In 1964 an important if somewhat obscure Polish writer and public intellectual named Aleksander Wat arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, and began the work that would eventually bec
Robin Blackburn spent 1968 in Havana, Prague, Berlin and London.
Editor's Note: Due to an unfortunate glitch in production, two lines are missing from the printed version of Daniel Lazare's essay. They have been restored in this version.
One of the nation's finest historians, Studs Terkel has told the story of twentieth-century America through the voices of ordinary people.
Few traditions are more American than freedom of speech and the right to
In the current national climate, the notion that Washington might learn
from the experience of former Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev or
Mikhail Gorbachev would strike most as ludicrous.
Editor's Note: One year after the attacks, Eric Foner assessed the impact of 9/11 on the way America tells the story of itself and readjusts its relationship with the world.
All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. People
instinctively turn to the past to help understand the present. Events
draw our attention to previously neglected historical subjects. The
second wave of feminism gave birth to a flourishing subfield of women's
history. The Reagan Revolution spawned a cottage industry in the history
of US conservatism.
Many years will pass before we can fully assess how our thinking about
history has changed as a result of September 11. While historians ponder
this question, conservative ideologues have produced a spate of
polemical statements on how we should teach American history in light of
recent events. In a speech less than a month after the tragedy, Lynne
Cheney insisted that calls for more intensive study of the rest of the
world amounted to blaming America's "failure to understand Islam" for
the attack. A letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and
Alumni, which she once chaired, chastised professors who fail to teach
the "truth" that civilization itself "is best exemplified in the West
and indeed in America."
In What's So Great About America, Dinesh D'Souza contends that
freedom and religious toleration are uniquely "Western" beliefs. The
publisher's ad for the book identifies those who hold alternative views
as "people who provide a rationale for terrorism." With funding from
conservative foundations and powerful political connections, such
commentators hope to reshape the teaching of American history.
Historians cannot predict the future, but the past they portray must be
one out of which the present can plausibly have grown. The
self-absorbed, super-celebratory history now being promoted will not
enable students to make sense of either their own society or our
increasingly interconnected world.
Historians cannot choose the ways history becomes part of our own
experience. September 11 has rudely placed certain issues at the
forefront of our consciousness. Let me mention three and their
implications for how we think about the American past: the upsurge of
patriotism, significant infringements on civil liberties and a sudden
awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and
The generation of historians that came of age during the Vietnam War
witnessed firsthand how patriotic language and symbols, especially the
American flag, can be invoked in the service of manifestly unjust
causes. Partly as a result, they have tended to neglect the power of
these symbols as genuine expressions of a sense of common national
community. Patriotism, if studied at all, has been understood as an
"invention," rather than a habit of the heart.
Historians have had greater success lately at dividing up the American
past into discrete experiences delineated along lines of race,
ethnicity, gender and class than at exploring the common threads of
American nationality. But the immediate response to September 11 cut
across these boundaries. No one knows if the renewed sense of common
purpose and shared national identity that surfaced so vividly after
September 11 will prove temporary. But they require historians to devote
new attention to the roots of the symbols, values and experiences
Americans share as well as those that divide them.
All patriotic upsurges run the risk of degenerating into a coercive
drawing of boundaries between "loyal" Americans and those stigmatized as
aliens and traitors. This magazine has chronicled the numerous and
disturbing infringements on civil liberties that have followed September
11. Such legal protections as habeas corpus, trial by impartial jury,
the right to legal representation and equality before the law regardless
of race or national origin have been seriously curtailed.
Civil liberties have been severely abridged during previous moments of
crisis, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Japanese-American
internment in World War II. Historians generally view these past
episodes as shameful anomalies. But we are now living through another
such episode, and there is a remarkable absence of public outcry.
We need an American history that sees protections for civil liberties
not as a timeless feature of our "civilization" but as a recent and
fragile achievement resulting from many decades of historical struggle.
