Madison’s war challenges are focus

OK, SO YOU’RE Montpelier, the Orange County home of president James Madison, and you’re putting together an exhibit on the War of 1812  he presided over.

Sure, there were climactic battles from Niagara to New Orleans, but they’re all pretty far removed from the home where James and Dolley lived during and after his presidency.

Also critical but even further removed: battles with Native Americans and foreign troops in Canada and elsewhere, and struggles between the French and British all over the globe.

“All those were important,” said Christian Cotz, director of visitor engagement at Montpelier, “but we decided to create an exhibit on the War of 1812 that gives visitors a feel for Madison’s point of view, the different issues he dealt with as president.”

The result, in the war’s bicentennial year: “A Young Nation Stands: James Madison and the War of 1812,” a new exhibit at the home of James and Dolley that uses informative panels, hands-on activities and an interactive display operated with a ship’s wheel to explore perhaps the least-understood American war.

Cotz, who noted that the exhibit is a collaboration among historical scholars and Montpelier staffers, said the approach is to share with visitors the challenges the war posed to Madison.

Perhaps the most noteworthy tidbit, in a modern world where many feel that the U.S. Constitution is under constant assault, is that  Madison remains the only president to protect all constitutional liberties during a time of war.
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“We like to point out that the Father of the Constitution proved to the country that he could defend the Constitution without violating it,” Cotz said.

The wide range of challenges become clear as you move from a War of 1812 Timeline to interactive displays on issues dividing America as it entered the war and waged it.

Trade embargoes that denied Britain food, cotton and more may have hurt its ability to wage war, but it also devastated American manufacturing and shipping. At some thriving New England ports such as Salem, Mass., shipping never really recovered.

Another big issue was the need to make other nations see our newly constituted nation as a sovereign country that could and would defend itself, even if it had only five warships when the war began and nothing approaching a real, standing army.

Despite that, the exhibit makes clear that the conflict pulled the country together,  with frontiersmen joining freemen and others in some spots to beat back invaders on several fronts.

Other key aspects of the exhibit examine conflicts with Native Americans, the burning of the President’s House (White House) and the role of slaves and newly freed blacks in particular battles.

Bits of history new to me:

Madison’s brave ride out to rally the troops at Bladensburg, Md., made him the only president to ride out to a battlefront while commander in chief.

Madison struggled with a cabinet Cotz characterized as perhaps “the most inept in history,” going through nearly a dozen secretaries of war, treasury and state because of deaths, political maneuvers and more.

How far-flung were the battles fought in the war, something you can follow on a touch-screen map that accentuates that fact.

The exhibit will be open  through the end of 2014. In addition, visitors can  see War of 1812 artifacts in the Grills Gallery in Montpelier’s Visitor Center.

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