Engaged in a War That Was To End In A Stalemate, Did America’s Founders Miscalculate Its Military Institutions?
by John B. Hoey
The War of 1812 has frequently been mythically portrayed as a stout contest in which outnumbered United States forces fought valiantly against British regulars and their Indian allies, suffered early setbacks, and finally won a gallant victory that validated national institutions and presaged the growth and expansion of the young Republic.
This assessment, preached to students over many generations, has taught some of the wrong lessons.
In 1812, Congress declared a war that the nation was unprepared to fight, and, in many actions, U.S. forces outnumbered the British enemy but still failed to win decisively. The final outcome was a stalemate that resulted in a negotiated peace for the nearly bankrupt and divided nation. The results of the war also demonstrated that the nation’s founders and their successors had seriously miscalculated the efficacy of American military institutions as they had evolved in the years 1783-1812.
The United States went to war in June 1812 because Great Britain had violated U.S. sovereignty in ways that suggested that the new nation was still a colonial entity, subject to imperial whim. By May 1812 a consensus had developed in Congress that suggested there was no alternative to war if national honor were to be maintained. When the Jeffersonian Republicans came to power in 1801, tensions between Great Britain and the United States had gradually increased while diplomatic relations worsened, despite the strenuous efforts of U.S. statesmen to seek a resolution of the differences that separated the two countries.
The issues that divided the United States and Great Britain came into sharper focus after 1805. The Napoleonic wars in Europe had created great opportunities as well as great dangers for the U.S. Republic. Beginning with the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the American Revolution, the overseas trade of U.S. merchants had grown steadily, taking over markets formerly serviced by Great Britain.
After the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition, pitting France against Austria, Prussia, and Sardinia in 1792 and England, Holland, and Spain in 1793, the United States remained neutral and its citizens endeavored to trade with both sides. Exports from the United States had averaged $20 million annually from 1790 to 1792. Thereafter, the trend was sharply upward, reaching $94 million in 1801 and a high of $108 million in 1807. Imports followed the same trend, rising from $23 million in 1790 to $110 million in 1801. After a brief contraction, they surged again to a new high of $138.5 million in 1807.
This situation became increasingly difficult, as both France and England objected to this trade as not being “neutral.” U.S. merchant ships were in danger of being halted on the high seas, boarded, inspected, and, if their papers revealed trade with the opposing power, seized and confiscated. From 1803 until the issuance of the British Orders in Council of 1807, the British seized 528 American ships, while France seized 206 from 1803 until France issued the Berlin Decree in 1806. In England influential essayists pointed out the folly of allowing the United States to supersede the former mother country in trade with the West Indies and Canada.
At the same time, commanders of British warships patrolling the Atlantic, short of seamen in their own ships, pressed American merchant seamen into service. When boarding a U.S. ship for inspection, British officers frequently demanded a muster of the ship’s crew in order to search for deserters. Without doubt, some American merchantmen had signed on British deserters, but the majority of men taken were naturalized U.S. citizens who had been born in the British Isles or colonies. The British, however, did not recognize changes in citizenship. A man born a British subject always owed service and allegiance to the Crown. Thus, a seaman on board an American vessel who could not prove his U.S. origins risked being seized and virtually enslaved on board a British warship for years. Similarly, the British press gangs in English ports were infamous for carrying away to sea any able-bodied men found in their way. This practice, called impressment in the American p opular press, grew to be a detested evil.
In December 1806, with tensions increasing between Great Britain and the United States, President Thomas Jefferson sought grounds for amicable settlement of grievances through a new treaty, negotiated by James Monroe and William Pinkney. Its principal aims were to obtain the end of impressment of U.S. seamen; the restoration of the West Indian trade, which Great Britain had forbidden; and to obtain payments of indemnities for ship seizures made after 1805. When the two diplomats faced British intransigence, however, they yielded on some points and failed to follow their instructions on the issue of impressment. When they returned with the treaty in early 1807, Jefferson refused to submit it to the Senate for ratification.
