The War of 1812 is the strangest war in American history. It was a war in its own right but also a war within a war, a part of the larger war between Britain and France that had been going on since France’s National Convention declared war on Britain in February 1793. Although the total American casualties in the war were relatively light—6, 765—far fewer in the entire two and a half years of war than those killed and wounded in a single one of Napoleon’s many battles, it was nonetheless one of the most important wars in American history. It was, said Virginia’s John Taylor, the philosopher of agrarian Republicanism, a “metaphysical war, a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport,” but rather “a war for honour, like that of the Greeks against Troy,” a war, however, that “may terminate in the destruction of the last experiment in . . . free government.”1
The United States told the world in 1812 that it declared war against Great Britain solely because of the British impressment of American sailors and the British violations of America’s maritime rights. Yet on the face of it, these grievances scarcely seemed to be sufficient justifications for a war, especially a war for which the United States was singularly unprepared. In 1812 the U.S. Army consisted of fewer than seven thousand regular troops. The navy comprised only sixteen vessels, not counting the dozens of gunboats. With this meager force the United States confronted an enemy that possessed a regular army of nearly a quarter of a million men and the most powerful navy in the world, with a thousand warships on the rolls and over six hundred of them in active service.
Yet President James Madison was supremely confident of success. Indeed, right after Congress declared war Madison personally visited all the departments of government, something never done before, said the controller of the treasury, Richard Rush, the young son of Benjamin Rush. The president, who presumably abhorred war, gave a pep talk to everyone “in a manner,” said Rush, “worthy of a little commander-in-chief, with his little round hat and huge cockade.”2
From beginning to end the war seemed as ludicrous as its diminutive commander-in-chief with his oversized cockade, the symbol of martial spirit. The British against whom the United States declared war in June 1812 did not expect war and did not want it. In fact, just as America was declaring war in June 1812, the British government repealed the orders-in-council authorizing the seizure of American ships and the impressment of American sailors that presumably had been a major cause of the war—too late, however, for the Americans to learn of the British action and reverse their decisions already taken. It turns out that many Americans did not want to go to war either; indeed, the leaders of the governing Republican party were devoted to the idea of creating a universal peace and had spent the previous decade desperately trying to avoid war. Nevertheless, it was the Republican party, which most loathed war and all that war entailed in taxes, debt, and executive power, that took the country into the war, and some Republicans did it with enthusiasm.
The vote for war in the Congress (in the House of Representatives seventy-nine to forty-nine and in the Senate nineteen to thirteen, the closest vote for a declaration of war in American history) was especially puzzling. The congressmen who voted for the war were overwhelmingly from the sections of the country, the South and West, that were farthest removed from ocean traffic and least involved in shipping and thus least affected by the violations of maritime rights and the impressments that were the professed reasons for declaring war. At the same time, the congressmen most opposed to the war were from the section of the country, New England, that was most hurt by the British impressment of American sailors and British violations of America’s maritime rights.
Perhaps the infusion of new members helps explain Congress’s decision to go to war.3 In 1810 sixty-three new congressmen were elected to a 142-seat House of Representatives. The Twelfth Congress contained a number of young “War Hawks,” such as Henry Clay of Kentucky, Felix Grundy of Tennessee, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who were eager to take strong measures against Great Britain. Since many of the War Hawks were from the West, however, it is not at all clear why they should have been so concerned for the nation’s maritime rights. Representatives from Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee cast more votes for the war (nine) than did those from the New England states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In fact, New England congressmen voted twenty to twelve against the war, and most of the twelve votes in New England for the war came from congressmen representing the frontier areas of New Hampshire and Vermont.
This paradox of Western support for a war that was ostensibly about maritime rights led historians at the beginning of the twentieth century to dig beneath the professed war aims in search of some hidden Western interests. They argued that the West supported the war because it was land hungry and had its eyes on the annexation of Canada. Others refined this interpretation by contending that the West was less interested in land than it was in removing the British influence over the Indians in the Northwest. Still others argued that low grain prices aroused Western resentment against British blockades of America’s Continental markets.
But since the West had only ten votes in the House of Representatives, it could not by itself have led the country into war. It was the South Atlantic states from Maryland to Georgia that supplied nearly half (thirty-nine) of the seventy-nine votes for war. This Southern support for war led other historians to posit an unspoken alliance between Westerners who wanted Canada and Southerners who had their eyes on Florida. Yet Pennsylvania, which presumably had little interest in the West or Florida, provided sixteen votes for the war, the most of any state.4
Although the vote for the war may remain something of a puzzle to some historians, one thing is clear: the war was very much a party issue, with most Republicans being for the war and all the Federalists against it. In fact, the war became the logical consequence of the Republicans’ diplomacy since 1805. As early as February 1809 President-elect Madison said as much to the American minister in London, William Pinkney. If America repealed the embargo and the British orders-in-council remained in effect, said Madison, “war is inevitable.”5 He believed war was inevitable because impressment and neutral rights had come to symbolize what he and other Republicans wanted most from Britain—unequivocal recognition of the nation’s sovereignty and independence.
THE FIFTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD MADISON was presumably as well prepared for the presidency as anyone in the country. He had been involved in public service in one way or another during his entire adult life. He had been a principal force behind the calling of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 and had composed the Virginia Plan that formed the working model for the Constitution. He was the co-author of the Federalist, surely the most important work of political theory in American history. He had been the leader and the most important member of the House of Representatives at the beginning of the new government in 1789. More than any other single person he was responsible for the congressional passage of the Bill of Rights. He was the co-founder of the Republican party and had been secretary of state for the entire eight years of Jefferson’s presidency.
Despite all of Madison’s experience, however, he seemed awed by the prospect of becoming president. When in his timidly delivered inaugural address he referred in a conventional manner to his “inadequacies” for the high office, he appeared to mean it. He was by far the most uncharismatic president the country had yet experienced. His three predecessors had fit the king-like office much better than he. They either had been virtual royalty, as in the case of Washington, or had tried to be royalty, as in the case of Adams, or had achieved dominance by being the anti-royal people’s president, as in the case of Jefferson. Madison was none of these; he was not made for command. He lacked both the presence and the stature of his illustrious predecessors; indeed, as one observer noted, during social gatherings in the White House, “being so low in stature, he was in danger of being confounded with the plebeian crowds and was pushed and jostled about like a common citizen.”6
Madison could be congenial in small groups of men, where he liked to tell smutty stories, but in large mixed groups he was shy, stiff, and awkward—”the most unsociable creature in existence,” concluded one female observer. Consequently, his gregarious wife, Dolley—who was described by an ungallant English diplomat as having “an uncultivated mind and fond of gossiping”—tended to dominate their social gatherings.7 When Madison held official dinners as president, Dolley, a large woman who dwarfed her husband, seated herself at the head of the table with Madison’s private secretary seated at the foot. Madison himself sat in the middle and was thus relieved of having to look after his guests and control the flow of conversation. But so alarmed did Dolley become over what she felt was the lack of regard paid Madison that she arranged for “Hail to the Chief” to be played at state receptions to rouse people to proper respect when her husband entered the room. As a brilliant Washington hostess, Dolley Madison, the “presidentess,” as she was called, created a public persona that rivaled that of her husband, who was seventeen years her senior. Her social skills and energy encouraged dozens of congressmen to bring their wives with them to the capital—something they had not done during Jefferson’s presidency.
With his retiring personality and his constrained conception of the presidency, Madison was never able to control the Republican party to the extent Jefferson had. He fully accepted the Republican principle of executive deference to the people’s representatives in Congress but made none of the necessary efforts to manage the legislature as Jefferson had. He was unable, as one Pennsylvania Republican noted, to “hook men to his heart as his predecessor could.”8
Because by 1808 the congressional Republican caucus clearly controlled the nomination of the party’s candidate for the presidency, it concluded that the president was in some measure its creature. As Congress gathered up the power draining away from the executive, it sought to organize itself into committees in order to initiate and supervise policy. But the rise of the committee system only further fragmented the government into contending interest groups. Madison thus faced a raucous Congress and a bitterly divided Republican party, various factions of which were opposed to his presidency. In trying to promote unity among the Republicans, the president allowed his critics to deny him the selection of his trusted ally, Albert Gallatin, as secretary of state. Instead, he felt compelled to appoint to that important post Robert Smith, the undistinguished secretary of the navy in Jefferson’s cabinet and a person totally unfit to be secretary of state.
Madison ended up with a cabinet considerably weaker than that of any of his presidential predecessors. Madison’s cabinet, as John Randolph observed with his usual poisonous perceptivity, “presents a novel spectacle in the world, divided against itself, and the most deadly animosity raging between its principal members—what can come of it but confusion, mischief, and ruin?”9
THE NEW PRESIDENT was immediately confronted with the ending of the embargo, which he wanted to continue. In its place Congress put the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which opened trade with the rest of the world but prohibited it with both Britain and France; it also authorized the president to reopen trade with whichever belligerent repealed its trade restrictions and recognized American neutral rights. With trade to the rest of the world reopened, the opportunities for evading the prohibition on trading with the belligerents were great, and many American ships took off ostensibly for neutral ports only to end up in Great Britain. Since British control of the seas prevented many American merchants from sailing to France, the Non-Intercourse Act actually favored Britain over France, a circumstance that left Madison at a total loss: how could he coerce Britain with an act that actually benefited the former mother country? Britain reacted to the Non-Intercourse Act by issuing new orders-in-council in April 1809 that went some way toward meeting the Americans’ complaints, though the British government was always reluctant to admit that it was making any concessions whatsoever.
