It’s Thanksgiving Eve, and while it may not carry the same weight as Christmas Eve, it’s reason enough to keep things brief.
For President James Madison, 1814 had not been a particularly kind year. The same could be said for most of the fledgling Union over which Madison served as Commander-in-Chief. The war with Britain (the second of Madison’s life when you consider the War of Independence) was not going very well. The nation’s capital was no longer smoking, but it was a ruin thanks to British torches. War Secretary Armstrong had been summarily sacked by an irate Madison.
Politics was rearing its ugly head, with New England governors refusing to allow their state militias to be used for national defense. The ballot box had not been Madison’s friend, either. Mid-term elections had seen the Federalist Party, largely marginalized since John Adams left office, make significant gains.
Then there were the British who, in addition to the war itself, were working hard to sway the New England states to break away from the southern states (especially those pesky Virginians) and reestablish ties to the mother country. Citizens were smuggling goods to the enemy and colluding with them.
And to add injury to all the insult, Madison was ill again. The heat and humidity of Washington, D.C.’s summer and fall never agreed with the President. He often spent much of that time back at home. But this year had been different, and Madison was paying a physical price.
On November 23, 1814, the news got worse. Vice President Elbridge Gerry had died of a lung hemorrhage while riding in his carriage to the Senate. Gerry had been a member of the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. And while he initially voted against the Constitution, he eventually became a strong supporter. During his time as the governor of Massachusetts, he supported a redistricting bill that not only took on his name (gerrymandering), but also cost him re-election. And now he was gone.
The rejuvenated Federalists smelled blood. One of them would write, “If Mr. President Madison would resign now that Mr. Gerry is no more, a president of the Senate might be chosen, who would . . . do honor to the nation.”
Gerry’s death had transformed James Madison from the President to a Federalist target.