Following this diplomatic fiasco, Jefferson had to cope with the most serious threat to peace since his assumption of the presidency. In 1807, Captain Salusbury Humphreys, commander of the British frigate Leopard, knowing in advance that Commodore James Barron’s flagship Chesapeake carried British deserters among its crew, followed the Chesapeake to sea from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on June 21. The following day, several miles out, Humphreys signaled the Chesapeake to heave to. The British boarding officer demanded that Barron have the crew mustered, which the commodore refused to do, and minutes later the Leopard opened fire on the unprepared U.S. frigate. Barron ordered the colors struck and submitted to the British, who mustered the crew of the Chesapeake and took off four men, claiming them to be British subjects and deserters. Humphreys refused to accept Barron’s sword and allowed him to proceed back into port, a disgraced man in a wounded and disgrace d ship.
This outrageous act incensed the American populace and President Jefferson could have gone to war immediately, but he was content merely to proclaim the British warships unwelcome visitors in U.S. ports. He did not believe the time had come for hostilities and was wedded to the concept of economic warfare.
Jefferson’s method of extracting concessions from the British would henceforth be that of withholding trading privileges. Thus, the Embargo Act of 1807 and various non-importation acts were intended to damage the British economy in the midst of its war against France. The effects, Jefferson hoped, would persuade England that it needed U.S. trade more than it needed impressed seamen or confiscated cargoes, but Jefferson’s efforts failed. British officials viewed his attempts at economic coercion as the efforts of a weak nation that did not have the will or the resources to commit to war. In effect, the president had failed to understand the nature of the balance of the power in Europe and the degree to which British policy reacted to French actions, not those of the United States.
The government of Napoleon Bonaparte took advantage of the U.S. situation. The U.S. embargo of British goods placed the United States in the position of being a French ally while not having any of the advantages of such a position. Indeed, Napoleon’s restrictive decrees increased the danger of U.S. ships being taken by the French navy and others. Such was his Berlin Decree of November 21, 1806, which placed the British Isles under blockade, forbidding commerce with them and authorizing the confiscation of ships suspected of trading with the British.
Retaliation came in the form of the British Orders in Council of November 1807, forbidding trade with France and its allies. Responding with his Milan Decree on December 17, Napoleon declared that even vessels that were searched by the British or that obeyed the Orders in Council were subject to seizure.
On April 17, 1808, with the Bayonne Decree, Napoleon authorized confiscation of any U.S. ship in European harbors, arguing that he was helping enforce the U.S. embargo act. Despite these offensive measures, President Jefferson took no effective action to oppose the French. He had hoped that France would force Spain to cede the Floridas to the United States in gratitude for his anti-British posture. Fearing Great Britain more than France, Jefferson played the French card but was ultimately to be disappointed.
President James Madison also felt the sting of French duplicity. On May 1, 1810, Congress enacted Macon’s Bill No. 2, a law that ended commercial restrictions against the belligerents but also provided a lure. If either France or Britain removed their restrictions on U.S. trade and the other did not, the U.S. government would reimpose its nonimportation policy against the recalcitrant nation.
On hearing that Congress had passed Macon’s Bill No. 2, Napoleon ordered his foreign Minister, the Duc de Cadore, to inform U.S. Ambassador John Armstrong that France would revoke the Berlin and Milan decrees if the United States would renew nonintercourse against Great Britain. Contrarily, Napoleon also ordered the sequestration of U.S. vessels that had called at France ports in 1809-1810. The Duc de Cadore, however, wrote Madison that the decrees had already been revoked, and the United States halted commerce with Great Britain and opened trade with France. The letter of the Duc de Cadore became well-known as the document that duped Madison and his foreign policy officials, the second Republican administration to fail in an attempt to play the French against the British.