Unfortunately, the British minister in Washington, David M. Erskine, had already reached an agreement with the Madison government that was not in line with the thinking of the British ministry in London. Erskine ignored several key instructions from his government, which disavowed his agreement when it learned of it, including one instruction stating that, while opening up American trade with Britain, the United States should allow the British navy to enforce the continued American prohibition on trade with France—a humiliating neocolonial stipulation that Madison rejected outright. The two nations could not be farther apart. While America wanted free neutral trade with both belligerents, Britain wanted a neutral United States that would help it defeat Napoleon.10
Misled by Erskine into believing that Britain would repeal its trade restrictions, President Madison in April 1809 proclaimed that trade with the former mother country was now open. When in the summer of 1809 the United States learned that the British government had recalled Erskine and repudiated his agreement, the country had no choice but to reimpose non-intercourse with Britain. When Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin complained that the Non-Intercourse Act was hurting the duties from trade and creating a federal deficit, Congress was forced to turn its policy inside out and once again reopen trade with the belligerents.
Republican policy was always caught in a dilemma. If the government restricted trade with Britain, which Madison and other Republicans wished to do, it lost considerable revenue from the duties on imports. With such a loss of revenue the government would be compelled to raise taxes or borrow money, which no good Republican wanted to do. As a way out of this dilemma, Madison at first sought an old-fashioned navigation act, Macon’s Bill No. 1 (named for Congressman Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina), which allowed British and French goods to enter American ports as long as they were carried in American ships. When an unlikely combination of Republican dissidents who wanted war and Federalists who feared it defeated this bill, a still much divided Congress passed Macon’s Bill No. 2 in May 1810. This bill once again opened trade with both Britain and France, with the provision that if either belligerent revoked its restrictions on neutral commerce, the United States in ninety days would restore non-intercourse against the other. Madison, who yearned to restore the embargo, was disgusted with the bill; though named for him, even Macon voted against it. As trade with Britain flourished, many Republicans, as one congressman complained, thought the new policy was simply offering “up the honor and character of this nation to the highest bidder.”11
Madison’s only hope for this awkward policy was that its bias in favor of Britain might inspire Napoleon to remove his restrictions on American trade, which by 1810 were actually resulting in more French than British seizures of American ships and goods. Thus the president was primed to receive favorably an ambiguous note from France’s foreign minister, the ducde Cadore, issued in the summer of 1810 declaring that Napoleon would revoke his decrees after November 1, 1810, but only on the condition that the United States first reestablishes its prohibitions on British commerce. Since this conditional declaration did not actually fulfill the provisions of Macon’s Bill No. 2, the Cadore letter, as it was called, generated much controversy, with the Federalists denouncing it as trickery and the most rabid Republicans hailing it as France’s penance for its violations of American rights.
Ambiguous as the Cadore letter was, it was enough for Madison, who was eager to escape from his awkward situation. On November 2, 1810, he publicly proclaimed that France had met the requirements of the Macon Bill and that if Britain failed to revoke its orders-in-council over the next ninety days, non-intercourse would be reimposed on Britain on February 2, 1811. Chief Justice Marshall could scarcely believe what was happening and declared that the president’s claim that France had revoked its decrees was “one of the most astonishing instances of national credulity . . . that is to be found in political history.”12 Although Madison well understood the equivocal nature of the Cadore letter, he felt he had to grasp at the opportunity to pressure the British into some sort of relaxation of their commercial restrictions. At any rate, he was only too eager to resume the policy of commercial sanctions against Great Britain that he had dreamed of implementing since the Revolution.
Madison, however, confronted a Republican party in the Congress that was breaking apart, and the resultant factions always threatened to coalesce in opposition to the administration. There were the Old Republicans of ‘98, or Quids, led by John Randolph; the supporters of New Yorkers George Clinton and his nephew DeWitt Clinton, who was challenging Madison for the presidency; and the Invisibles in the Senate, led by William Branch Giles of Virginia and Samuel Smith of Maryland, the brother of the secretary of state, Robert Smith. Robert Smith’s mounting indiscretions at last gave Madison the opportunity to dismiss him from the cabinet and install his old opponent and fellow Virginian James Monroe as secretary of state. But the Smith family of Maryland in opposition only added to the disarray of the Republicans. Jefferson became so fearful of the disorder that he pleaded for unity. “If we schismatize on men and measures, if we do not act in phalanx,” he told the Republican journalist William Duane in the spring of 1811, “I will not say our party, the term is false and degrading, but our nation will be undone. For the Republicans are the nation.”13
Whether the Americans, never mind the Republicans, were really a nation was the issue. Was the United States an independent nation like other nations with an explicit and peculiar tribal character? Could Americans establish their separate identity only by fighting and killing Britons to whom they were cultural kin and whom they so much resembled?
In July 1811 Madison called Congress to meet in an early session in November in order to prepare the country for war, which seemed to be the only alternative if commercial sanctions failed. Despite the Cadore letter, Napoleon continued to enforce his various decrees making all neutral ships that brought goods from Britain to the Continent liable to confiscation. But the French emperor seized only some American ships but not all, thereby hoping to create sufficient confusion to prevent the British from repealing their own commercial restrictions, which they had always justified as acts of retaliation that would last only as long as Napoleon’s Continental System.
In February 1811 Congress had passed a new Non-Importation Act that turned away British ships and goods coming to America but allowed American ships and produce to go to England. At the same time, the act required American courts to accept the president’s proclamation as conclusive evidence that France had indeed repealed its decrees—a strange stipulation that suggested the widespread doubts that Napoleon was behaving honestly. In fact, declared John Quincy Adams from his post in St. Petersburg, Napoleon’s conduct was so blatantly deceptive as “to give sight to the blind.”14 When the British government declared that it was unconvinced that France had abandoned its Continental System and that it would therefore not relax in any way its own commercial restrictions, Madison’s policy collapsed in failure. Other than throwing up the country’s hands in surrender, the United States had no choice now but war.
Although some suggested that the United States might have to fight both belligerents simultaneously in what was called a “triangular war,” it was virtually inconceivable that the Republicans would go to war against France. Although Madison was well aware of “the atrocity of the French Government” in enforcing its “predatory Edicts,” he, like Jefferson, always believed “that the original sin against Neutrals lies with G.B.”15
It seemed to the Republicans as if the Revolution of 1776 was still going on. The United States was trying to establish itself as an independent sovereign republic in the world, and Britain, much more than France, seemed to be denying that sovereign independence. As one congressman put it in 1810, “The people will not submit to be colonized and give up their independence.”16 Even British concessions were now viewed suspiciously. When the British government in May 1812 offered to give the Americans an equal share of the ten thousand licenses it issued to merchants trading with the continent, Madison rejected the offer outright as degrading to American sovereignty. Most alarming to the Republicans was the quisling-like behavior of the New England Federalists, who endlessly harassed the Republicans for their timidity and inconsistencies all the while supporting continued ties and trade with Great Britain. Just as the Federalists in 1797–1798 had accused the Republicans of being more loyal to France than to America, so now the Republicans accused the Federalists of aiding and abetting the former mother country. Just as the Federalists in 1797–1798 had thought that the Republicans were trying to bring the Jacobinical French Revolution to America, so now the Republicans thought the Federalists were seeking to reverse the results of not just the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800 but the original Revolution of 1776. In the eyes of many Republicans this threat of the Federalists’ undoing the Revolution and breaking up the Union seemed real, perhaps more real than the threat of invasion by the French had been to the Federalists in 1797–1798.