We should take a new look at obscure Supreme Court cases--Fong Yue
Ting (1893), the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century,
Korematsu during World War II--in which the Justices allowed the
government virtual carte blanche in dealing with aliens and in
suspending the rights of specific groups of citizens on grounds of
military necessity. Dissenting in Fong Yue Ting, which authorized
the deportation of Chinese immigrants without due process, Justice David
Brewer observed that, like today, the power was directed against a
people many Americans found "obnoxious." But, he warned, "who shall say
it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other
September 11 will also undoubtedly lead historians to examine more
closely the history of the country's relationship with the larger world.
Public opinion polls revealed that few Americans have any knowledge of
other peoples' grievances against the United States. A study of our
history in its international context might help to explain why there is
widespread fear outside our borders that the war on terrorism is
motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly
Back in the 1930s, historian Herbert Bolton warned that by treating the
American past in isolation, historians were helping to raise up a
"nation of chauvinists"--a danger worth remembering when considering the
drumbeat of calls for a celebratory and insular history divorced from
its global context. Of course, international paradigms can be every bit
as obfuscating as histories that are purely national. We must be careful
not to reproduce traditional American exceptionalism on a global scale.
September 11, for example, has inspired a spate of commentary influenced
by Samuel Huntington's mid-1990s book The Clash of Civilizations.
Huntington's paradigm reduces politics and culture to a single
characteristic--race, religion or geography--that remains forever
static, divorced from historical development or change through
interaction with other societies. It makes it impossible to discuss
divisions within these purported civilizations. The idea that the West
is the sole home of reason, liberty and tolerance ignores how recently
such values triumphed in the United States and also ignores the debates
over creationism, abortion rights and other issues that suggest that
commitment to them is hardly unanimous. The definition of "Western
civilization" is highly selective--it includes the Enlightenment but not
the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but
not the Salem witch trials.
Nor can September 11 be explained by reference to timeless
characteristics or innate pathologies of "Islamic civilization." From
the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction to Oklahoma City in our own time,
our society has produced its own home-grown terrorists. Terrorism
springs from specific historical causes, not the innate qualities of one
or another civilization.
The study of history should transcend boundaries rather than reinforce
or reproduce them. In the wake of September 11, it is all the more
imperative that the history we teach be a candid appraisal of our own
society's strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in
self-celebration--a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent
dialogue with ourselves.
On its anniversary, two of its authors assess its relevance for today.
On September 23, 2001, midpoint between the horrific events of September
11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the New York
Times ran an intriguing headline. "Forget the Past: It's a War
Unlike Any Other," it advised, above an article by John Kifner noting
that "Air Force bombers are heading toward distant airfields to fight a
shadowy foe flitting through the mountains in a deeply hostile land
already so poor and so ruined by two decades of war that [it] is
virtually bereft of targets." It was a poor headline for an article that
began by noting the long history of conflicts among great powers over
control of Central Asia, but it was a message with a significant degree
History was often being ignored in the heated discussions of the coming
war and the attacks that provoked it, of course, but usually without
anyone having to instruct us to forget it. Pundits and politicians alike
could draw on a long tradition of keeping the public ill informed about
the role of the United States in the world. And once the "war on
terrorism" actually started, those who tried to speak about a context
for the attacks of September, or of how the history of US intervention
in the world had produced rage and frustration that could help fuel such
actions, were accused of justifying terrorism.
In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a riposte to Samuel Huntington's
much-discussed "clash of civilizations" thesis, Pakistani writer and
filmmaker Tariq Ali sets the ambitious goal of challenging such
organized historical amnesia--"the routine disinformation or
no-information that prevails today"--and of speaking forthrightly about
many topics that have become unpopular or even heretical in the West, as
well as within what he calls the House of Islam. "The virtual outlawing
of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy
to farce," Ali puts it in one chapter, "A short course history of US
imperialism." In such a situation, "everything is either oversimplified
or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility."
