Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the fourth in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
Just six months after James Madison took office as the fourth president of the United States, tribes in Indiana and Illinois signed the Treaty of Fort Wayne, trading 3 million acres of land for $5,250 in goods and annual subsidies.
Signed in September 1809, the treaty triggered an explosive response from Tecumseh, a powerful Shawnee leader. “Sell a country!” Tecumseh said. “Why not sell the air, the clouds and the great sea, as well as the earth?”
A group of Wyandot chiefs in the Great Lakes area also reacted to the treaty. One year earlier, the Wyandot had ceded a portion of their own land to the United States.
“We love the land that covers the bones of our fathers,” the chiefs said in speech delivered on the same day William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana territory, signed the Treaty of Fort Wayne with the Delaware, Potawatami, Shawnee, Kickapoo, Miami and Eel River tribes. “It surprises us, your children, that Our Great Father, the president of the United States, should take as much upon himself as the Great Spirit above, as he wants all the land on this island.”
The treaty was the first of 30 signed during Madison’s presidency, which spanned two terms, from 1809 to 1817, and encompassed the War of 1812 and several smaller skirmishes.
Born in Virginia in 1751, Madison got his start in politics as a Virginia state legislator. He later served on the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, where he earned the title of “Father of the Constitution” because of his pivotal roles in both drafting and ratifying the document. A member of the Democratic-Republican Party, Madison served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and secretary of state before being elected as president in 1808.
During his eight years in office, Madison dealt with tensions on the country’s western, northern and southern borders.
In 1811, U.S. troops marched on Prophetstown, Indiana, the home of Tecumseh and a burgeoning Indian alliance that planned to halt American expansion. In a surprise, pre-dawn attack known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, the troops defeated the Native forces. The Indian alliance never recovered.
In 1812, American forces tried three times to invade Canada, but met resistance from British troops and their Indian allies. In 1813, conflict erupted between U.S. and Indian forces in the South during the Creek Civil War. At the close of the war, in August 1814, the Creeks signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson, ceding to the U.S. more than 20 million acres of land in present-day Alabama and Georgia.
Yet for a president who “pushed hard” for expansion, Madison rarely spoke about Indians, said John Stagg, professor of history at the University of Virginia and editor of The Papers of James Madison. Instead, he deferred to policies put in place by his predecessors that called for the continued pressuring of Indian nations to give up more of their homelands.
“On the face of it, Madison didn’t appear to say much about the Indians,” Stagg said. “The assumption is that Madison’s policy toward Indians was a continuation of what came before. Madison perpetuated [Thomas] Jefferson’s treatment. Like Jefferson, he looked at the map and, seeing undefended frontiers, wanted to get land for the settlers and extinguish Indian claims.”
Privately, however, Madison was skeptical of the beliefs behind federal Indian policy, which at that time focused on civilization, or transitioning Indians from their “savage” state to agricultural societies, Stagg said. Madison believed that Indians would resist civilization.
In an 1818 address to the Agricultural Society of Abermarle, Virginia, Madison spoke of this unwillingness of the Indians to “transition from the hunter, or even the herdsman state, to the agriculture.”
“There is a disinclination in human nature to exchange the savage for the civilized life,” he said in a speech delivered after he left the presidency. “The Indian tribes have ever shewn an aversion to the change.”
French writer Baron de Montlezun, who visited the White House in 1816, recalled that the President worried about the influence of “uncivilized” Indians on white settlers who choose to “mingle with them.” Madison believed settlers were “irresistibly attracted by that complete liberty, that freedom from bonds, obligations, duties, that absence of care and anxiety which characterize the savage state,” Montlezun wrote.
One of the answers proposed by the Madison administration was an amalgamation of cultures, Stagg said. In March 1816, Secretary of War William Crawford sent to Congress a report on Indian Affairs in which he offered some solutions, including intermarriage.
“Let intermarriages between them and the whites be encouraged by the government,” he said. “It will redound more to the national honor to incorporate, by a humane and benevolent policy, the natives of our forests in the great American family of freemen, than to receive with open arms the fugitives of the old world.”
That suggestion, which came as Madison was beginning his final year in office, was met with outrage from the American public. It also prompted a series of hostile letters directed at Madison and published in a Philadelphia newspaper.
“The idea of intermarriage with Indians was viewed as disgraceful and disgusting,” Stagg said. “When the letters were published, they really represented a shift to harsh and hostile attitudes toward Indians.”
If Madison disagreed with the Indian policies of the time, he never articulated that publicly.
“Whatever his private thoughts were, he didn’t use them to reverse the thrust of federal Indian policy,” Stagg said. “He never openly rejected the assumptions.”
Madison left office in 1817 and was succeeded by James Monroe. He died in 1836 at age 85.