The New England Federalists continually worried about their declining political fortunes even as the administration’s unpopular policies of commercial coercion gave them false hopes of regaining power. By 1809 many citizens of Massachusetts were looking to their state to protect them from the machinations of the Republicans in Washington. Some even began talking of New England seceding from the Union. Fear and dislike of the Republicans and what they represented in the spread of democratic politics made many Federalists rethink the significance of America’s break from Great Britain. Compared to Catholic France or that country’s atheistic revolutionaries, Britain seemed more and more to be, in the words of Timothy Pickering, “the country of our forefathers, and the country to which we are indebted for all the institutions held dear to freemen.”17
Because most Americans were anxiously trying to establish their distinct national identity, such Anglophilic sentiments were bound to be misinterpreted and used against the Federalists. The leader of the Federalists in the House of Representatives, Josiah Quincy, realized only too keenly the mistakes many of his colleagues were making in professing an emotional attachment to Great Britain. Not only did such professions do “little credit to their patriotism,” but they did “infinitely less to their judgment. The truth is,” he said in 1812, “the British look upon us as a foreign nation, and we must look upon them in the same light.”18
Confronted by a Napoleonic tyranny and the democratic rumblings at their feet, the New England Federalists could scarcely restrain their affection for England, which seemed to them to be a rock of stability in a revolutionary world gone mad. This was why their Republican opponents, like Joseph Varnum, Republican congressman from Massachusetts and Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1810, believed that they could not trust the Federalists, even in Varnum’s case those from his own state. Varnum had “for a long time been convinced,” he told a colleague in March 1810, “that there was a party in our Country, fully determined to do everything in their power, to Subvert the principles of our happy government, and to establish a Monarchy on its ruins; and with a view of obtaining the aid of G.B in the accomplishment of their nefarious object, they have Inlisted into her service, and will go all lengths to Justify and support every measure which she may take against the Nation.” Establishing America’s separate identity as a nation was difficult enough, the Republicans believed, without having a large segment of the society yearning to reconnect with “a foreign nation, whose deadly hate has pursued us from the day when America said she would be free.”19
With many Republican leaders holding these sorts of opinions, the war in their minds became both a second war for independence and a defense of republicanism itself. In this sense the Federalists helped contribute to the Republicans’ move toward war; they made many Republicans feel that not only was the Union in danger but further vacillation—talking of war and doing nothing—had become impossible. A few Federalists, like Alexander L. Hanson of Maryland, even welcomed the possibility of war, confident that the Republicans would so mismanage it as to discredit their party and bring the Federalists back into power.20
The Republicans offered a variety of reasons why they felt they had to move toward war, most having to do with saving both republicanism and the nation’s honor; but ultimately they were compelled to go to war because their foreign policy left them no alternative. America had been engaged in a kind of warfare—commercial warfare—with both Britain and France since 1806. The actual fighting of 1812 was only the inevitable consequence of the failure of “peaceful coercion.” Wilson Cary Nicholas of Virginia put his finger on the problem early in 1810. The failure of “every mode of coercion short of war,” he told Jefferson, now left little room for choice. “We have exhausted every means in our power to preserve peace. We have tried negotiations until it is disgraceful to think of renewing it, and commercial restrictions have operated to our own injury. War or submission alone remain.” In deciding between these alternatives, Nicholas, along with many other Republicans, could not “hesitate a minute.” By June 1812 the need to go to war with Great Britain, declared Secretary of State James Monroe, had become inescapable. “We have been so long dealing in the small way of embargoes, non-intercourse, and non-importation, with menaces of war, &c., that the British government has not believed us. We must actually get to war before the intention to make it will be credited either here or abroad.”21
Perhaps some good would come out of a war. Some predicted it would destroy the parties and bring the country together. “The distinction of Federalists and Republicans will cease,” declared Felix Grundy in May 1812; “the united energies of the people will be brought into action; the inquiry will be, are you for your country or against it?”22 Some Republicans even came to see the war as a necessary regenerative act—as a means of purging Americans of their pecuniary greed and their seemingly insatiable love of commerce and money-making. They hoped that the war with England might refresh the national character, lessen the overweening selfishness of people, and revitalize republicanism.23 “War,” said the enterprising Baltimore journalist Hezekiah Niles in 1811, “will purify the political atmosphere. . . . All the public virtues will be refined and hallowed; and we shall again behold at the head of affairs citizens who may rival the immortal men of 1776.” When told that a war might be expensive, a Maryland congressman responded with indignation. “What is money?” he said. “What is all our property, compared with our honor and our liberty?” Americans must put aside their partisan divisions and concern for profits, urged the editors of the Richmond Enquirer. “Forget self,” they said, “and think of America.”24
SINCE THE REPUBLICANS BELIEVED that war was a threat to republican principles, whatever kind of war they fought would have to be different from the wars the Old World had known. As Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin pointed out at the outset, the Republicans needed to conduct a war without promoting “the evils inseparable from it . . . debt, perpetual taxation, military establishments, and other corrupting or anti-republican habits or institutions.”25
Although the Republicans in the Congress knew that the country’s armed forces were not ready for any kind of combat, they nonetheless seemed much more concerned about the threat the American military might pose to the United States than to Great Britain. Armies and navies, said John Taylor of Caroline, “only serve to excite wars, squander money, and extend corruption.”26 Thus the Republicans prepared for the war in the most curious and desultory manner. They had strengthened the army and navy in 1807, but in 1810 wondered whether they really needed these military increases after all, even though the possibility of war was still in the air.27 Since armies and navies cost money, strengthening them meant new taxes, and that was not what good Republicans voted for.
In the spring of 1810 the Republican Congress, confronted with the dilemma of increasing taxes, decided instead to debate the possibility of reducing all the expensive armed forces. John Taylor of South Carolina (not to be confused with Virginia’s John Taylor of Caroline) wanted the army substantially cut back and the whole navy put in mothballs, except for those vessels used to carry dispatches. Since the country was not actually at war, said Congressman Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, there was no need for the military. “Unless you use them, the Army and Navy, in times of peace, are engines of oppression.” Yet in the next breath Johnson, befitting his hawkish reputation, was ready to go to war against both Britain and France at the same time. His colleague from Kentucky, Samuel McKee, declared that “even if war itself was certain, it would be perfectly unnecessary to keep on foot this establishment.” “For defence from a foreign foe,” he preferred the militia—the citizen-soldiers, “the hardy sons of the country”—to the corrupt dregs of the regular army. “Would any gentleman be willing to submit the defence of everything he holds dear, to men who have loitered out their days in camps and in the most luxurious ease and vice?” As for the navy, what purpose could it have? Since it could never be large enough to take on the British navy, better that the United States have none at all. Since the existence of military establishments only bred war, which in turn magnified executive power, McKee would reduce the American military as drastically as he could. Never mind simply reducing the army, declared Congressman Macon; it ought to be abolished outright. But the Congress did not want to go that far, and by a two-to-one margin it voted merely to reduce the army and navy, not to eliminate them entirely.28
Following the election of more War Hawks to the Twelfth Congress in 1810, however, talk of war became more and more prevalent. Still, the Republicans in Congress remained reluctant to face up to the implications of going to war, and so they dawdled and debated.
Finally Congress in January 1812 added twenty-five thousand regular troops to the ten thousand previously authorized. In addition, it provided for the raising of fifty thousand one-year volunteers, with the states rather than the national government, however, having the authority to appoint the volunteer officers; and in April 1812 it authorized the president to call out one hundred thousand militiamen who would serve for six months. But efforts to classify by age and arm the militia were stymied by state jealousies. Some congressmen even objected to the phrase “the militia of the United States”; it was, they said, the “militia of the several States,” until called into the service of the United States.29 Since the militia (and some included the volunteers as well) could not legally serve abroad, there were doubts raised over the government’s plans to invade Canada as a means of bringing pressure to bear on Great Britain.
At least Congress voted for an army; the navy was another matter. A bill to build twelve ships of the line and twenty frigates ran into stiff opposition. Congressman Adam Seybert of Pennsylvania predicted that such an increase in the navy would have the most awful consequences. Unlike the army, the navy would not be disbanded at the end of the war and thus, as “a permanent Naval Establishment,” might “become a powerful engine in the hands of an ambitious Executive.” Not only was a navy expensive, it would lead to impressment and naval conscription. “If the United States shall determine to augment their navy, so as to rival those of Europe, the public debt will become permanent; direct taxes will be increased; the paupers of the country will be increased; the nation will be bankrupt; and, I fear,” concluded Seybert, “the tragedy will end in a revolution.”30
With such dire results predicted, it was not surprising that the Republican Congress at the end of January 1812 finally decided that the United States did not actually need a navy to fight the impending war. The House by a vote of sixty-two to fifty-nine defeated the proposal to build twelve ships of the line and twenty-four frigates. Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina was only one of many Republicans who in the early months of 1812 voted against all attempts to arm and prepare the navy, who opposed all efforts to beef up the War Department, who rejected all tax increases, and yet who in June 1812 voted for the war.31
After much hand-wringing over the problem of paying for the war, the Congress finally agreed to some tax increases, but only on the condition they were to go into effect when war was actually declared. The president was relieved that at last the Republicans in Congress had “got down the dose of taxes. It is the strongest proof,” he told Jefferson in March 1812, “they could give that they do not mean to flinch from the contest to which the mad conduct of G.B. drives them.”32 Taxes would only cover a portion of the cost of the war; the rest would have to be borrowed. Of course, in 1811, even as war seemed increasingly likely, the Republicans had killed the Bank of the United States, which some knew was the best instrument for borrowing money and financing a war. This failure to re-charter the BUS proved to be disastrous for the war effort.
In other respects too the government was ill prepared for war, partly because many people did not believe that it was actually going to have to fight. Many congressmen wanted to go home for a spring recess in 1812. When the recess was denied, many of them left anyway, making it difficult to gather a congressional quorum even as the country was presumably moving toward war. As late as May 1812, the British minister in Washington was totally confused about what the Republicans were up to, the signals were so mixed. Could a country go to war when its War Department, with only the secretary and a dozen inexperienced clerks, was so chaotically disorganized? With no general staff, the secretary of war communicated directly with individual generals and acted as the army’s quartermaster general. The United States, complained the secretary of war, William Eustis, presented the “rare phenomenon” of a country going to war with an army lacking staff support.33 In April 1812 many Republicans opposed a bill providing for two assistant secretaries of war, even though it had been suggested by the president. Some Republicans thought that such additional offices were the opening wedge to executive tyranny. But with Federalist help the bill squeaked through.
Finally, on June 1, 1812, President Madison delivered his war message to Congress. He dwelt exclusively on Britain’s impressment of sailors from American ships and its abuses of American neutral rights—the two issues for Republicans that most flagrantly violated the sovereign independence of the United States. Indeed, said Madison, evoking the ominous phrase of the British Declaratory Act of 1766, the recent British aggressions against American shipping had rested on nothing but their “claim to regulate our external commerce in all cases whatsoever.” In effect, the president said, Great Britain was already in “a state of war against the United States.”34 On June 18, Madison signed the congressional declaration of war, which was enthusiastically supported by many Republicans who for the previous six months had voted against all attempts to prepare for the war.