During almost ten years of attempted economic coercion and failed diplomatic efforts, two U.S. presidents experienced the frustrations and embarrassments that prepared the way for war as the ultimate remedy for the loss of U.S. ships, cargoes, seamen, and wounded national honor. Following the passage of Macon’s Bill No. 2 and the Cadore letter episode, an increasing number of Americans felt that war was the only remaining path by which U.S. interests and national honor could be protected. In 1811, Congress finally contemplated preparation for war, while the mood of the American people and their government vacillated between fear and boastful posturing.
The second war with England, which began in June, 1812 and lasted into 1815, was the most unpopular war that the United States ever waged, not even excepting the Vietnam conflict. The war declaration on June 18 passed by a vote of seventy-nine to forty-nine in the House, and nineteen to thirteen in the Senate. Eight out of ten New England senators and eleven out of fourteen New York representatives voted against it, and twenty-five percent of the Republicans in Congress abstained, for there was a strong anti-war faction within President James Madison’s own party, led by John Randolph of Roanoke.
Although the South and the West were keen for the war when it began, their enthusiasm soon evaporated, judging from recruitment statistics. The War Department could never build up the regular army to half its authorized strength, and obtained only ten thousand one-year volunteers out of fifty thousand authorized by Congress. Even Henry Clay’s Kentucky furnished only four hundred recruits in 1812. Interestingly enough, the loyal minority in the New England states more than compensated for the discouraging stand of the Federalist state governments; those five states provided the regular army with nineteen regiments as compared to fifteen from the middle states and ten from the southern states. The truth seems to be that Hull’s surrender to the British at Detroit had shown that the war would be no walkover. Support for it waned throughout the country, popularity returning after the war had ended.
The Federalists opposed the war for several specific reasons. For one thing, they saw it as a party war designed to further the interests of Republicans and to silence the opposition ~n a view that was reinforced by the Baltimore Riots in 1812 and the refusal of the administration to accept Federalists into the Cabinet in1814. “I regard this war, as a war of party, and not of the country,” said Rufus King in 1812. “The people are no more obliged “O to approve and applaud the measure,” added the United States’ Gazette, “than “O any other party project.”
The Federalists also feared that the war would throw the nation into the arms of Napoleon, who was variously described as “the great destroyer,” “the little tyrant,” the “monster of human depravity,” and “the arch-fiend who has long been the curse and scourge of the European World.” The initial protests against the war, particularly in New England, often expressed greater fear of a French alliance than of the war itself. “The horrors of war, compared with it, are mere amusement,” said Timothy Dwight. “The touch of France is pollution. Her embrace is death.” French Dominion, added William Ellery Channing, threatened not just the wealth, but “the minds, character, morals, and the religion of our entire nation.”
Even after the danger of a French alliance had receded, Federalists continued to oppose the war because they considered it an “offensive” war aimed at Canada. Although willing to support a war to protect American commerce or to defend the nation’s frontiers, they refused to sanction the conquest of Canada. “Let it not be said,” Congressman Morris Miller of New York told the Republicans in 1813, “that we refuse you the means of defense. For that we have always been ~n we still are ready to pen the treasure of the nation. We will give you millions for defense; but not a cent for the conquest of Canada ~n not the ninety-ninth part of a cent for the extermination of its inhabitants.”
Even if the invasion of Canada had succeeded, Federalists were convinced that the war would do more harm than good. “Whether we consider our agriculture, our commerce, our moneyed systems, or our internal safety,” declared the Alexandria Gazette, “nothing but disaster can result from it.” Nor did the Federalists expect the nation to win any concessions from the enemy, certainly not on an issue as vital as impressment. They believed it to be of a temporary nature that would be terminated when the tyrant Napoleon was defeated. “No war of any duration,” said James A. Bayard of Delaware, the Federalist minority leader in Congress, “will ever extort this concession.”