Whereas Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis posits a cultural
conflict between Islamic and Western civilization, and sees religion as
"perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people,"
Ali argues that economics and politics, especially oil politics, remain
central to the friction between Western powers and states in the so-called Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. He
rejects Huntington's identification of the West with "human rights,
equality, liberty, the rule of law, [and] democracy," and he reminds us
of the vast disparities that exist among cultures and nations within the
Islamic world itself.
Few people are better disposed than Ali to serve as a guide to the
neglected and distorted histories relevant to the conflict in
Afghanistan, the broader "war on terrorism" now being fought on numerous
fronts by the Bush Administration, and the intimately related conflicts
in Pakistan, India and Kashmir, which have recently put the world on a
heightened nuclear alert. Ali, a longtime editor of New Left
Review and Verso books, is the author of three books on Pakistan and
has deep personal and political connections to the region. In The
Clash of Fundamentalisms he surveys a range of regional and
historical conflicts that remain open chapters, including the creation
of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, the
unfinished legacy of Britain's brutal partition of India in 1947 and the
fallout from division of the world by the colonial powers. The book is
an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the nightmare of
history from which so many people are struggling to awake, and deserves
serious engagement and consideration. Ali broadens our horizons,
geographically, historically, intellectually and politically.
Despite his obvious hostility to religious modes of thinking--defending
against religious orthodoxy in favor of "the freedom to think freely and
rationally and [exercise] the freedom of imagination"--Ali has a
sophisticated appreciation of the many contradictory movements and ideas
that have organized themselves under the banner of Islam. He can debate
Islamic doctrine with the most ardent purists while at the same time
dispensing with the simplistic (and all too often racist) caricatures of
Islam that pass for analysis in the West. In The Clash of
Fundamentalisms he takes the reader on a necessarily schematic and
selective history of Islam, though one wishes he had provided more
signposts for those interested in further study than the scattered and
inconsistent references included in this volume.
Ali writes here of his "instinctive" atheism during his upbringing in
Lahore, Pakistan, and of being politicized at an early age. His
experiences then helped him understand Islam as a political phenomenon,
born of the specific historic experiences of Muhammad, who worked on a
merchant caravan and traveled widely, "coming into contact with
Christians and Jews and Magians and pagans of every stripe." Ali writes
that "Muhammad's spiritual drive was partially fueled by socio-economic
passions, by the desire to strengthen the communal standing of the Arabs
and the need to impose a set of common rules," thus creating an impulse
toward the creation of a universal state that remains an important
element of Islam's appeal.
Ali offers a fascinating discussion of the Mu'tazilites, an Islamic sect
that attempted to reconcile monotheism with a materialist understanding
of the world, including a theory of the atomic composition of matter;
some of its members also argued that the Koran was a historical rather
than a revealed document. "The poverty of contemporary Islamic thought
contrasts with the riches of the ninth and tenth centuries," Ali argues.
But he is by no means backward looking in his own vision. He is
particularly scornful of the mythical idealized past valorized by the
Wahhabites in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and other Islamic sects. "What
do the Islamists offer?" Ali asks rhetorically: "A route to a past
which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed."
Ali sees the spread of reactionary impulses within Islam in part as a
response to "the defeat of secular, modernist and socialist impulses on
a global scale." Various forms of religious fundamentalism, not only
Islamic ones, have partially filled a void created by the failures of
parties operating under the banner of secular nationalism and Communism
in the Third World. These failures--his examples include Egypt and
Syria--were connected to the limits of the nationalist leaderships
themselves, especially their lack of democracy and suppression of
religious movements by politicians seeking to preserve and extend their
own power. But Ali also goes on to argue that "all the other exit routes
have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American
Consider, for example, the consequences of the US work to train and arm
the Islamic forces in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, to wage a holy war
against the Soviet Union. A decade after the Soviets were expelled, the
country "was still awash with factional violence," while "veterans of
the war helped to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Sudan,
Pakistan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Saudi Arabia." The factional
instability in Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan's intervention,
created the conditions that led to the Taliban's rise to power.