Although Congress had created an army on paper, the actual army on the eve of the war consisted of 6, 744 men, scattered across the nation at twenty-three different forts and posts. New York, for example, had less than a third of the men needed to defend its harbor.35 The generals responsible for leading the army were not very impressive. Although sixty-one-year-old Henry Dearborn was a distinguished Revolutionary War veteran and former secretary of war in Jefferson’s cabinet, he was more interested in politics than in war-making and reluctant to assume a command. Nevertheless, “Granny,” as he came to be called by his troops, was appointed the senior major general responsible both for commanding the Northern Department and for drawing up the initial plans for invading Canada. Fifty-nine-year-old William Hull had been in the Revolutionary War, but he had suffered a stroke and his best days were behind him. Since he was the governor of Michigan Territory and the only candidate for a command in the territory, he was appointed brigadier general in charge of the North Western Department, a command that was separate from Dearborn’s. The junior officers were not in better shape. There were only twenty-nine field-grade officers (colonels and majors), many of them either incompetent or too old for active service. Winfield Scott, a twenty-six-year-old newly appointed lieutenant colonel, was an energetic and brilliant exception. He thought most of his fellow officers were “swaggerers, dependents, decayed gentlemen . . . utterly unfit for any military purpose whatever.”36
After much jousting between the Congress and the president over the appointment of more officers, Madison by the end of the year had issued commissions to over eleven hundred individuals, 15 percent of whom immediately declined them, followed by an additional 8 percent who resigned after several months of service. By November 1812, ten months after Congress had authorized increasing the regular army by twenty-five thousand, only 9, 823 men had been recruited—hardly surprising since the recruiting officers often could not even offer the recruits a decent uniform and a pair of shoes. By the end of 1812 a real army scarcely existed. Very few of its companies were at full strength, and very few of the recruits had any training whatsoever for combat.
MANY AMERICANS INITIALLY SAW the war as a way of dealing with the problem of the Indians in the Northwest. Ever since the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, the Indians of the Northwest Territory had been pushed back by relentless hordes of white settlers. Finally in 1805 the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his half brother Tenskwatawa (better known as the Prophet) attempted to halt this steady encroachment by forming some sort of confederation. The Prophet led an Indian revival movement that denounced white ways and white goods and preached a return to the virtues of traditional Indian culture. At the same time, Tecumseh—an impressive, commanding man and perhaps the most extraordinary Indian leader in American history—attacked the practice of making land cessions to the Americans, dozens of which had been made under Jefferson’s presidency. He proposed that the Northwestern tribes adopt a policy of common landowning in order to resist white expansion. From Prophet’s Town at the junction of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers in Indiana Territory, the Shawnee brothers spread their message throughout the region, resulting in 1810 in an alarming increase in Indian raids on white settlers.37
Although the ideas of Tecumseh and the boastful Prophet alienated as many Indians as they inspired, Americans in the Northwest believed they faced a well-organized Indian conspiracy. William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, was eager to establish Indiana’s statehood and pleaded for troops to crush the conspiracy. “If some decisive measures are not speedily adopted,” he told the secretary of war in the summer of 1811, “we shall have a general combination of all the tribes against us.”38 Since the administration was preoccupied with its negotiations and possible war with Great Britain and did not want an Indian war, it was reluctant to give Harrison any regular troops. But under pressure from the other territorial governors in the region, the federal government finally gave way and committed a regiment of regulars to Harrison’s command. By the fall of 1811 Harrison had assembled an army of two hundred and fifty regulars, one hundred Kentucky volunteer riflemen, and six hundred Indiana militiamen.
Taking advantage of Tecumseh’s absence in the South, where the Indian leader was recruiting more tribes to his cause, Harrison marched upon Prophet’s Town. He camped outside of the town on November 6, 1811, apparently intending to enter the Indian settlement the next day to order the tribes to disperse. Urged on by the Prophet, six or seven hundred Indians surprised Harrison’s troops during the predawn hours of November 7 and inflicted about two hundred casualties before being driven off. Although Harrison’s force suffered twice as many casualties as the Indians, it was able the next day to burn the abandoned Prophet’s Town, thus enabling Harrison to call the Battle of Tippecanoe a victory.
Although the Madison government claimed that this ambiguous victory had brought peace to the Northwest frontier, Westerners in the region knew differently and stressed their continued vulnerability to Indian attacks, especially if the Indians were supported by the British in Canada. It was not surprising therefore that an invasion of Canada became central to America’s war plans in 1812. Not only would such an invasion help to pressure the British to make peace, but it would end their influence with the Northwestern Indians once and for all and bring about Britain’s full compliance with the peace treaty of 1783. Although Madison’s government always denied that it intended to annex Canada, it had no doubt, as Secretary of State Monroe told the British government in June 1812, that once the United States forces occupied the British provinces, it would be “difficult to relinquish territory which had been conquered.”39
Besides the possibility of removing the Indian threat, the Republicans had other reasons for wanting to take Canada from Great Britain: they thought it was already filled with Americans. Many Loyalists who had fled the Revolution lived in Canada, and since the 1790s perhaps fifty thousand American citizens, many frustrated with the archaic system of landholding in New York, had left the United States in search of cheap land and had moved into the southwest corner of Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) and into Upper Canada (present-day Ontario, and southwest of Lower Canada). With so many Americans willing to leave the United States for cheap land, it is no wonder the Republicans were worried about the strength of their countrymen’s attachment to the nation. Canada was becoming less a sterile snow-clad wilderness and more a collection of substantial British colonies that the United States could no longer ignore. Smuggling over the northern border had undermined the embargo and weakened other Republican efforts to restrict trade with Britain. Moreover, evidence mounted that Canada was becoming a major source of supply for both the British West Indies and the mother country itself, especially for timber. With the development of Canada freeing the British Empire from its vulnerability to American economic restrictions, President Madison was bound to be concerned about Canada.
ALTHOUGH GROWING, Canada seemed especially vulnerable to an American invasion. It had only about five hundred thousand people compared to the nearly eight million in the United States, and it was still economically rather undeveloped. Since two-thirds of the people of Lower Canada were of French descent, their loyalty to the British crown was doubtful. Upper Canada, that is, the Niagara area, which was the most likely site of an invasion, had a white population of only seventy-seven thousand, of whom one third or more were American in origin and perhaps sympathy.40 In mid-July 1812 Governor Daniel Tompkins of New York was sure that half the militias of both Lower and Upper Canada “would join our standard.”41 Since the Canadian frontier from Quebec to Mackinac Island at the junction of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan stretched well over a thousand miles, it seemed difficult to defend. Jefferson expressed the confidence of many Republicans in 1812 when he predicted the invasion of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.”42
The plan for invasion involved a three-pronged attack on the areas of Detroit, Niagara, and Montreal. Although Montreal was supposedly the main objective, the unwillingness of Massachusetts and Connecticut to supply militia for the assault on Montreal made the western attack on the Detroit frontier seem more feasible. William Hull and his two thousand troops were to march from Ohio to take the British Fort Malden south of Detroit. Hull’s officers, who jealously quarreled over precedence with one another, had little confidence in their commander, dismissing him as old and indecisive even before the force set out. When Hull’s troops reached the Canadian border in July 1812, two hundred members of the Ohio militia refused to cross over into Canada, claiming that they were a defensive force only and could not fight outside of the United States.
Hull hoped for little or no resistance. He urged the people of Canada to remain in their homes or join the American cause; perhaps as many as five hundred did in fact desert the Canadian militia. Although Fort Malden was only lightly defended, Hull was worried about his supply lines and kept delaying his attack. When he learned that Fort Mackinac, at the junction of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, had surrendered to British forces on July 17, he became more apprehensive, fearing that Indians from the north would now descend on him. Without Fort Mackinac in American hands, Hull believed that Fort Dearborn at the present site of Chicago could not be held, and he ordered its evacuation, which eventually took place on August 15. On August 6, 1812, Hull finally ordered an attack on Fort Malden, only to cancel it the next day when he heard that British regulars were on their way to the threatened fort. When Hull next decided to retreat to Detroit, many of the militia officers wanted to remove him from command, but the regular officers stopped the mutiny.
The British commander, Major General Isaac Brock, the governor of Upper Canada, took advantage of Hull’s timidity and mobilized his troops to march on Detroit. His force included a mixture of two hundred fifty regulars, four hundred militia, and about six hundred Indians under Tecumseh’s leadership. Capitalizing on Hull’s dread of Indian atrocities, Brock arranged to have a bogus document fall into American hands in order to feign having more Indian troops than he actually had. Hull, paralyzed with fear that he was cut off from his supplies and faced an overwhelming force, including Indians that might massacre the women and children in the Detroit fort, surrendered on August 16, 1812, without firing a shot. After taking Detroit, Brock annexed the whole territory of Michigan and made it part of the dominion of His Majesty George III.
Hull’s surrender of Detroit shocked everyone, and rather unfairly he alone was held responsible for the disaster. Hull was eventually courtmartialed for cowardice and neglect of duty and was sentenced to death, with a recommendation of mercy because of his Revolutionary War service and advanced age. Madison accepted this recommendation and commuted Hull’s punishment to dismissal from the army. With the loss of the forts at Detroit, Mackinac, and Dearborn, the whole Northwest lay open to British invasion and Indian raids.
Although the administration wanted someone else to command the Western forces, it was compelled by local pressure, especially from Kentucky, to appoint William Henry Harrison, the alleged hero of Tippecanoe, as the commanding general to replace Hull. In the winter of 1812–1813 Harrison sent a detachment of eight hundred fifty troops to protect settlers at Frenchtown eighteen miles southwest of Malden (now Monroe, Michigan). Attacked on January 21, 1813, at the River Raisin by a force of about twelve hundred British and Indians, the outnumbered Americans surrendered. When the British troops had left with the American prisoners who could walk, the Indians allied to the British became drunk and massacred dozens of the wounded prisoners who had been left behind. “Remember the Raisin” became an American rallying cry throughout the Northwest.
