War, opined ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, is the greatest
teacher of man. One lesson, however, it has not taught to man:
he should not go to war.
English opinion was shocked that the United States
should declare war against Britain. An English editor declared the War
Message to Congress of President Madison to be
"the most labored ,peevish, canting, petulant, querulous,
and weak effusion, that ever issued from a man
assuming the character of a statesman and the
President, or elective quadrennial King, of a
professedly Republican country."
Mere weeks before the Declaration of War, England had revoked the
Orders in Council that had appeared to so outrage the Americans,
but the word had not gotten through. One may ask,
why could not legislation be passed canceling the Declaration?
That's not the way history happens:
other reasons and pretexts were available.
The War, when it came, had absurdly large territorial dimensions; it
was preceded by acts of war and would be succeeded by them. The
War was a continuation of the troubles that Jefferson had suffered with
France and Britain. Both countries wanted American trade for
themselves but not for the enemy, and they were in desperate conflict.
England desired no war, but it would pay any price to stop the delivery
of raw materials to the armies and allies of Napoleon. The French
Republic, on its side, fighting the great powers of Europe, had the
same reasons as Kaiser Germany and Hitler Germany a century later
for blocking American shipments to Great Britain.
That is, given the principle of freedom of the high seas,
accepted in the recently developing law of nations, the United
States could have gone to war with both countries, and there was a
thin range of opinion that advocated this action. At the moment,
however, there appeared to be more of an argument for going to war
with Britain than with France.
America had endeavored to avoid war and punish both countries by
its embargo on all shipping abroad, which was unenforceable and
opposed by the North especially. Now, in Madison's administration, it
experimented with an embargo aimed at both England and France, but
not at other countries, with the proviso that the embargo would be
lifted in the event that either or both of these countries ceased its
depredations against American shipping. This "Non-Intercourse Act"
was still persuant to the policy of "peaceful coercion."
The British Minister, perhaps maliciously, informed the American
Secretary of State that Britain would comply,
and the embargo against Britain was lifted.
But his report proved false.
Next, Congress cleverly reversed the order of things and
enacted legislation that allowed trade with the warring powers,
but promised to reward either power, would it drop
its restrictions, by imposing a non-intercourse
policy upon the other power.
Napoleon's government took the next step by
informing the Americans that the Berlin and Milan decrees
interrupting their trade were revoked. Hearing this,
Madison interdicted trade with Britain. But
France had asked for more - not only restoration of trade, but the
actual Revocation of the British Orders in Council, which were
blocking theoretically all American shipping from possibly
ending up in French-allied hands.
This was beyond American capabilities,
but Madison still kept the restraints upon Britain.
The War party grew stronger.
Possibly Madison reckoned with the fact that his re-election
depended upon the nomination and campaigning of the caucus
of Congressional Members of the Democratic-Republican Party.
On June 1, Madison asked for War on four grounds: impressments,
harassment of commerce off the American coastline, the use of
blockades falsely to plunder American commerce, and the total
blockade of commerce implied in the Orders in Council.
Congress declared war against Britain.
On June 16, the British government announced the revocation
of the Orders in Council. On ships that passed in the night,
there went benightedly the Declaration of War and
the Revocation of the Orders.
A few months before the Declaration of War, two-thirds of the House
appeared to be committed to peace. When the war vote came, 79 to 49
for war, the votes for the declaration could be readily traced in a
giant crescent that started in New Hampshire and swept down around the
frontier areas until it turned at the lower South to reach the sea again
above Florida. These seem hardly to be regions under the British guns.
So historians have been hard put to find appropriate and sufficient,
rational or material reasons, for bellicosity.
The New England interests that should have been most bellicose
before the event were not the actual provokers of War. They were
supplying many of the necessities of the West Indies, regardless of
nationality. They were evading the laws of all and sundry countries
that restricted shipping. To the price of the next shipment of goods
would be apportioned losses sustained on the last shipment. No one
knows the extent of smuggling and running of the blockades,
American, British, and French. The restraints were obviously not
destroying Northern foreign trade. The oceans are very wide. Even the
Straits of Gibraltar and the English Channel were
too wide to police fully.