To discuss the US government's role in overthrowing the secular
nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and supporting the brutal Shah for
decades; in operating through the intermediary of Pakistan's
Inter-Services Intelligence units to back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan;
in repeatedly downplaying serious human rights abuses by US "friends"
such as Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, whose governments
actively sponsored the growth of the Taliban; and in lending support to
groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sarekat Islam in Indonesia
and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan is not merely a case of obsessing about
past wrongs. As Ali argues persuasively, the past is indeed prologue.
Ali has a sharp mind and wit. His mode of history telling is lyrical and
engaging, humane and passionate. He repeatedly points to the lessons
learned by people in the course of struggle, challenging the pervasive
view that people can be liberated by those other than themselves,
setting out his differences with the advocates of "humanitarian
intervention." Ali writes that Western intellectuals have been far too
quick to support US-led military interventions such as the Gulf War and
to provide a liberal veneer of respect to wars prosecuted only
rhetorically in the name of human rights and democracy but actually
motivated by traditional "reasons of state." Where other people see
closed doors in history, he sees roads not taken and paths that remain
to be pursued.
Yet Ali spends too little time enumerating what some of those alternate
paths might be, especially for readers who are new to the history
recounted in The Clash of Fundamentalisms (certainly a
significant section of his readership, given the intense interest in
Islam, Central Asia, the Middle East and US foreign policy that has been
so much in evidence in recent months). In his final chapter, "Letter to
a young Muslim," Ali provides a thoughtful challenge to his
correspondent, but I fear he has not done enough to convince his reader
to change allegiances. He has more to say about the weakness of Islamism
than about any alternative vision of how a more just world might be
achieved. What would a compelling agenda look like in an era when, as he
notes, "no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even
pretends that it wishes to change anything significant"? What might a
radical secular program consist of today? How does one effectively mount
a challenge to the claim that there is no alternative to American-style
capitalism, or that attempts at fundamental change will reproduce the
horrors of the Soviet Union?
Indeed, The Clash of Fundamentalisms would have been stronger if
Ali had engaged this question more thoroughly. Though he expresses
contempt for the bureaucratic and dictatorial regimes that confronted
the United States during the cold war, at times he gives the Soviet bloc
more credit than it deserves. To suggest that China and the Soviet Union
were "striving for a superior social and economic system" is to give
those regimes far too much credit, and in essence to maintain some
illusion that Stalinist authoritarianism was a real alternative.
Ali at times repeats himself verbatim and gets a few details wrong (such
as misdating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, rather than 1990). None
of this takes away from the importance of his argument that we are not
living in a radically new epoch in history, but in a period with all too
much continuity to the one before September 11.
No one has contributed more to the United States than James Madison. He
was the principal architect of the Constitution, the brilliant theorist
who, more than any other single individual, was responsible for
designing the American system of government. Moreover, along with
Washington and Franklin, Madison was one of the men who made the Constitutional
Convention in Philadelphia work. Whenever passionate disagreements
threatened the enterprise, it was Madison's calm logic to which the
others listened. As one delegate put it, it was Madison who had "the
most correct knowledge" about government affairs.
And no one did more than Madison to get the Constitution ratified in the
face of strong anti-Federalist opposition. The most hyperbolic
superlatives cannot do justice to the twenty-nine newspaper essays
Madison wrote that, together with essays by Alexander Hamilton and John
Jay (all written under the pseudonym Publius), comprise the
Federalist Papers. Suffice it to say that 200 years later a
distinguished political scientist wrote, "The Federalist is the
most important work in political science that has ever been written, or
is likely to be written, in the United States," and that Madison's
contributions shine the brightest.
