Modern history

Defending and Redefining the Nation



Dolley Payne, a future First Lady, was raised on a Virginia plantation. But her Quaker parents, moved by the Society of Friends' growing antislavery sentiment, decided to free their slaves. In 1783, when Dolley was fifteen, the Paynes moved to Philadelphia. There, Dolley's father suffered heavy economic losses, and Dolley lost her first husband and her younger son to yellow fever. In 1794 the young widow met and married Virginia congressman James Madison. The two made a perfect political couple. James was brilliant but reserved, while Dolley, witty and charming, loved entertaining. When the newly elected president Thomas Jefferson appointed James secretary of state in 1801, the couple moved to Washington.

Since Jefferson and his vice president, Aaron Burr, were widowers, Dolley Madison served as hostess for White House affairs. When James Madison succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809, he, too, depended on his wife's social skills and networks. Dolley held lively informal receptions to which she invited Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, diplomats, cabinet officers, and their wives. These social events helped bridge the ideological differences that continued to divide Congress and proved crucial in creating a unified front when Congress declared war on Great Britain in 1812.

During the War of 1812, British forces attacked Washington City and burned the Executive Mansion. With the president away, his wife was left to secure important state papers, emerging as a symbol of national courage at a critical moment in the war. When peace came the following year, Dolley Madison quickly reestablished a busy social calendar to help mend conflicts that had erupted during the war.

In 1817, at the end of the president's second term, the Madisons left Washington for Virginia just as a young Scots-Cherokee trader named John Ross entered the political arena. Born in 1790 in the Cherokee nation, John (also known as Guwisguwi) was the son of a Scottish trader and his wife, who was both Cherokee and Scottish. John Ross was raised in an Anglo-Indian world in eastern Tennessee where he played with Cherokee children and attended tribal ceremonies and festivals but was educated by private tutors and in Protestant missionary schools. At age twenty, Ross was appointed as a U.S. Indian agent among the Cherokees and during the War of 1812 served as an adjutant (or administrative assistant) in a Cherokee regiment.

After the war, Ross focused on business ventures in Tennessee, including the establishment of a plantation. He also became increasingly involved in Cherokee political affairs, using his bilingual skills and Protestant training to represent Indian interests to government officials. In 1819 Ross was elected president of the Cherokee legislature. In the 1820s, he moved to Georgia, near the Cherokee capital of New Echota, where he served as president of the Cherokee constitutional convention in 1827. Having overseen the first written constitution produced by an Indian nation, Ross was then elected principal chief in 1828. Over the next decade, he battled to retain the Cherokee homeland in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee against the pressures of white planters and politicians.

Portrait presumed to be Tecumseh by an unknown artist. The Granger Collection, New York

AMERICAN POLITICS IN the early nineteenth century was a white man’s world, but, as the American histories of Dolley Madison and John Ross demonstrate, it was possible for some of those on the political margins to influence national developments. Both Madison and Ross sought to defend and expand the democratic ideals that defined the young nation. The First Lady helped forge social

networks and nurture a nascent political culture in Washington that included women as well as men. At the same time, she struggled with the issue of slavery on her husband’s Montpelier plantation. Ross encouraged the Cherokee people to embrace Anglo-American religion, language, and political ideals in the hopes of providing them with a path to inclusion in the United States. Yet ultimately, given the nation’s economic growth, he could not overcome the power of white planters and politicians to wrest territory from even the most Americanized Indians. Although Ross most directly confronted the limits of American democracy, Dolley Madison also grappled with the dilemmas posed to the nation’s democratic ideals by the expansion of slavery and the limits of citizenship.

Conflicts at Home and Abroad

When Thomas Jefferson completed his second term as president in March 1809, he was succeeded by his friend and ally James Madison. Madison was the principal author of the Constitution; coauthor of The Federalist Papers, which ensured its ratification; and secretary of state in Jefferson’s administration. Like Jefferson, he sought to end foreign interference in American affairs and to resolve conflicts between Indians and white residents on the nation’s frontier. Congress itself was divided over how best to address these problems. By 1815 the United States had weathered a series of domestic and foreign crises, including another war with Britain, but American sovereignty remained fragile. At the same time, even though Madison (like Jefferson) believed in a national government with limited powers, he found himself expanding federal authority.

Tensions at Sea and on the Frontier

When President Madison took office, Great Britain and France remained embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and refused to modify their policies toward American shipping or to recognize U.S. neutrality. American ships were subject to seizure by both nations, and British authorities continued to impress “deserters” into the Royal Navy. In response, the new president convinced Congress to pass the Non-Intercourse Act in 1809, which allowed Americans to trade with every nation except France and Britain. When that act failed to satisfy the warring nations or improve the economy, Congress approved a bill that opened trade with both Great Britain and France but allowed the president to reimpose an embargo on one nation if the other lifted its restrictions. When Napoleon promised to lift all restrictions on U.S. shipping, Madison stalled, giving British officials time to match France’s policy. Britain refused.