With the damaging interplay of the French and British navies,
privateers and merchant fleets, there was all the more room around the
world for the Americans to trade - China, India, the Mediterranean,
and South America. One may think of the situation as comparable to
the Prohibition era in America in the 1920's
when the final legalization of whiskey in 1933
took the charges of the smugglers and gave them over to
the government as tax payments, and smugglers escalated into
the now legitimate alcohol traffic, building up such enormous
multinational concerns as the Canadian, Schenley liquor-based
conglomerate of the Bronfman family.
The issue of impressment of seamen from American ships was
admittedly painful. It reflected upon the dignity of the new nation. The
British captains refused to recognize naturalized Americans of British
origin, and were prone to make many mistakes that took
a long time to admit and rectify, meanwhile profiting them.
Commercial troubles assailed the Southern plantations; their markets
were smaller, prices received lower. Many there blamed the British
blockade for the reduced demand for staples of the South.
Southern Congressmen generally voted for war.
The South and West were driven by wild dreamers.
In the very first decade of the nineteenth century could be heard
cries from those quarters that only in 1845
would be given the term "manifest destiny." The
extremists visualized the whole North American Continent and
Caribbean as desirable, logical, possible, even inevitable, and therefore
legitimate annexations of the United States.
Look to the North, they would say. There is nothing but a thin line of
Canadians, hardly worthy of respect, being Loyalists and Frenchmen.
We need both sides of the St. Lawrence. We need, because they are so
much like us, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Upper Maine. We need
Quebec and the full Great Lakes to prevent ourselves from being
attacked by the British and their Indian allies.
Look to the West. There we need to protect ourselves from the
Indians, backed by the British, and beyond that by the Spaniards who
are allies now of the British.
And the same goes for the South: Florida East and West to the
Mississippi. We need to protect our commerce on the Mississippi. We
cannot have Spanish threats overhanging the delta region.
And why should we not be thinking of the fate of our Mexican
neighbors, who are intermittently but persistently engaged
in a struggle for liberation from the Spanish yoke?
As for the Caribbean, there we have the Spanish and British Islands,
where our plantation system is compatible and ideologically
akin to the people there, not to their masters in Europe.
War with England would justify all-out war against the Indians and
aggression against the Spaniards.
It may appear bizarre, but at this very early date, this second-rate
nation had a great many people with untrammeled imaginations.
Typically in such cases, where the offenses only with difficulty justify
the risks and losses of war, paranoid rumors circulate and are believed.
Injuries are exaggerated. Dreams become realities. Americans who had
led the demand for War, especially the group called "War Hawks" in
the Congress, believed in the impossible -
that Canada and the Eastern provinces could be won,
that the Indians might be forever routed westward,
that the Spanish would retire from the Continent,
that the British Army and Navy would be sent flying,
that American shipping would take over the Seven Seas,
that after the British would come the turn of the French,
So enthusiastic were the Hawks that Henry Clay
of Kentucky resigned his Senate seat to be chosen Speaker of the
House of Representatives partly in order to pursue the cause of war in
what was then the more important chamber of Congress.
Naturally, he expected in return to be elected President.
As America went to war, the Grand Army of the French Republic was
assembling for its ill-fated march deep into Russia, ending at Moscow
in freezing weather with a cold welcome from the few Russians to be
found there. After a horrible retreat in the depths of winter under the
guns of Russian guerrillas, the Army's remnants reached safety. The
one episode cost France more casualties than the War of 1812
produced on the part of British, Indian and American forces. The cost
to the Russian forces and civilians was enormous as well.
Only the Indians lost heavily in the War of 1812; their alliances with
Britain aroused aggression along the frontier that speeded up their vast
gradual retreat into the West. The ruin of Napoleon's power and the
decline of France began at Moscow. In April of 1814 Napoleon
surrendered, and the British could turn more attention to waging war
on land and sea in America.
American land forces were negligible, 6,700 badly trained and badly-led
men, with of course many thousands of militiamen of the States in
the same poor condition. Naval forces included a score of ships. Most
were bottled up by British blockade. New England was allowed
leeway in trade with the outer world, for the British could see there a
considerable sentiment for peace and even cooperation with
themselves, though the enemy.
