westward expansion proceeded rapidly throughout the Madison Administration, he was ultimately powerless to prevent Native American groups from being pushed off their land.

In addition, Madison was president at a time when the U.S. was involved in increased industrialization and commerce, and he signed legislation promoting these advances. He supported the infrastructure improvements championed by Henry Clay and others. Known as the American System, this economic plan sought to unify the nation through improved transportation, restrictions on imports, and the power of the national bank.

Even so, Madison was fearful of giving the federal government too much. He wanted the U.S. to develop into an industrial and commercial powerhouse, but ideally he wanted that to happen privately. Because of his commitment to republican values and his desire to limit the power of the federal government, he vetoed the Bonus Bill of 1817, which provided extensive government funding for improving transportation infrastructure.

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