President Thomas Jefferson followed George Washington’s precedent and retired after two terms. His hand picked successor, James Madison, emerged to carry the Jeffersonian mantle in the 1808 presidential election. Jefferson's economic policies created an economic depression in his second term. The depression devastated New England and breathed some life into the moribund Federalist Party. Although Madison won the election, the Federalists made heavy gains in Congress.
Secretary of State Madison easily brushed aside other contenders to capture the Democratic Republican nomination for president. Madison led the fight for the Constitution, led the Jeffersonian faction in congress, and served the retiring president as secretary of state. Incumbent Vice President George Clinton won the nomination as Madison’s running mate. On the Federalist side, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney won the nomination with former New York Senator Rufus King as his running mate. Four years earlier, Jefferson crushed Pinckney in the general election. Pinckney's return as a candidate four years after the humiliating defeat demonstrated the weakness within the Federalist Party. It would be like Walter Mondale winning the 1988 Democratic nomination after losing 49 states in 1984.
Pinckney managed a better showing in 1808. However, Jefferson remained popular despite running the economy into the ground. The president hoped to persuade the European powers to respect American neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars. As a result, he launched an embargo on the continent. Jefferson overestimated the importance of American goods in Europe and the embargo had little effect on France or Britain. However, it ruined the American economy. New England suffered the worst under the embargo.
Despite the economic downturn, the Democratic Republican Party held a huge advantage. The Jeffersonians were better organized than the Federalists, enjoyed wider ideological support, and the president remained popular. Madison rode his revolutionary credentials, Jefferson’s popularity, and party advantage to the White House. Madison carried 12 states and 122 Electoral Votes. Pinckney did substantially better than 1804, but still only managed 5 states and 47 Electoral Votes. On a side note, George Clinton became the first man to win election to the vice presidency with two different running mates.
Pinckney did not improve enough to claim the presidency. Likewise, the Federalist Party improved in the congressional elections, but not enough to claim either house. The Democratic Republicans held a 28-6 edge in the U.S. Senate. They might have over-expanded in Jefferson’s wake. The Federalists gained one senate seat to cut the advantage to 27-7.
Although they only added one senate seat and showed marginal improvement at the presidential level, Federalist anger over the embargo translated to a landslide victory in the House of Representatives. The opposition gained 24 seats in the lower chamber. The Federalists gained 5 seats in southern districts, but swept through New England. Despite the impressive victory, the Federalists still only held 50 of 142 House seats. Madison’s party still maintained an overwhelming edge.
The economy shriveled under President Jefferson. Despite this, the Federalist Party suffered from a major disadvantage in organization and voter party affiliation. Secretary of State Madison won the presidency and the Democratic Republicans held serve in congress. The Federalists gained seats, but remained in the extreme minority. As a result, they could do little to block Madison.