American land strategy called for the conquest of Canada. Three task
forces were engendered. One was to invade Canada via Detroit,
another along the Niagara River, and a third along Lake Champlain
toward Montreal. The British disposed of some 16,000 men in
Canada, newly arrived from overseas. They were
ample for the occasion.
The 2000 Americans at Detroit stayed put, underwent siege, and
surrendered prematurely to a British General who used the
psychological warfare trick of parading seemingly large numbers of
Redcoats and Redskins before the frightened eyes of the Americans.
On the Niagara Front, hundreds of American soldiers managed to seize
commanding positions on the Canadian side, but withdrew when the
New York State militiamen who were supposed to reinforce them
refused to budge, claiming that their obligation to fight stopped at the
borders of the State.
The Easternmost Army set off from Plattsburgh, New York, but once
again, having arrived at the border of Canada, the New York militia
declined to go farther.
Thus, the campaigns to conquer Canada ended ridiculously. The town
of Newark in Canada was burned to the ground, it should be noted, for
later reference, when the British burned Buffalo and turned their
attention to Washington, D.C.
There, the British landed an army forty miles from Washington, at
Benedict, Maryland, and marched on the Capital. Madison had sent
out a call for 95,000 militiamen to defend the place. Only 7,000
volunteered. Still, the Americans had a larger force than the British,
but this melted away in the early phases of firing, and on August 24,
1814, the British entered the Capital.
The government fled to Virginia and watched, while the British set fire
to all government buildings except one, the Patent Office. The next
day violent storms attacked the town and the British withdrew to
prepare for an assault upon Baltimore, fourth largest American city.
However, they were repelled in a duel of cannon, and decided not to
land a force against an entrenched and larger American army. Here
was a genuine victory for the Americans.
Around the same time, a British Army of 15,000 was descending along
the shores of Lake Champlain, accompanied by a fleet of boats upon
which the task force commander placed great reliance. It appears that
he had sufficient forces to capture Plattsburgh even without the help of
his fleet. That his reliance was misplaced soon became evident, for the
fleet soon engaged a vigorously combative American flotilla, led by
Commodore Thomas Macdonough, that completely destroyed it.
The British Army made little further progress.
On the high seas, American defeats and victories occurred. And
immediately following the war, Captain Stephen Decatur was sent on a
punitive expedition into the Mediterranean, where he extracted from
the rulers of the semi-piratical states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli
promises to not molest commerce and to
free American prisoners .
Three years after the war began, and a couple of weeks after the Peace
Treaty was signed at Ghent in Belgium, the British suffered a bitter
defeat at New Orleans, but the War was not renewed.
Preliminaries to the Battle of New Orleans were colorful.
The Americans might have lost the battle, if General Andrew Jackson's
men had not been able to round up arms from the area,
because the supplier entrusted with a consignment
of rifles and ammunition delayed deliberately,
possibly engaged in speculations with a premonition of peace,
or possibly paid to delay delivery by British agents;
patriotism was still one of the cheaper commodities and
weaker motives of many Americans.
A contingent of Kentucky militiamen arrived, only a few of them
carrying rifles. Jackson cursed and declared that he had never before
seen Kentuckians without a pack of cards, a bottle of whiskey, and a
rifle. But probably the poor Kentucky boys had shrewdly left their
family gun at home and had gone to Louisiana to win one for
themselves. The price of cotton in the neighborhood jumped from
6 to 16 cents a pound.
Jackson played his cards right, using cotton bales to protect his
entrenchments against balls, shot, and bullets, and effectively
assimilating to his ranks several state and territorial militias
coming from far and wide, free African-Americans and Creole
Francophones, planters, gangsters and pirates.
General Sir Edward Pakenham, the British Commander, descending in
fine order from his fleet and with leisurely preparations, seemed to
undervalue the element of time in combat operations. When he led his
troops on the ascent to the American positions, he was only pursuing
the tactic that would win the Battle of Waterloo for his brother-in-law,
Lord Wellington, next year. As the British neared, the cowering
Americans arose in their trenches to deliver fire. They killed him and
over a thousand of his men, not to mention wounding twice that many.
Prompt counterattack, quick pursuit and annihilation were not part of
the military doctrine of the U.S.Army of the day, so the American
forces dispersed and got drunk.