And that is not all. At the convention in Richmond when anti-Federalists
George Mason and Patrick Henry used every argument and stratagem to
persuade Virginia to refuse to ratify the new Constitution--which, had
they been successful, would have caused the Union to be stillborn--it
was Madison's cool, clear reasoning that once again saved the day.
Madison's place in the pantheon of great Americans, therefore, is secure
regardless of how we evaluate his performance as the nation's fourth
President (1809-17). His reputation can withstand the central inquiry of
Garry Wills's short and provocative new book, namely: Why was James
Madison so great a constitutionalist but so dreadful a President?
Perhaps I overstate by calling Madison's presidency "dreadful." Wills
does not go that far. He presents an evaluation of Madison's successes
and failures, finding both. Nor do historians generally consider Madison
a dreadful President. When C-SPAN asked historians to rank the forty-two
American Presidents, Madison came in at number 18, putting him slightly
above average and, by way of modern comparisons, ahead of George H.W.
Bush (20) and Bill Clinton (21).
Wills's strongest pejorative is his description of Madison as a "hapless
commander in chief." Nevertheless, Wills's examination makes me wonder
whether, out of deference to Madison's other accomplishments, historians
are being unduly charitable to his presidency.
The defining issue of Madison's tenure was the War of 1812. Some
historians argue that he cannot be blamed for a war thrust upon him by a
"War Hawk Congress." Others, however, including most prominently Ralph
Ketcham of Syracuse University, argue that Madison wanted the war and
maneuvered Congress into declaring it. Wills sides with Ketcham and
builds a persuasive case that Madison deliberately propelled America
into a war for which it was ill prepared.
War was raging between England and France when Madison came to office.
Napoleon's armies were conducting their bloody marches across the
Continent while England was using her sea power to try to keep him
confined there. During his term, Jefferson had been confronted with the
problem of what to do about the combatants seizing ships that were
carrying American exports to their adversaries or, in England's case
especially, boarding American ships to seize sailors, many of whom were
deserters from the British Navy. At Madison's urging (Madison was
Jefferson's Secretary of State), Jefferson imposed an embargo on
American ships crossing the Atlantic. While some supported an embargo to
keep American ships out of harm's way, Madison believed an embargo would
exert enough commercial pressure on England to force it to agree to
leave American shipping alone.
But in fact the embargo meant little to England or France. It meant much
more to America, particularly New England, whose economy depended
heavily on trade with England. In the first year of the embargo
America's exports fell by almost 80 percent. New England preferred
having some of its ships and cargo seized by combatants to suspending
all trade. Under great pressure, Congress ended the embargo and replaced
it with the Nonintercourse Act, which permitted American ships to cross
the Atlantic as long as they did not trade with England or France. The
virtue of this approach was that it was unenforceable; once American
ships disappeared over the horizon, there was no telling where they
The embargo ended on the last day of Jefferson's presidency, and the
indignity of combatants seizing American ships and sailors resumed in
full force as Madison took office. Then Madison heard good news: A
British diplomat reported that his government was ready to grant America
neutral trading rights. Thrilled, Madison immediately issued a
proclamation repealing America's prohibition against trade with
whichever nation, England or France, first granted neutral trading
rights to the United States. Believing troubles with England at sea to
be at an end, 600 ships sailed from American ports confident that all
would be well when they arrived at their trading destinations across the
But England quickly announced there had been a mistake. Its
representative had failed to communicate that England would grant
neutral status only upon several conditions, one of which was that
England would continue to stop and board American ships and seize former
British sailors. Madison was fit to tied. By reneging on its word, said
Madison, England had committed an "outrage on all decency" more horrible
than the capture of black slaves from the shores of Africa.
Madison should have realized something was wrong with the original
repre-sentation, Wills argues. The US government's own survey revealed
that roughly 9,000 American crewmen were British deserters, and England
could not possibly afford so many of her sailors safe haven on American
Madison tried to wipe the egg off his face by announcing a new
policy--America would unilaterally resume trade with England and France
and continue to trade with both until either nation recognized America's
neutral trading rights, at which time America would automatically
reimpose an embargo upon the other. In view of the failure of the first
embargo, there was no reason to believe a potential new embargo would
force England or France to change its policy. But, says Wills, Madison
remained stubbornly committed to the failed policy of embargo.