The invasions of the eastern portions of Canada were no more successful. Although Major General Henry Dearborn was presumably responsible for the area from Niagara eastward to New England, he scarcely seems to have comprehended what was expected of him. As customs collector for Boston, he was reluctant to leave New England. Although he had helped design the invasion plan and had received explicit instructions, he nevertheless wondered to the secretary of war about “who was to have command of the operations in Upper Canada; I take it for granted,” he said, “that my command does not extend to that distant quarter.” Instead of launching an attack on Montreal from Albany and thus relieving some of the pressure on Hull in the West, Dearborn spent months in New England trying to recruit men and build coastal defenses.43
When Dearborn seemed confused about his responsibilities for the Niagara campaign, Governor Daniel Tompkins of New York took matters into his own hands and appointed Stephen Van Rensselaer commander-in-chief of the New York militia. Although Van Rensselaer had no military experience, he was a Federalist, and Tomkins thought this appointment might ease some of the Federalist opposition to the war. In October 1812 Van Rensselaer with four thousand troops successfully attacked Queenston Heights on the British side of the Niagara River, and in the process killed the heroic General Brock, who had returned from Detroit to take command of the British defense. When Van Rensselaer sought to send the New York militia to reinforce the troops in Queenston Heights, they, like the militia in the West, developed constitutional scruples and refused to leave the country. Consequently, the American force, numbering about a thousand men, was soon overwhelmed by British reinforcements and on October 13, 1812, was forced to surrender. The Battle of Queenston Heights became a rich site of memory for the victorious Canadians and an important stimulus for their own emerging nationalism. Brock’s death turned him into a cult figure in Upper Canada, and numerous streets, towns, and a university were named after him.44
In the East, General Dearborn had not yet begun to move against Canada. Only in November 1812, after prodding by the exasperated secretary of war, did Dearborn’s army, numbering between six and eight thousand men, set out from Albany northward toward Canada. Again the state militia refused to cross the border, and Dearborn abandoned his feeble attempt at an invasion. His entire venture, recalled a contemporary, was a “miscarriage without even the heroism of disaster.”45
The three-pronged American campaign against Canada in 1812 had been a complete failure. What was worse, the failure was due less to the superiority of the Canadian resistance and more to the inability of the United States to recruit and manage its armies.
THE WAR AT SEA IN 1812 helped to take some of the sting out of that failure. Although the Republicans in Congress had decided in January 1812 not to build any new ships, seventeen ships, including seven frigates, still survived from the naval buildup during the Quasi-War with France in the late 1790 s. The U.S. Navy had no large ships of the line that carried seventy-four guns, but three of the frigates, the USS Constitution, the USS President, and the USS United States, had forty-four guns and were bigger and sturdier than most other foreign frigates. Although Britain had hundreds of vessels, they were spread about the world. In 1812 Britain had only one ship of the line and nine frigates operating out of its North American stations at Halifax and Newfoundland.
The Constitution, captained by Isaac Hull, thirty-nine-year-old nephew of General William Hull, was the first American warship to acquire fame in the war. After escaping from a British squadron in July 1812 in one of the longest and most exciting chases in naval history, the Constitutionon August 19 defeated HMS Guerrière, a thirty-eight-gun frigate under the command of Captain Richard Dacres, who earlier had contemptuously challenged the American naval commanders to frigate-to-frigate duels at sea. When during the engagement, which took place 750 miles east of Boston, a British broadside bounced harmlessly off the Constitution’s hull, one of the crew supposedly exclaimed that “her sides are made of iron,” and the legend of “Old Ironsides” was born. The London Times was stunned by the American victory. Since “never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American,” the paper predicted that the victory was likely to make the Americans “insolent and confident.”46
As a consequence of the Constitution’s victory, Madison’s government gave up its original idea of keeping the navy bottled up in the harbors as floating batteries. Instead, America’s ships were divided into three squadrons and ordered to fan out over the central Atlantic trade routes and to take advantage of every opportunity to meet and destroy the enemy. In October 1812 the United States under the command of thirty-three-year-old Stephen Decatur, the hero of Tripoli in 1804, showed brilliant seamanship in defeating and capturing HMS Macedonian six hundred miles west of the Canary Islands. A prize crew sailed the Macedonian, which was only two years old, across the ocean—a very risky venture—and into the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. Since the Macedonian was the first and only British frigate ever brought into an American port as a prize of war, its capture made Decatur a hero all over again. The officers and crew of the United States received $300,000 in prize money, the largest award made for the capture of a single ship during the war.47
A series of successful single-ship engagements followed, including the victory of the Constitution, now captained by William Bainbridge, over HMS Java off the coast of Brazil in December 1812. During the war there were eight sloop and brig engagements, and in all but one the American ships were victorious. Losing these single-ship engagements was a new experience for British seamen. In twenty years of naval warfare and numerous single engagements between British and French frigates, only once, in 1807, had the British ever been beaten. “It is a cruel mortification,” said one British minister, “to be beat by these second-hand Englishmen upon our own element.” In all, the American navy in 1812 defeated or captured seven British warships, including three frigates, and fifty merchantmen and lost only three small warships, each with eighteen guns or less.48
But the real American threat to Britain on the high seas came from the country’s privateers, the naval equivalent of the militia and what one Republican called “our cheapest and best navy.”49 Most of the five hundred registered privateers were small vessels that made only a single cruise; only about two hundred of the five hundred were large enough to carry fifty men or more. Although there may have been only fifty privateers at sea at any one time, they were generally very profitable. Operating off the coast of Canada and in the West Indies, the American privateers captured 450 prizes in the first six months of the war. (Throughout the remainder of the war they would capture 850 more British merchant vessels.) The most successful privateers were James D’Wolf’s Yankee, sailing out of Bristol, Rhode Island, which captured eight British vessels valued at $300,000, and the Rossie, operating out of Baltimore, which seized eighteen ships worth nearly $1,500,000. American privateers did enough damage to British trade in the West Indies to temporarily force insurance rates up to 30 percent of the value of the cargo.50 Although America’s successes at sea in 1812 were of little strategic significance in determining the outcome of the war—the British navy soon recovered its dominance of the oceans—they did boost American morale and help to compensate for the disgraceful defeats on land.
IN 1812 AMERICA’S NAVAL SUCCESSES may even have helped Madison win a second term as president. Although two-thirds of the Republican congressmen supported Madison as the nominee of the party (with Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts as the vice-presidential nominee), many of the Northern Republican congressmen, disillusioned with Madison’s leadership and the dominance of the Virginia Dynasty, wanted someone more sympathetic to Northern commerce. Consequently, Republican members of the New York state legislature selected DeWitt Clinton, the handsome and popular mayor of New York City, as their Republican nominee for the presidency. The Federalists decided to nominate no one but instead to support Clinton without formally endorsing him, for fear of undermining his Republican backing outside of New York.
In the November 1812 election Clinton carried all the seaboard states from New Hampshire through Delaware and part of Maryland. Madison won all the rest, including Pennsylvania, which further established its role as the keystone state in the Republican party. The revelation that the Federalists were supporting Clinton helped carry Pennsylvania for the president. Madison received 128 electoral votes to Clinton’s 89, a smaller margin of victory than the president had received in 1808. The Republicans lost seats in Congress, especially in New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The Federalists captured control of most of the states of New England as well as the states of New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware. By taking advantage of the mismanagement of the war and the frightening news of the savage Baltimore riots in the summer of 1812, the Federalists made their most striking electoral gains since the 1790 s. The Federalists mistakenly thought the fortunes of the Republicans were dying and theirs were on the rise.
THE GOVERNMENT STRUGGLED to recover from the failures of 1812. As long as Britain was holding American territory and winning the war, it was impossible to make the former mother country come to terms. Canada had to be successfully invaded, and that meant the United States’ military forces would have to be beefed up and reformed. In the winter of 1812–1813 Madison replaced Secretary of War William Eustis with John Armstrong, a New Yorker and the leader of the abortive Newburgh mutiny in 1783 (the attempt by some Continental Army officers to pressure the Congress), and Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton with William Jones, a Philadelphia merchant and former congressman. Congress finally agreed that the country needed a navy and in January 1813 voted to construct six additional frigates and four ships of the line. Prodded by Madison, Congress also provided for an additional twenty-two thousand regular troops and raised the pay of the soldiers in order to spur enlistments. It added staff officers and improved the ordering and distribution of supplies to the army. Under these wartime pressures Republican congressmen were being compelled to swallow many of their principles.