As for what was changed by the Battle of New Orleans and the War,
historians are hard put to find much of importance. If the British had
won the battle, no doubt, peace treaty or no, they would have loitered
indefinitely in the vicinity, and the unwritten understandings behind the
written treaty would have been interpreted
less favorably for the Americans.
Too, Andrew Jackson would have given up his brevet as Major
General and returned to his slave-worked plantation in Tennessee. He
had a substantial military record even beforehand, won
or his campaign against the Creek Indians in Georgia, from
which victory he had ridden directly to New Orleans.
The provisions of the Treaty of Ghent solved none of the problems
"causing" the war, at least not on paper. Both sides, more so the
British, dropped territorial and indemnity demands. Commissions were
set up to discuss issues for future resolution, prisoners were to be
exchanged, and that was all.
For lack of rational justification and apparent effect, some have termed
the War a "Second War of Independence." In its literal meaning, the
appellation is inappropriate. Psychologically, as a second stage of
separation from the parent, it makes more sense. France could have
been equally the enemy, but the psychic separation from the French
had no historical meaning to most Americans.
Indeed it had little meaning, with reference to the English, within the
Federalist core of New England, who were already "healed." They
were strongly anti-Napoleonic, and their ties with England had been
increasingly numerous and sympathetic, formed in education, visits,
trade partnerships, and consumer fashions. The women of New
England thought that they "knew" the women of England.
The frontiersmen were more likely to be Scots-Irish or other ethnic
groups hostile as a matter of course to Englishmen. They were less
settled, more taken up with evangelical religious cults,
more emotionally deprived and uncontrolled.
They could be cured in some of this through
additional aggression against the authority of Great Britain,
a Second War of Independence. Irish Catholics and some
Protestants fled to America after the Rebellion of 1798, and their
influence was particularly noticeable in the press, which, some
complained, had fallen into the hands of Irishmen. They were
vigorously Anglophobic and were sometimes accused of being
insufficiently Americanized and of carrying their homeland's struggle
with them to the United States. The same accusation, usually with a
considerable measure of justification, was to accompany the course
of British-American relations down to the present.
Notably, major American myth and symbolism erupted from the War.
"Orleans Saved and Peace Concluded!!" went the headlines and a
collective amnesia set in that placed the Battle of New Orleans in time
before the Peace, as of course it was in reality, in the time frame on the
spot. For all American schoolchildren of the future, for whom the
timing could not be juxtaposed, the Battle became a marvelous joke,
an extra kick in the pants to confirm that a
victorious Treaty had been won.
"Immortal lines" of the post-war period included those of Oliver Perry,
commanding the American flotilla that defeated the British on Lake
Erie: "We have met the enemy and they are ours!"
The U.S. frigate Constitution became a legendary vessel,
whose lines and fittings were seared into popular memory
amid tales of cannon, carnage, and heroism.
(The ship's surgeon's log in 1811, before the sailors became
heroes, noted syphilis and gonorrhea as the most common ailments
coming to his attention.)
The poetic stanzas of the national anthem were composed during the
English bombardment of Fort McHenry, that commanded the port of
Baltimore (and put to the music of an old English drinking song later,
and made the national Anthem even later). The slogan later to be
adopted for the country, and to be placed incongruously on U.S.
currency appears here, "In God we trust."
Uncle Sam, the cartoon image of the United States, began as a fat
man, not the tall, top-hatted, flag-dressed later figure, in the War.
The nickname was derived from a man, Sam Wilson,
who supplied meat to the United States Army,
stamping it "U.S.", but when a United States Army's inspector
asked what the initials meant, he was told that they were for
A sinister precedent for the Union's Unity also came out
of the War, the Hartford Convention. Called by the Massachusetts
legislature, delegates from five states
convened in December of 1814.
They talked of secession from the Union, they almost repeated
Madison's Virginia Resolutions of 1798,
but concluded with a mixed bag of seven proposed
constitutional amendments, including:
abolition of the 3/5 clause in congressional apportionment
giving partial credit for slaves in apportioning Congress,
barring foreign-born from federal office,
limiting the tenure of Presidents to one term, and
making declarations of war more difficult.
South Carolina could point to the Convention later on
when it proposed to nullify an Act of Congress, and it became
a stock rebuttal against Northern unionist
arguments before the Civil War.