Unfortunately, Wills believes, Napoleon shrewdly exploited it as a means
to maneuver America into war against England.
Napoleon announced he would repeal his ban on neutral trade on November
1, 1812, provided that the United States reimposed its embargo against
England by then. Acting once again without bothering to get
clarification, Madison reimposed the embargo upon England. But just as
he had previously acted without learning England's details and
conditions, this time Madison acted on Napoleon's offer only to discover
that Napoleon refused to rescind an order confiscating American ships at
port in recently captured Holland and other harbors of the empire.
Getting bamboozled by Napoleon appears, paradoxically, to have made
Madison even more furious at England. For its part, England found
Madison's willingness to side with France deplorable. "England felt that
it was defending the free world against the international tyranny of
Bonapartism," Wills writes. "Anyone who was not with them in that
struggle was against them." And so, increasingly, America and England
perceived each other as enemies.
Madison's anger with England was one factor that moved him toward war,
but there was another as well: He wanted to seize Canada. Jefferson
urged Madison to pluck this ripe plum while England was militarily
engaged with Napoleon. "The acquisition of Canada this year will be a
mere matter of marching," advised Jefferson.
It may be worth pausing to observe that many of Madison's worst
disasters involve following Jefferson. With the exception of the War of
1812, the most lamentable mistake of Madison's career was his plotting
with Jefferson to have states nullify federal laws, specifically the
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The acts violated fundamental
principles of free speech and press, and Jefferson and Madison cannot be
blamed for opposing them. But the medicine they prescribed--the claim
that the states could enact legislation nullifying federal law--was
potentially far worse than the disease.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison had argued that
Congress should be given the authority to nullify state law, and was
discouraged when he lost this battle. He later betrayed his own
convictions by arguing that the state legislatures could nullify laws
enacted by Congress, though for tactical reasons he called this
"interposition" rather than "nullification." Moreover, Madison allowed
himself to be Jefferson's cat's-paw in this matter. Jefferson, then Vice
President, wanted to keep his own involvement secret, and Madison
fronted for both of them. Madison was haunted by this throughout his
career: Southern states invoked Madison's support of nullification
during disputes over slavery, and Madison's political opponents
delighted in forcing him to try to explain the difference between
"interposition" and "nullification."
Why did Madison so readily follow Jefferson over cliffs? Madison was
nervous, bookish, provisional and physically unimposing (5'4" and 100
pounds). He was so insecure with the opposite sex that he did not
attempt courtship until he was 31. The object of his desire was 15, and
Madison was so crushed by her rejection that he did not venture into
romance again until he was 43, when he successfully won Dolley's hand.
It would be only natural for Madison to fall under the thrall of the
tall, dashing, passionate, cosmopolitan and supremely self-confident
Any sensible strategy to seize Canada from one of the world's
superpowers would necessarily hinge upon a quick and powerful attack to
overwhelm British forces before they could be reinforced or before the
British Navy could be brought to bear in the conflict. Madison and his
military commanders planned a rapid, two-pronged strike: One American
force, commanded by William Hull, was to invade Canada from the west,
crossing over the border from Detroit. Meanwhile, Henry Dearborn was to
lead American forces from the east, crossing the Saint Lawrence River
from various points in New York.
Rather than take the time to raise and train a professional army,
Madison decided to invade Canada with militia forces. But this strategy
was the military equivalent of throwing pebbles at a hornet's nest--and
Madison should have known it.