What they were not willing to give up, at least not easily, was their traditional opposition to any kind of internal taxation. But there were problems. If the Republicans were to avoid imposing internal taxes, they needed the revenue from customs duties on imports, most of which were British goods. Yet the Non-Intercourse Act, which was part of the war effort, presumably prohibited the importation of British goods. Nonimportation made no sense, declared Congressman Langdon Cheves, a War Hawk from South Carolina. “It puts out one eye of your enemy, it is true,” he said in December 1812, “but it puts out both your own. It exhausts the purse, it exhausts the spirit, and paralyses the sword of the nation.”51
Although most Republicans disagreed with Cheves and refused to abandon the weapon of commercial discrimination, they were still reluctant to resort to the imposition of any internal taxes. Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin had urged internal taxes from the beginning, which had helped provoke the most radical Republicans into labeling him “the Rat—in the Treasury.”52 Now at the outset of 1813 Gallatin faced having to pay for the war by borrowing and by issuing treasury notes. But borrowing proved difficult, especially with the New England Federalists working to stymie all lending of money to the government. In March 1813 Gallatin informed the president that the government had scarcely enough funds to carry on for a month. But an offer of Russian mediation of the conflict, which the United States readily accepted, improved the prospects for peace, and Gallatin was able to extract enough money from creditors to see the government through the year 1813. Finally, in June 1813 the Republicans closed their severely divided ranks enough to pass a comprehensive tax bill, which included a direct tax on land, a duty on imported salt, and excise taxes on stills, retailers, auction sales, sugar, carriages, and negotiable paper. All these taxes, however, were not to go into effect until the beginning of 1814—revealing once again, as one Virginia congressman put it, that “everyone is for taxing every body, except himself and his Constituents.”53
THE GOVERNMENT’S PLAN for the campaign of 1813 was to attack Kingston, Britain’s major naval base on Lake Ontario, York (present-day Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada, and then Fort George and Fort Erie, which controlled the Niagara River. Since America’s failures in 1812 had been due in large part to Britain’s control of the Great Lakes, especially Ontario and Erie, the U.S. government was determined to reverse that situation. Believing that Kingston was too strongly garrisoned, General Dearborn and his naval opposite Commodore Isaac Chauncey decided to attack York instead and destroy the shipping there. In late April 1813 a detachment of sixteen hundred men under the command of Brigadier General Zebulon M. Pike, the explorer who had discovered Pike’s Peak in 1806, sailed out of Sackets Harbor, on the eastern edge of Lake Ontario, and attacked York on the northwest corner of the lake. The Americans overwhelmed the defenders of York, which had only six hundred inhabitants, but suffered heavy casualties, including General Pike. They then proceeded to loot and burn the town, including its public buildings, aided by disgruntled British subjects who came from the countryside. When the Americans evacuated the town, they took with them provisions and military stores and £2, 500 from the public treasury; they even took some books from the subscription library, most of which were soon returned. (But the Canadians did not get the government’s mace back until 1934.) Commodore Chauncey made another destructive raid on York in July, taking what little public property that was left. The British remembered the burning of their Canadian capital when in the following year they burned Washington.54
The Americans had less success in the Niagara region. After taking Fort George in May 1813, the American forces failed to follow up their initial victory, and the British soon recovered. Fierce fighting went on through the rest of the year with the British eventually ousting the Americans from both Fort George and Fort Niagara. By December 1813 not only had the Americans lost control of the Niagara frontier, but General Dearborn had been relieved of his command, to be replaced by the notorious General James Wilkinson.55
Although the Americans were not able to gain control of Lake Ontario in 1813, their experience on Lake Erie was different. In the spring of 1813 Oliver Hazard Perry, a twenty-seven-year-old naval officer from Rhode Island, began assembling a fleet of nine vessels at Presque Isle (present-day Erie, Pennsylvania); and in the late summer he sailed for Put-in-Bay, off South Bass Island toward the western end of the lake. On September 10, 1813, Perry’s squadron traded broadsides with a smaller British squadron for over two terrible and bloody hours. When Perry’s flagship, the USS William D. Lawrence (twenty guns), was reduced to a battered hulk, he transferred to the USS Niagara (twenty guns) and carried on the fight for another hour, finally forcing the British ships to surrender. On the back of an old letter Perry scribbled his famous message to General Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”56 His victory could scarcely have been more significant, for it enabled the Americans to reverse all the defeats they had suffered in 1812.
With the loss of the British fleet on Lake Erie, Sir Henry Proctor, the British commander in charge of the newly acquired Michigan Territory, knew his situation had become untenable. He thus decided to withdraw from Malden and Detroit and, with his Indian allies led by Tecumseh, retreat northward to the Thames River. Following close on Proctor’s tail was General Harrison with three thousand men, mostly Kentucky volunteers commanded by Congressman Richard M. Johnson, on leave from his legislative duties. Harrison crossed into Canada and on October 5, 1813, caught up with Proctor at Moraviantown. With only 430 soldiers and about six hundred Indian warriors, Proctor’s bedraggled and demoralized force was quickly overrun. In this Battle of the Thames (known to Canadians as the Battle of Moraviantown) Johnson, or one of his troops, killed Tecumseh, shattering his Indian confederacy. When the Indians learned of Tecumseh’s death, recalled a member of the Kentucky militia, they “gave the loudest yells I ever heard from human beings and that ended the fight.” Johnson used his claim that he had killed the famous Indian chief to gain the vice-presidency in 1836.57
Earlier Tecumseh had helped inspire some Creek Indians, known as Red Sticks, into resisting the American encroachments on the Southern frontier. In 1810 the United States had annexed most of West Florida. Then in 1813, following the outbreak of the war, American troops occupied the last remaining piece of West Florida, the district of Mobile that reached to the Perdido River. (This turned out to be the only piece of conquered territory retained by the United States as a result of the war.) At the same time, clashes among the Creeks themselves, who occupied most of present-day Alabama, escalated into a larger war with the United States. In August 1813 a party of Creeks overran Fort Mims, a stockade located forty miles north of Mobile in southeastern Mississippi Territory, and massacred hundreds of Americans. Despite being warned, the commander of the fort had doubted the possibility of any Indian attack and had left the gates of the stockade open. The result was horrific. “Indians, Negroes, white men, women and children lay in one promiscuous ruin,” declared a member of an American burial party. “All were scalped, and the females of every age were butchered in a manner which neither decency nor language will permit me to describe.” Although the attacking Creeks lost a hundred or so of their men, they killed nearly 250 whites and perhaps another 150 blacks and friendly Indians. This massacre sent shock waves throughout the Southwest.58
Andrew Jackson, a major general in the Tennessee militia, took charge and moved south with several thousand Tennessee volunteers, including a twenty-seven-year-old Davy Crockett and a twenty-year-old Sam Houston. Jackson fought a series of inconclusive engagements through the fall and winter of 1813–1814. Jackson was having problems holding his army together, but, believing that no army could exist “where order & Subordination are wholly disregarded,” and being a disciplinarian like none other, he knew what to do. Twice he raised his own gun to stop militiamen from leaving, and finally he had a young soldier who had refused to obey an order court-martialed and shot, the first such execution since the Revolution. The lesson took, and, as Jackson pointed out, “a strict obedience afterwards characterized the army.” With his militiamen now more frightened of him than the Indians, Jackson led his army against a band of a thousand or more Red Sticks and on March 27, 1814, at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River, wiped it out. With over eight hundred of the Creek warriors killed in the battle against a loss of only forty-five Americans, even tough-minded “Old Hickory” had to admit that the “carnage was dreadful.” “My people are no more!” cried a surviving chief, Red Eagle. “Their bones are bleaching on the plains of the Tallushatchee, Talladega, [and] Emuckfaw.”59
On August 9, 1814, all the Creeks were forced to sign the harsh Treaty of Fort Jackson. Despite instructions from Washington to the contrary, Jackson sought to punish even those Indians who were allies of the United States. They had, he said, “forfeited all right to the Territory we have conquered.”60 The treaty gave to the whites over twenty-two million acres of land—more than half of the territory belonging to the Creeks. Although his superiors in Washington were furious, Westerners were elated. Jackson had broken the Creek nation and, as he himself boasted, had seized the “cream of the Creek country, opening up a communication from Georgia to Mobile.” Although victory in this Creek war did not strategically affect the war with Great Britain, it “could fairly be described,” concludes one historian, “as the most decisive and most significant victory won by the United States in the entire War of 1812.”61
DESPITE AMERICAN VICTORIES in the Northwest and Southwest, however, the strategic center of the northern frontier along the Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers remained deadlocked. After two years of campaigning, the Americans had not been able to capture and hold any Canadian territory. Equally frustrating was the war at sea. By 1813 Britain’s great naval superiority was finally making itself felt. Needing American foodstuffs in the West Indies and the Iberian Peninsula, where the British army was busy fighting the French, Britain at first had left American trade essentially untouched. And always there were Americans eager to earn money supplying the British. But beginning in December 1812 Britain began blockading Delaware and the Chesapeake; and by mid-1813 it extended its naval blockade from Long Island to the Mississippi. New England was left open until 1814 to allow the New Englanders to continue to supply Halifax and the Royal Navy offshore and to encourage that section’s separatist peace movement.
By the end of 1813 nearly all of America’s warships were either destroyed or bottled up in their ports. With most of America’s merchant ships driven from the high seas, the country’s commerce was effectively stymied. Exports fell from a peak of $ 108 million in 1807 to $ 27 million in 1813 and $ 7 million in 1814. Imports plummeted from a high of $ 138 million in 1807 to less than $ 13 million by 1814. The government’s revenue fell as well, from over $ 13 million in 1811 to $ 6 million by 1814. Still, a great deal of illegal trade went on with Canada in the Northeast and with the Southeast through Amelia Island in Florida, just south of the Georgia border, and it was not easy to stop. As one enterprising American smuggler recalled, “Men will always run great risks—when great personal profits are expected to be realized.” In 1813 an American lieutenant and his soldiers attempted to arrest thirteen suspected smugglers operating out of a little New York town on the border with Canada. But they quickly discovered that the community was not at all supportive of their efforts. The smugglers were soon released from jail, and instead the lieutenant was arrested; his commander, General Pike, had to bail him out.62
Because of this excessive leakage, Madison at the end of 1813 made one final effort at an embargo. In December Congress passed the most restrictive measure it had ever enacted. The act forbade all American ships from leaving port, prohibited all exports, outlawed the coasting trade, and gave government officials broad powers of enforcement. The act was so draconian that Congress had to spend the next several months softening some of its effects. Finally, at the end of March 1814—less than four months after he had recommended the new commercial restrictions—Madison, under immense pressure to resume trade both for revenue and diplomatic reasons, called for the repeal of the embargo and the NonImportation Act.
