Republican Ideology and Its Failure in the War of 1812

The Library of America continues its outstanding contribution to the preservation and dissemination of America’s literary heritage with this collection of letters, speeches, diary excerpts and newspaper articles from “America’s forgotten conflict.” You might not know it, unless you live in Maryland [home of the “star-spangled” license plate] or one of the states bordering the Great Lakes, but we are in the midst of “celebrating” the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This war suffers from obscurity in part due to the fact that for two of its principal players, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson (the latter acted as a perpetual font of advice to the former) the war was hardly a high point of their public service, and is therefore marginalized by those historians inclined to portray the two Virginians as valiant opponents of the evil Federalists. To the extent that the war is known at all, it is, as the editor of this collection, Donald R. Hickey, notes, for “‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ the burning of Washington, and the Battle of New Orleans.” Professor Hickey may be giving too much credit to the American public – a nationwide survey taken in 2010 found that 50% of Americans believed that the War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution.

To be honest, I approached this book with all the ardor of being assigned to read a Department of Agriculture report on beet subsidies. There is something about the War of 1812 that cause eyes to glaze over; perhaps this is due to its comic mismanagement and inconclusive outcome. Fortunately, The Library of America selected a scholar with impeccable credentials to assemble this collection. Donald Hickey has spent his entire professional life teaching and writing about the war and has assembled a number of interesting, and at times surprising, writings. This book was actually hard to put down, which is probably the first time in recorded history that this cliché was applied to a book about the War of 1812.

Hickey provides a perspective on the war from the lowliest foot solider, to Native-Americans, to prisoners of war, to disgruntled and at times semi-treasonous Federalists, to newspaper editors, and to key decision makers in Washington and London. The most interesting entries capture the hatred of the Madisonians toward Great Britain, despite the fact that France was guilty of many of the same affronts to American honor as the British. One pro-administration newspaper editorialized in favor of war with Great Britain over the issue of impressment by noting there was not a “true man” in the United States who would not exclaim, “war – a war of extermination against them.” The United States was compelled to go to war, he added, or “become colonies.”

John C. Calhoun, one of the leading War Hawks, noted that without going to war with Great Britain, the United States must “submit to the most shameful degradation,” for peace is “a situation as ruinous as it is disgraceful.” The British, according to Calhoun, were in the throes of a “mad ambition” and a “lust of power.” Thomas Jefferson argued in favor of war by noting that while a “Bonaparte will die, and his tyrannies with him” a nation, Great Britain, “never dies. The English government and its piratical principles and practices, have no fixed term of duration.” In his war message to Congress in June, 1812, President Madison was clearly irritated with the English, angrily noting the “spectacle of injuries and indignities which have been heaped on our country.” But this language was blandly diplomatic when compared to the rhetoric of Madison’s allies, who viewed the struggle with England in apocalyptic terms.

Madison understood that by ignoring French violations of neutral American shipping, one of the main factors cited in the case for war against Britain, his administration was open to accusations of hypocrisy. Perhaps this offers some insight into Madison’s somewhat restrained rhetoric as opposed to that of his supporters. Jefferson responded to Madison’s concerns regarding France with his usual conspiratorial interpretation of events, noting that proposals for a “triangular war … must be the idea of the Anglomen” in the United States. Jefferson repeatedly encouraged Madison to invade Canada, surely one of the most calamitous strategic errors in the history of American war making. Blinded by ideology, Jefferson assumed that Canadians would greet the American invaders as liberators; conquering Canada would be, to borrow a term from the war in Iraq, a “cakewalk.” Jefferson’s anti-British fanaticism was best captured by letters that were overlooked by Hickey, in which the Sage of Monticello advocated burning down St. Paul’s Cathedral in retaliation for the destruction of Washington, D.C. This arson could be accomplished, the Sage believed, by bribing some of London’s poor to act as “incendiaries” on behalf of the United States. One has the distinct impression that were Jefferson the commander in chief during the War of 1812, St. Paul’s would have been torched.