Before the Revolutionary War, there had been much soapbox rhetoric about
the glories of the militia: Citizen soldiers were supposed to be more
virtuous and therefore more capable than professional soldiers. The
Revolutionary War proved this to be bunk. After the skirmishes at
Lexington and Concord, the militia performed terribly. So often did the
militia bolt in the face of even much smaller opposing forces that it
became Continental Army doctrine to position militia units in front of
and between regular army units, who were ordered to shoot the first
militiamen to run. Washington won the war only after raising and
training a professional army.
Notwithstanding the militia's dismal performance, some
politicians--particularly Southern slaveholders like Madison who relied
on the militia for slave control--continued to cling to the notion that
the virtuous citizen militia was superior to a professional army. One
Southerner who would have found these views laughable if they were not
so dangerous was George Washington. "America has almost been amused out
of her Liberties" by pro-militia rhetoric, he said: "I solemnly declare
I never was witness to a single instance, that can countenance an
opinion of Militia or raw Troops being fit for the real business of
Madison, however, had not been listening. In the Federalist
Papers, he and Hamilton expressed differing views about the militia.
Hamilton argued that an effective fighting force required professional
training and discipline, and he urged Congress to support only a select
militia. Madison, however, continued to envision a universal militia
consisting of all able-bodied white men.
This debate resonates even today in the gun-control debate. Because the
Second Amendment connects the right to bear arms to the militia,
gun-rights advocates suggest that the Founders considered the universal
militia to be sacrosanct. The militia was then composed of the whole
body of the people, and thus the Constitution permanently grants the
whole body of the people the right to keep and bear arms--or so the
argument runs. This makes little sense as a matter of constitutional
law, however, because, as both Hamilton and Madison recognized, the
Constitution expressly empowered Congress to organize the militia as it
Despite the Revolutionary War experience, Madison launched his attack on
Canada almost entirely with militia forces. The results were
predictable. In the east, most militiamen refused to cross the Saint
Lawrence, claiming that it was unlawful to take the militia outside the
United States. Dearborn did manage to coax a small contingent across the
river. But when shooting accidentally broke out among his own forces,
they all fled in confusion back across the Saint Lawrence.
Meanwhile, in the west, Hull's forces were paralyzed by militia refusing
to take orders from regular Army officers. There was an invasion, but
American forces were not the invaders. By the end of 1812, when America
was to be in possession of most of Canada, a few American units that had
failed to retreat successfully back into New York were being held
prisoner in eastern Canada, and English forces had taken Detroit and the
Things continued downhill. Two years later, a British force of 1,200
marched nearly unchallenged into the District of Columbia while 8,000
American troops, mostly militia, "ran away too fast for our hard-fagged
people to make prisoners," as one British commander put it. The British,
of course, burned the White House and Capitol to the ground.
Wills gives Madison high marks for grace and courage during the British
invasion of Washington, and, all in all, the war did not turn out too
badly. The British had not wanted it and settled for the status quo ante
bellum. And rather than feeling disgraced, America took patriotic pride
in a series of Navy successes, remembered through battle slogans and
anthems ("Don't give up the ship," James Lawrence; "We have met the
enemy and they are ours," Oliver Hazard Perry; "the rockets' red glare,"
Francis Scott Key). America came out of war feeling good about itself.
For this, historians give Madison much credit.
Some credit is undoubtedly deserved. More than once, Madison acted with
courage and grace in the midst of panic. America was properly proud of
its naval feats, though it is not clear that a President who took a
nation with seven warships into battle against an adversary with 436
Is it unfair to call Madison a dreadful President? If Wills is correct
about Madison stumbling his way toward war through a series of
diplomatic blunders and then deciding to take on a world power with
militia forces, perhaps not.
And what is it that allowed Madison to be so great a constitutionalist
and so poor a President? Wills argues that it was provincialism and
naïveté: What Madison had learned from the great minds by
reading books allowed him to understand political theory better,
perhaps, than anyone else. But without greater worldly experience, even
Madison could not operate the levers of power that he himself designed.
Yet as Wills aptly concludes, "Madison did more than most, and did some
things better than any. That is quite enough."