Although there was severe fighting at Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane in the Niagara region in July 1814, it was inconclusive, and the British decided to take the war to the United States. They intended to invade New York at Lake Champlain and, taking advantage of New England’s sympathy for the British cause, possibly break up the Union. As a diversion to help the Champlain invasion, they planned on bombarding and raiding the Atlantic and Chesapeake coasts. Finally, they aimed to launch an attack on New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi. With Napoleon’s abdication in April of 1814—a disaster in Republican eyes—more British soldiers and resources could now be directed at America. Up to now the American war had been an absurd sideshow for the British; indeed, the editor of the Edinburgh Review thought that half the people of Britain did not even realize that their country was at war with America.
The British invaded New York in the late summer of 1814 along the route General John Burgoyne had followed in 1777, with an imposing force of fifteen thousand men, many of them veterans of the Napoleonic War, perhaps, as one historian has said, “the finest army ever to campaign on American soil.”63 Yet the army’s success depended on British control of Lake Champlain, and that was not to be. On September 11, 1814, a thirty-year-old American naval commander, Thomas Macdonough, and his fleet of four ships and ten gunboats decisively defeated a British squadron of more or less equal size in Plattsburgh Bay. Macdonough had set multiple anchors with springs on their cables that allowed them to wind about, that is, rotate 180 degrees and bring fresh batteries to bear on the enemy. He showed brilliant seamanship that in the opinion of one historian entitles him to be remembered as “the best American naval officer” in the war.64 The British defeat, one of the most crucial in the struggle, compelled its invading army to withdraw to Canada.
The British were much more successful in their invasion of the Chesapeake. During the previous year the British navy had plundered the coastal towns of Chesapeake Bay. But now the British planned a more serious assault focusing on Baltimore and Washington, the American capital. American officials were slow to perceive the danger, believing that since Washington had no strategic significance the British were not likely to attack it. By mid-August 1814 the British admiral, Sir Alexander Cochrane, and General Robert Ross had arrived in the Chesapeake with two dozen warships and over four thousand British regulars. On August 24 the British soldiers easily overran a motley collection of American militia at Bladensburg, Maryland, just northeast of the District of Columbia. This rout allowed the British to invade Washington that night and burn the White House, the Capitol (which contained the Library of Congress), and other public buildings. When Rear Admiral George Cockburn, the British commander of the Royal Marines and the officer most insistent on attacking Washington, came upon the office of the National Intelligencer that night, he was determined to get revenge. The Intelligencer had been especially critical of Cockburn, portraying him as something of a barbarian. The British commander ordered the destruction of the newspaper’s offices and its printer’s type. “Be sure that all the c’s are destroyed,” he told his men, “so the rascals can’t abuse my name any-more.”65
The British justified the burning of Washington as retaliation for the Americans’ burning of York in Canada the previous year. While President Madison was with the army outside the capital, his wife, Dolley, gathered up state papers and some White House treasures, including a Stuart portrait of George Washington, and escaped in the nick of time. The British forces led by Ross and Cockburn discovered a table set in the White House with forty covers. The officers dined on the food and wine, with Cockburn drinking a toast to “Jemmy” before he ordered the presidential mansion burned. The flames of the burning buildings in the capital could be seen nearly thirty miles away.66
After plundering Alexandria, the British moved on Baltimore. Admiral Cockburn and General Ross landed their forty-five hundred marines and soldiers on September 12, 1814, and defeated a force of thirty-two hundred American militiamen, but at the cost of Ross’s life. Meanwhile, Admiral Cochrane bombarded Fort McHenry, firing over fifteen hundred rounds in a twenty-five-hour period on September 13 and 14. A Georgetown Federalist lawyer, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the heavy British bombardment; when he saw the American flag still flying the next morning over the fort, he was inspired to write the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When set to the music of an English drinking song, Key’s creation, according to the recollection of Julia Anne Hieronymus Tevis, a young woman going to school in Washington, D.C., in 1814, became a stirring success. She thought “‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ should be a consecrated song to every American heart,” not because of “any particular merit in the composition,” but because of “the recollection of something noble in the character of a young and heroic nation.”67 By mid-century the song was widely considered to be the country’s unofficial national anthem, a status the Congress made official in 1931.
DESPITE THE AMERICANS’ ABILITY to hold Fort McHenry, which compelled the British to withdraw from the Chesapeake, they now faced a series of crises. Blamed for the burning of the capital, John Armstrong resigned as secretary of war and was replaced by James Monroe, who continued as secretary of state as well. The government was having difficulty raising troops and keeping those it had recruited. Over 12 percent of American troops deserted during the war, almost half of them in 1814. Paying for the war was becoming almost impossible. The government’s attempts to borrow money failed miserably as potential lenders refused to buy American bonds, especially as the Federalists continued to discourage lending to the government. In the summer of 1814 many of the proliferating state banks were forced to suspend specie payments for the extraordinary amount of paper notes they had put in circulation since the demise of the Bank of the United States in 1811. Without a national bank the government was unable to transfer funds across the country or to pay its mounting bills. In the fall of 1814 Treasury Secretary George W. Campbell said the government needed $ 50 million, but he had no idea how to raise it. In October he resigned as secretary of the treasury, and in November the government defaulted on the national debt. For all intents and purposes the public credit was defunct, and the United States government was bankrupt.
Campbell was replaced by Alexander Dallas, a moderate Pennsylvania Republican. Dallas stunned his fellow Republicans with his recommendations for new internal taxes and a national bank that was an enlarged version of the bank the Republicans had only recently done away with. Although Congress reluctantly agreed to the new taxes, including a whiskey excise tax that was heavier than the one that had precipitated the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, it rejected Dallas’s proposed bank, at least for the time being. President Madison, reversing his earlier strict constructionist view of 1791 that a national bank was unconstitutional, now favored such a bank modeled on the Bank of England.
AN EVEN MORE SERIOUS PROBLEM for the Republicans was the opposition of the Federalists to the war—an opposition so intense that it perhaps made the war the most unpopular in American history. Federalists everywhere, but especially in New England where they were strongest, incessantly and passionately spoke out against the conflict, so clogging “the wheels of war,” said Madison, that its objective was undermined and the enemy was encouraged “to withhold any pacific advances otherwise likely to be made.”68 The Federalists believed that it was exclusively a partisan struggle that could only promote France and the Virginia Dynasty, and they were joined in opposition by the Standing Order of the Congregational and Presbyterian clergy, who secretly and sometimes openly prayed for England’s victory over France and America.69 Most important, many of the Federalists did more than express orally and in writing their opposition to the war; indeed, they committed what today would probably be regarded as seditious if not treasonous acts. The zealous “Blue Light” Federalists, so called because they were thought to have alerted British warships of American sailings by flashing blue lights, discouraged enlistments in the army, thwarted subscriptions to the war loans, urged the withholding of federal taxes, and plotted secession from the Union. They bought British government bonds at a discount and sent specie to Canada to pay for smuggled goods. The Federalist governors in New England even refused to honor the War Department’s requisition of their state militias. The governor of Massachusetts actually entered into secret negotiations with the British, offering part of Maine in return for an end to the war.70Although the president condemned this Federalist defiance as threatening the basis of the Union, he wisely did not press the issue. He had great confidence, as he politely and calmly told a rather frantic Mathew Carey, who was predicting “a bloody civil war” that would “crush republicanism for centuries,” that “the wicked project of destroying the Union of the states is defeating itself.” That deep and calm confidence in most people’s support for the Union and in the ultimate success of the United States in the war was the secret of Madison’s presidential leadership.71
Although some New England extremists called for making a separate peace with England and for secession from the Union, most Federalist leaders, as Madison correctly surmised, were more cautious. Federalists such as Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts came to realize that the calling of a convention of New England states to express their grievances against the national government and the Virginia Dynasty might be the best way of moderating the extremism in the region.72 By the time the convention of twenty-six delegates from the New England states met in Hartford in mid-December 1814 the embargo had been repealed, Bonaparte had fallen, and the earlier sense of crisis had passed.
In its report issued on January 5, 1815, the convention condemned the Republicans for their “visionary and superficial theory in regard to commerce” and their “ruinous perseverance in efforts to render it an instrument of coercion and war.” The report emphasized the paradoxes of the Republicans’ policy by pointing out the “fatal errors of a system which seeks revenge for commercial injuries in the sacrifices of commerce, and aggravates by needless wars, to an immeasurable extent, the injuries it professes to redress.” Revealing their anger and anxiety over what was happening socially all around them, the Federalists also condemned the Republicans both for “excluding from office men of unexceptionable merit” and for distributing offices “among men the least entitled to such distinction.” The report went on to lament the involvement of “this remote country, once so happy and so envied, . . . in a ruinous war, and excluded from intercourse with the rest of the world.” But the convention rejected secession and a separate peace with Britain. Sounding more Republican than the Republicans, the report reminded readers that the Madison administration had not been able to avoid “the embarrassments of old and rotten institutions.” It had lusted for power, abused executive patronage, taxed exorbitantly, and spent wastefully. Most important, said the convention, the Republicans seemed to have forgotten that “unjust and ruinous wars” were “the natural offspring of bad administrations, in all ages and countries.”73
The Federalist convention, held in secret, contented itself with proposing a series of amendments to the Constitution that summed up New England’s grievances over the previous decade and a half. These amendments called for eliminating the three-fifths representation of slaves in Congress; preventing the admission of new states, future embargoes, and declarations of war without a two-thirds majority of Congress; and ending Virginia’s dominance of the executive by prohibiting the president from serving more than one term and by preventing the same state from providing two presidents in succession. The New England Federalists hoped that these proposals would lessen the influence of the South and West in the country and restore sectional balance.
Unfortunately for the Federalists, their report arrived in Washington just as news came that a peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain had been signed. Since the declaration of war in 1812 had been in part a bluff to force Britain to take American demands seriously, Madison had begun pursuing peace almost from the beginning; but he wanted it on American terms, namely, an end both to Britain’s commercial restrictions and, more important, to its policy of impressment.