An important but sometimes overlooked aspect of Federalist opposition to the war is that the party did have a legitimate fear for the future of the nation, at least in the social context. The Federalist antiwar clergy stressed that the war was an outward expression of God’s displeasure and a corrupting influence on the citizenry that made them less virtuous and posed a serious danger to the constitutional balance of the republic. Armies were irreligious repositories of depravity that transformed law-abiding citizens into savages who corrupted communities with disruptive, sinful practices. War disrupted commerce and farming, forced burdensome taxation, created idleness and unemployment, extended bureaucracy, and encouraged smuggling. Federalist politicians argued for limited, peaceful dissent tempered with prudence and channeled through committees of correspondence and public meetings. Federalist war opposition was grounded in a reverence for the Constitution and an adherence to traditional Republican values.
In sum, Federalists saw the war as a costly, futile, and partisan venture that was likely to produce little good and much evil. The best way to bring the conflict to an end, most Federalists agreed, was to oppose it. Hence they wrote, spoke, and preached against the war; they discouraged enlistments in the army and subscriptions to the war loans. The Federalists vigorously condemned all who supported the war and worked for their defeat at the polls.
Traditionally, Americans had dealt with crises by calling a convention. The Albany Congress (1754), the Stamp Act Congress (1765), the First Continental Congress (1774), and the Constitutional Convention (1787) were all convened to deal with crises. In New England there was recurring talk of calling a convention: First in 1808-1809, when the long embargo brought trade to a halt; then in the summer of 1812, when the declaration of war threatened to drive America into an alliance with France; and finally in 1814, after a new embargo had been imposed.
Fear and frustration showed plainly in the results of the elections of 1814. The Federalists gained large majorities in both state and national offices, and the party leadership interpreted its success as a mandate for action against “Mr. Madison’s War.” The activities of Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts demonstrated how extreme such action might become. In November, 1814, Strong offered thinly veiled hints of a separate peace and an alliance to General Sir John Sherbrooke, the British Governor of Nova Scotia. Strong’s overtures to the enemy came to nothing, but they served as an index of the desperation which infected Strong’s section and his party.
This same mood of desperation moved Strong to call the Massachusetts General Court, or legislature, into special session in October, 1814. It responded to the crisis by calling for a convention of delegates from the New England states to meet at Hartford, Connecticut, on December 15. According to Harrison Gray Otis, the acknowledged author of the convention plan, the delegates were to discuss ways and means of sectional defense and to take steps to revise the United States Constitution to accord with sectional interests.
Three of the five New England States heeded Massachusetts’ call. The legislatures of Connecticut and Rhode Island joined the Bay state in selecting delegations. Vermont and New Hampshire took no official action, but delegates chosen by local and county conventions in those states attended the Hartford sessions. Twenty-six men took part in the convention, and for the most part they were of a moderate temper. Extremists, such as Jack Lowell and Timothy Pickering, took no part in the proceedings and privately bewailed the convention’s lack of “bold and ardent men.” Well aware that a firm but fine line separated political opposition from treason in wartime, the Hartford delegates sought to play a positive, not negative, role.
The Hartford Convention, when assembled and organized, conducted most of its business in committees. George Cabot, the leader of the Massachusetts delegation who had explained that one of his objectives was to prevent “hot-heads from getting into mischief,” was probably instrumental in stacking the committees with moderate men. Otis was apparently the guiding spirit of the committees and the author of the report adopted by the convention on January 3, 1815.
Otis’ report, the product of the Hartford Convention, began by stating the mission of the convention, which was to provide for concerted sectional defense and to propose repairs to the Constitution. The report then discussed at length the circumstances which gave rise to the convention. It focused upon the disaffection of extremists, and although it opposed radical solutions, such as dissolving the Union, it plainly implied that the Union was in peril. In effect it contained a mild ultimatum to the Madison administration to listen to the convention and its moderate solutions or be prepared to face the radicals and disunion. There followed a cataloging of the sins of Republican administrations past and present.
