Montpelier remembers war of 1812

Orange County Review
By: Drew Jackson | Orange County Review

Wars have many names, usually based on perspective and victors. This year marks the bicentennial of perhaps the United States’ first true test of national sovereignty, the War of 1812, America’s second war of independence, Mr. Madison’s war. The war is remembered best in a song and in the saving of a painting, but a new exhibit opening later this month at Montpelier will tell the rest of the story, particularly from the perspective of the nation’s first wartime president, James Madison.
The War of 1812 holds many memorable firsts for the United States, but Montpelier wants visitors to observe the war for what Madison did not do—violate any provisions in the Constitution.
“Madison never surrendered habeas corpus, never imprisoned anyone for sedition or for criticizing the government,” said Christian Cotz, director of visitor engagement for Montpelier. “Madison conducted the war according to the laws of the Constitution because he thought it was strong enough to do so. Ultimately he was right.”
A newly drafted panel, soon to make a two-year stay in the mansion at Montpelier as part of the War of 1812 exhibit, notes the various presidents who extended executive power and bent the Constitution during their administrations. Among the names: Lincoln and Roosevelt, Bush and Obama. Cotz, though, said the exhibit aims to portray the war through Madison’s role as the manager of the war, not the hero, since he wasn’t one.
“We wanted to take a broad perspective, a presidential perspective,” he said. “The military side is the sexy side and a lot of other institutions and organizations will cover that during the bicentennial. We wanted to offer the broader picture of the war, the constitutionality of the war, the African American side, the economic side, the trade side, the effects of the war and Madison’s cabinet.”
The War of 1812 is primarily a war of identity for America, but there are few individual personalities that linger in the minds of citizens two centuries later. There is Dolley Madison rescuing George Washington’s portrait from a burning White House, Francis Scott Key penning the Star Spangled Banner during an attack on Baltimore Harbor and a rough neck future-president Andrew Jackson fighting off the British in the south.
Peggy Vaughn, director of communications for Montpelier, points out that while James Madison’s role as the first wartime president is perhaps overshadowed by his influence on the Constitution, the Orange County citizen endured many firsts in the defense against America’s first test as a country.
“This is the only time a president rides to the front lines of a battle, the only time the United States is invaded,” she said. “This war solidified us on the global stage and enabled us to say we are our own nation.”
The exhibit itself opens Sunday, June 17 with a reception and lecture by Michael Meyerson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore. Comprised of a series of panels detailing everything from Madison’s revolving and at times incompetent cabinet, to the role native Americans and African Americans played in the war, the exhibit occupies two rooms on two floors in the mansion. Cotz and Vaughn also said the display will feature interactive components, enabling visitors to see the worldwide view of the war, including the influence of the Napoleonic wars raging in Europe at the same time. As the War of 1812 is largely a sea battle, there will be a ship’s wheel for kids to metaphorically steer the country through the war, much the same way Madison did.
“The seizing of ships [by France and Britain for the Napoleonic wars] and the impressment of American soldiers into their navies were pretty much the reasons for war,” said Cotz. “You’ll be able to use the wheel to navigate the various ways Madison attempted to avoid war, diplomacy, embargos, economic restrictions, before ultimately declaring war on Britain.”
Admission to the exhibit’s reception, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, June 17, is $18. To RSVP call 672-2728 ext. 109 or email

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