Election of 1812: DeWitt Clinton Nearly Unseated James Madison

Opponents of the War of 1812 Nearly Turned Madison Out of the White House

Portrait of DeWitt Clinton
DeWitt Clinton. Library of Congress

The presidential election of 1812 was noteworthy for being the first wartime election in the United States. It gave voters an opportunity to render judgment on the presidency of James Madison, who had recently led the United States into the War of 1812.

When Madison declared war on Britain in June 1812 his action was fairly unpopular. Citizens in the Northeast in particular opposed the war, and the election to be held in November 1812 was viewed by political factions in New England as an opportunity to turn Madison out of office and find a way to make peace with Britain.

It's worth noting that the candidate nominated to run against Madison, DeWitt Clinton, was a New Yorker. The presidency had been dominated by Virginians, and political figures in New York State believed it was time a candidate from their state, which had surpassed all other states in population, brought an end to the Virginia dynasty.

Madison won a second term in 1812. But the election was the closest presidential contest held between the deadlocked elections of 1800 and 1824, both of which were so close they had to be decided by votes held in the House of Representatives.

The reelection of Madison, who was obviously vulnerable, was partly attributable to some peculiar political circumstances that weakened his opposition.

War of 1812 Opponents Sought to End Madison's Presidency

The most strident opponents of the war, the remnants of the Federalist Party, felt they could not win by nominating one of their own candidates. So they approached a member of Madison's own party, DeWitt Clinton of New York, and encouraged him to run against Madison.

The choice of Clinton was peculiar. Clinton's own uncle, George Clinton, was a revered political figure in the early 19th century. One of the Founding Fathers, and a friend of George Washington, George Clinton had served as vice president during Thomas Jefferson's second term and also during the first term of James Madison.

The elder Clinton had once been considered a likely candidate for president, but his health began to fail and he died, while vice president, in April 1812.

With the death of George Clinton, attention turned to his nephew, who was serving as mayor of New York City.

DeWitt Clinton Ran a Muddled Campaign

Approached by Madison's opponents, DeWitt Clinton agreed to run against the incumbent president. Though he did not — perhaps because of his muddled loyalties — mount a very vigorous candidacy.

Presidential candidates in the early 19th century did not campaign openly. In fact, it would have been considered unseemly to campaign much at all. Political messages in that era tended to be conveyed in newspapers and printed broadsheets. Surrogates for candidates did what little campaigning took place.

Clinton's supporters from New York, calling themselves a committee of correspondence, did issue a lengthy statement that was essentially the Clinton platform.

The statement from Clinton supporters did not come out and openly oppose the War of 1812. Instead, it made a vague argument that Madison was not pursing the war competently, therefore new leadership was needed. If the Federalists who had supported DeWitt Clinton thought he would make their case against the war itself, they were proven wrong.

Despite Clinton's fairly feeble campaign, the northeastern states, with the exception of Vermont, cast their electoral votes for Clinton. And for a time it appeared that Madison would be voted out of office.

When the final and official tally of electors was held, Madison had won with 128 electoral votes to Clinton's 89.

The electoral votes fell along regional lines: Clinton won the votes from the New England states, except for Vermont; he also won the votes of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Madison tended to win the electoral votes from the South and West, where America's new war against Britain tended to be more popular.

Had the votes from one state, Pennsylvania, gone the other way, Clinton would have won. But Madison won Pennsylvania easily and thus secured a second term.

DeWitt Clinton's Political Career Continued

While his defeat in the presidential race seemed to damage his political prospects for a time, DeWitt Clinton remained a formidable political figure in New York. He had always been interested in building a canal across New York State, and when he became governor of New York he pushed for the building of the Erie Canal.

As it happened, the Erie Canal, though at times derided as "Clinton's Big Ditch," transformed New York and the United States. The commerce boosted by the canal made New York "The Empire State," and led to New York City becoming the economic powerhouse of the country.

So while DeWitt Clinton never became president of the United States, his role in building the Erie Canal may have actually been a more important and lasting contribution to the young and growing nation.