When the Russian government made its offer of mediation in March 1813, Madison assigned two commissioners to join John Quincy Adams in St. Petersburg—Albert Gallatin, who was tired of running the treasury, and James A. Bayard, a moderate Delaware Federalist. The British declined the Russian mediation but offered to open direct negotiations with the United States, which eventually took place in Ghent, Belgium, between August and December 1814. Madison added to the peace commission the War Hawk Henry Clay of Kentucky and Jonathan Russell of Rhode Island, who was minister to Sweden. It was a strong commission, composed of the best America had available; by contrast, Britain’s delegation was made up of second-raters, its top people being tied up with European affairs.
The American delegation was an odd mixture of personalities, with the flamboyant Clay coming home from a night of gambling just as the crusty Adams was rising to say his prayers. But they got along, thanks to Gallatin. The British began with very tough terms—a permanent Indian reservation in the Old Northwest, American but not British demilitarization on the Great Lakes, cession of northern Maine, and access to the Mississippi River. The Americans rejected these terms outright and, to the surprise of the British, seemed unfazed by the news of the burning of Washington. For their part the British kept delaying in hopes of an even more impressive British victory. But when they learned of their failures at Baltimore and Plattsburgh, the British gave way and agreed to a peace that simply restored the status quo ante bellum, without mentioning any of the issues of neutral rights and impressment that had caused the war. The opinion of the duke of Wellington, the future victor at Waterloo, that America could not be easily conquered and certainly not without naval superiority on the Great Lakes clinched the willingness of the British to settle without gaining any of their original terms. The treaty was signed on Christmas Eve 1814.
News of the peace treaty did not reach Washington until February 13, 1815. In the meantime, on January 8 at New Orleans, Andrew Jackson and a force of about 4, 700 achieved a smashing victory over five thousand British regulars, commanded by General Sir Edward Pakenham, the brother-in-law of the duke of Wellington. Jackson’s troops included regulars, militia, and volunteers, mostly from Tennessee and Kentucky; he also had the help of the notorious Jean Lafitte and his hundreds of fellow smugglers and pirates who maintained a base at Barataria, forty miles south of New Orleans. The British columns surrounded by mist marched into withering American fire that went on for hours. Eventually the British called for a truce to withdraw their wounded and then retreated to the fleet. Although the British persisted for several more weeks in trying to force a passage up the Mississippi and in attempting to take Mobile, they finally gave up when news of the peace treaty arrived.
The American victory at New Orleans was so overwhelming—the British suffered two thousand casualties, including the death of General Pakenham, to Jackson’s seventy—that the Americans came to believe that the United States had really won the war and dictated the peace terms, even though the peace treaty had already been signed. But Jackson’s victory did in fact clinch the treaty, and news of it thoroughly discredited the report of the Hartford Convention, which many thought was a treasonous act. The Federalists were scorned and ridiculed, and they never recovered politically.
The war had not weakened the Americans’ sense of responsibility for the enlightenment of the world; in fact, it strengthened it. In August 1815 David Low Dodge, a wealthy Connecticut merchant living in New York, organized the New York Peace Society. Dodge claimed that his society was “probably the first one that was ever formed in the world for that specific object.” In the meantime the Reverend Noah Worcester of Brighton, Massachusetts, had written the Solemn Review of the Custom of War, a searing indictment of war that called for the establishment of peace societies. The book was published in December 1814 and in the next fifteen months went through five editions, with many more in subsequent years. Worcester took his own advice and in December 1815, with the aid of William Ellery Channing, formed the Massachusetts Peace Society, which sought to turn “the attention of the community to the nature, spirit, causes, and effects of war.” In 1819 the London Peace Society gave credit to the Americans for creating the model for peace societies, which were made for “promoting the general amelioration of humanity.”74
ALTHOUGH THE WAR WITH BRITAIN was over, there was still fighting to be done, and, as a consequence of the war, Americans now had the ships to do the fighting. During the war, the Barbary States had taken advantage of America’s inability to retaliate, and once again they had captured American merchant ships and imprisoned their crews. With the ratification of the Peace Treaty of Ghent between the United States and Great Britain, however, the Americans were finally free to take action, and on March 3, 1815, Congress declared war on Algiers. The United States sent two squadrons, totaling seventeen warships, into the Mediterranean, the largest naval fleet the country had ever assembled. After losing several vessels to the American forces, the Algerines capitulated and signed a treaty with the United States.
Threatened by the powerful American naval squadrons, Tunis and Tripoli soon followed the Algerian example. The Americans demanded the release of not only their own prisoners but the prisoners of other nations as well. “To see the stars and stripes holding forth the hand of retributive justice to the barbarians, and rescuing the unfortunate, even of distant but friendly European nations, from slavery” filled an American observer on the spot and Americans back home as well with pride. By ending the Barbary practices of tributes and ransoms, the Americans accomplished what no European nation had been willing or able to accomplish. John Quincy Adams, from his new post in London as minister to Great Britain, thought that America’s “naval campaign in the Mediterranean has been perhaps as splendid as anything that has occurred in our annals since our existence as a nation.”75
It is not surprising, therefore, that Americans came to believe that the Treaty of Ghent with Great Britain had been written on their terms. Although the treaty seemed to have settled none of the issues that had caused the War of 1812, it actually had settled everything. It was true that the treaty never mentioned the issues of impressment and neutral rights that were the ostensible causes of the war, but that did not matter. It was not merely the fact that the end of the European war rendered the issues of neutral rights moot; more important was the fact that the results of the war vindicated what those issues had come to symbolize—the nation’s independence and sovereignty. As President Madison declared during the war, not to have waged it would have announced to the world that “the Americans were not an independent people, but colonists and vassals.”76 Most important, the war ended without seriously jeopardizing the grand revolutionary experiment in limited republican government.
President Madison had appreciated this from the beginning and had behaved accordingly. Just before the war began, noted Richard Rush, Madison had suggested that “the difference between our government and others was happily this: that here the government had an anxious and difficult task at hand, the people stood at ease—not pressed upon, not driven, . . . whereas elsewhere government had an easy time, and the people [had] to bear and do everything, as mere ambition, will, or any immediate impulse dictated.” Madison was not like other men, said Rush; his mind was “fertile and profound in these sorts of reflections.”77
To the consternation of both friends and enemies Madison remained remarkably sanguine during the disastrous events of the war. Better to allow the country to be invaded and the capital burned than to build up state power in a European monarchical manner. It was a Republican war that Madison sought to wage in a republican fashion. Even during the war the president continued to call for embargoes as the best means for fighting it. As his secretary of the navy William Jones came to appreciate, Madison’s republican principles were the source of his apparently weak executive leadership. “The President,” Jones observed in 1814, “is virtuous, able and patriotic, but . . . he finds difficulty in accommodating to the crisis some of those political axioms which he has so long indulged, because they have their foundation in virtue, but which form the vicious nature of the times and the absolute necessity of the case require some relaxation.”78
Madison resisted that relaxation of republican political axioms. He knew that a republican leader should not become a Napoleon or even a Hamilton. Although he had tried to lead the Congress, he had not badgered it, and he had not used executive patronage to win influence. With no wartime precedents to guide him, he knowingly accepted the administrative confusion and inefficiencies, the military failures, and the opposition of both the Federalists and even some members of his own party, calm in the conviction that in a republic strong executive leadership could only endanger the principles for which the war was fought.79
As the City of Washington declared in a formal tribute to the president, the sword of war had usually been wielded at the expense of “civil or political liberty.” But this was not the case with President Madison in the war against Britain. Not only had the president restrained the sword “within its proper limits,” but he also had directed “an armed force of fifty thousand men aided by an annual disbursement of many millions, without infringing a political, civil, or religious right.” As one admirer noted, Madison had withstood both a powerful foreign enemy and widespread domestic opposition “without one trial for treason, or even one prosecution for libel.”80
Although historians have had difficulty appreciating Madison’s achievement, many contemporaries certainly realized what he had done. It is not surprising, therefore, that fifty-seven towns and counties throughout the United States are named for Madison, more than for any other president.81“Notwithstand[ing] a thousand Faults and blunders,” John Adams told Jefferson in 1817, Madison’s administration had “acquired more glory, and established more Union than all his three Predecessors, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, put together.”82 Although Adams with this statement may have been tweaking the pride of the man who had defeated him for the presidency in 1800, he was essentially correct. The War of 1812 did finally establish for Americans the independence and nationhood of the United States that so many had previously doubted. And everyone but the Federalists sensed it. The war, declared the “republican citizens of Baltimore” in April 1815 in what became a common refrain through much of the country,
has revived, with added luster the renown which brightened the morning of our independence: it has called forth and organized the dormant resources of the empire: it has tried and vindicated our republican institutions: it has given us that moral strength, which consists in the well earned respect of the world, and in a just respect for ourselves. It has raised up and consolidated a national character, dear to the hearts of the people, as an object of honest pride and a pledge of future union, tranquility, and greatness.83
With the spread of sentiments like these it was not surprising that Americans came to think of the War of 1812 as “the second war for independence.” The war, they claimed, had at last given them a “national character,” something that George Washington and others had only yearned for three decades earlier. As a result of the war, said Albert Gallatin, the people “are more American; they feel and act more as a nation.”84 The internal struggle that had gone on from 1789 over the direction of the United States finally seemed to be over. People now called for an end to party bickering and for uniting as one great family. The grand republican experiment had survived. “Our government is now so firmly put on its republican tack,” Jefferson assured Lafayette in France, “that it will not be easily monarchised by forms.”85