Finally, the convention offered its solution in the form of a series of seven amendments to the Constitution providing that : (1) the “three-fifths compromise,” which allowed states to count a portion of their chattel population in determining proportionate representation in Congress and the Electoral College, be abolished; (2) a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress be required to admit new states into the Union; (3) no embargo be imposed for more than sixty days; (4) a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress be required to adopt declarations of war; (5) a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress be required to adopt declarations of commercial nonintercourse acts; (6) naturalized citizens by ineligible for federal office, elective or appointive; (7) no President might succeed himself, nor should successive Presidents be from the same state.
The work of the convention reflected a mixture of sectional complaints and political rancor. Its enemies accused the assembly of treason; yet its temper was moderate. Although the convention addressed itself to some legitimate sectional grievances, it lapsed into the rhetoric of narrow partisanship. Perhaps no man came closer to the truth than John Adams, who described the Hartford delegates as “intelligent and honest men who had lost touch with reality.”
The supreme irony was that even while the convention debated, American arms won a great victory at New Orleans, and the British and Americans made peace at Ghent. By the time representatives carrying the report of the Hartford Convention arrived in Washington, the country knew that peace had come. Such circumstances blunted New England sectionalism, and the Federalist Party seemed treasonous, ludicrous, or both. Its demise was imminent.
To be sure, the meeting at Hartford put an end to the already waning national fortunes of the Federalist Party while giving a legitimacy to the notion of nullification which would haunt the nation later. Yet the Hartford Convention preserved the centrist course of New England Federalism. Indeed, as the most notable instance since the Second Continental Congress of men organizing to satisfy, direct, and control an aroused populace, it was a monument to the growth of electoral democracy.
But more than this, the Hartford Convention was another of the continuing attempts to define the meaning of the American experiment in a hostile and unstable world and to hold the nation to the standards under which it began. Men may debate how these standards are to be met, and the Convention may not have represented all that was best in the New England tradition. Yet the Federalists of New England were trying to raise, sincerely and anxiously, some enduring questions ~n some of them for the first time in the young republic’s history ~n about the conduct of government and the quality of society, both in and out of war. As such their concerns have never lost their timeliness. The Federalists of the Hartford Convention were, if nothing else, steadfast in their republican faith.
That faith, however, could have many consequences and take many forms. It was the dark legacy of the Hartford Convention not only to taint ineradicably the Federalist Party with disloyalty and irrelevance, from which it died in 1820, but also to provide precedent and philosophy for future acts of defiance toward policies of the national government. South Carolina’s efforts to nullify the collection of federal tariff duties in 1832 echoed the themes of regional interest and reserved constitutional rights laid down in 1814. More fatefully, those same principles of nullification remained alive in the South throughout the 1840s and 1850s, finally gaining enough acceptance by 1860 to justify the South’s secession because of Abraham Lincoln’s determination to prevent the further extension of black slavery in the United States. Thus it was that, in a small Connecticut town forty-six years before, were planted some of the seeds of the resort to arms that ensued, of t he bloodiest war in the nation’s history, of the emancipation of the slaves, and of the survival of the American union.
In retrospect, I believe that the War of 1812 was an unnecessary war, that the United States should have pursued a policy of patient neutrality until the European war ended. Even though the British gave no guarantees against the impressment of American seamen, they had already abandoned the practice. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British Navy no longer needed the crews. The end of the European war also brought an end to blockades and the harassment of American vessels.
In the words of Harrison Gray Otis it seemed unchristian and downright wicked to attack England when she was “the world’s last hope” against the tyrant Napoleon. As Otis wrote to his uncle, “The most intelligent and respectable men in the country tremble for the prosperity and fate of Britain, and consider her justly as the Bulwark of the liberties of this country and mankind.”
That belief happened to be correct in 1812. Napoleon had fashioned his Continental System almost to perfection. He had suppressed every vestige of liberty in Western Europe save in England, Portugal and recalcitrant Spain. Within a week after America declared war on Great Britain, his grand army entered Russia. England’s cause in 1812, as in 1914 and 1939, was that of a free world.
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