In light of Jefferson’s fanaticism, it is perhaps not surprising that he viewed the Treaty of Ghent as a mere armistice, a temporary truce, due to the Madison administration’s failure to win a single concession regarding the maritime issues that caused the war. As Hickey observes, “the maritime issues [impressment, confiscation of neutral trade] that had led to hostilities . . . [were] not even mentioned in the peace treaty.” For Jefferson, this was a war against an evil empire, and the absence of any British concession on the maritime issues meant that the United States would be locked in an “eternal war” that would end up with the “extermination of the one or the other party.” While Jefferson’s penchant for apocalyptic language [see for instance his famous “Adam and Eve” letter of 1793 defending the excesses of the French Revolution, where the Sage described the idea of seeing “half the earth desolated” as an incidental cost of revolution] characterized much of his public career, James Madison was temperamentally averse to this kind of fanatical thinking, which is one of the few positive observations you can make about Madison’s presidency.

While most of the causes of the conflict remained unresolved at war’s end, the war did restore a sense of American honor and respectability, at least in the eyes of those American’s who suffered from Anglophobia. For them, this was America’s “Second War of Independence,” a war that concluded the unfinished business of the American Revolution. Mr. Madison’s war salved the consciences of those still angered with the Jay Treaty and Federalist “groveling” to the Brits – victories like Andrew Jackson’s at the Battle of New Orleans and his various Indian massacres restored American “honor.” Yet the emotional benefits of the war are somewhat hard to fathom, and may reflect something of an American capacity for self-delusion. Canada, which Jefferson claimed could be taken as a “mere matter of marching,” successfully resisted American marching, inflicting some of the worst defeats in the history of the American military and reinvigorating Canadian commitment to the crown.

Good feelings to the contrary, the fact remained that, “by the fall of 1814 the [United States] government was insolvent. . . . Unable to meet its obligations, it defaulted on the national debt in November.” The vaunted state militias, a cornerstone of Republicanism, were an outright embarrassment. At the Battle of Bladensburg, or “the Bladensburg races” as the British preferred to call it, thousands of American militiamen dropped their weapons and fled at a pace that would make the French proud, thereby paving the way for the burning of Washington, D.C.

Madisonians took pride in the fact that the American Navy, which Jefferson and Madison had gutted by over two-thirds since 1801, performed admirably during the conflict. Madison shared Jefferson’s belief in the “ruinous folly” of a Navy, which were Old World tools of imperialism. President Jefferson had created a “coastal fleet” of “mosquito” boats, or “Jeffs” as critics called them, which proved to be utterly useless, equipped as they were with one gun. The American Navy’s success was due to warships like the USS Constitution which were constructed as a result of Federalist polices enacted during the Washington and Adams administrations.

The most important outcome of the War of 1812 was that it led to the belated adoption by Madison and his allies of Alexander Hamilton’s vision for a national bank, a professional military, and a vibrant manufacturing base. As Hickey notes, after the conflict Republicans who “had been hostile to peacetime defense spending . . . embraced a sizable army and an ambitious program of naval expansion and coastal defense.” Unable to make reality bend to their republican ideology, both Jefferson and Madison were forced to concede on many of the points that characterized the great debates of the early republic.

As for Madison himself – his conduct of the war should have led to his impeachment, once members of Congress dusted the ashes off their seats at Blodgett’s Hotel, the temporary home of the United States Congress and one of the few buildings left standing after the destruction of the nation’s capital. Madison’s performance as commander in chief makes Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush look like Sun Tzu. While most American presidents would claim that the best way to protect American interests was through policies grounded in “peace through strength,” the Madisonian understanding of national security was based on the principle of peace through unpreparedness, or speak boisterously and carry a small twig. If you want a glimpse into the potential impact of a presidency operating with similar principles on national security (the latter being the true bulwark of American liberty) pick up this terrific book, but prepare to weep.