In the midst of these crises, Madison also faced difficulties in the Northwest Territory. In 1794 General “Mad Anthony” Wayne had won a decisive victory against a multitribe coalition led by the Shawnees at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. But this victory inspired two forceful native leaders to create a pan-Indian alliance in the Ohio River valley. The Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa and his half-brother Tecumseh, a warrior, encouraged native peoples to resist white encroachments on their territory and to give up all aspects of white society and culture, including clothing, liquor, and other popular trade goods. They imagined an Indian nation that stretched from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Although powerful Creek and Choctaw nations in the lower Mississippi valley refused to join the alliance, bands of Indians in the upper Midwest, frustrated with continuing white encroachments, rallied around the brothers. In 1808 Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh established Prophet Town along the Tippecanoe River in Indiana Territory. The next year, William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor, plied several Indian leaders with liquor and persuaded them to sign a treaty selling three million acres of land to the United States for only $7,600. Tecumseh was enraged by Harrison’s methods and dismissed the treaty, claiming the land belonged to all the Indians together.

In November 1811, fearing the growing power of the Shawnee leaders, President Madison ordered Harrison to attack Prophet Town. With more troops and superior weapons, the U.S. army defeated the Shawnees, and soldiers then burned Prophet Town to the ground. The rout damaged Tenskwatawas stature as a prophet, and he and his supporters fled to Canada. Skirmishes continued between Indians and U.S. troops along the Canadian border, but federal officials now returned their attention to conflicts with Great Britain.

War Erupts with Britain

Convinced that British officials in Canada fueled Indian resistance, supporters of war with Great Britain demanded an end to British intervention on the western frontier. They were even more concerned about British interference with transatlantic trade. Yet merchants in the Northeast, who depended on trade with Great Britain and the British West Indies, feared the commercial disruptions that war entailed. Once staunch supporters of expanding the power of the national government, New England Federalists now adamantly opposed a declaration of war.

For months, Madison avoided taking a clear stand for or against war. On June 1, 1812, however, having exhausted diplomatic efforts and seeing no end to these conflicts as long as the Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe, Madison sent a secret message to Congress outlining American grievances against Great Britain. Within weeks, Congress declared war by a sharply divided vote of 79 to 49 in the House of Representatives and 19 to 13 in the Senate.

Supporters claimed that a victory over Great Britain would end threats to U.S. sovereignty and raise Americans’ stature in Europe, but the nation was ill prepared to launch a major offensive against such an imposing foe. Cuts in federal spending and falling tax revenues over the previous decade had diminished military resources. Democratic- Republicans had also failed to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States when it expired in 1811, so the nation lacked a vital source of credit. Nonetheless, many in Congress believed that Britain would be too distracted and overcommitted by the ongoing conflict with France to attack North America.

Meanwhile U.S. commanders devised plans to attack Canada. The most enthusiastic advocates of war imagined that the United States could defeat Britain and gain control of all of North America. Initially, however, the U.S. army and navy proved no match for Great Britain and its Indian allies. Tecumseh, who was appointed a brigadier general in the British army, helped capture Detroit. Joint British and Indian forces also launched successful attacks on Fort Dearborn, Fort Mackinac, and other points along the U.S.-Canadian border.

Even as U.S. forces faced defeat after defeat in the summer and fall of1812, American voters reelected James Madison as president. His narrow victory demonstrated the geographical divisions caused by the war. Madison won most of the western and southern states, where the war was most popular, and was defeated in New England and New York, where Federalist opponents held sway.

After a year of fighting, U.S. forces—with the aid of crucial naval victories on the Great Lakes—finally drove the British back into Canada (Map 9.1). Tecumseh was killed in Canada at the Battle of the Thames, and U.S. forces burned York (present-day Toronto). Yet just as U.S. prospects in the war improved, New England Federalists demanded retreat. In the fall of 1813, state legislatures in New England withdrew their support for any invasions of “foreign British soil,” and Federalists in Congress sought to block appropriations for the war and challenge the deployment of local militia units into the U.S. army.

MAP 9.1

The War of 1812 Most conflicts in this war occurred in the Great Lakes region or around Washington, D.C. Yet two of the most significant victories were achieved by General Andrew Jackson in the South. At Horseshoe Bend, his troops defeated Creek allies of the British, and at New Orleans they beat British forces two weeks after a peace agreement was signed in Europe.

New England Federalists did not have sufficient power to change national policy, but they called a meeting at Hartford, Connecticut, in 1814 to consider their options. Some participants at the Hartford Convention called for New England’s secession from the United States. Most, however, supported amendments to the U.S. Constitution that would limit presidents to a single term and ensure that presidents were elected from diverse states (so that Virginia planters could not dominate the executive branch). Other amendments would limit embargoes to sixty days and require a two-thirds majority in Congress to declare war, prohibit trade, or admit new states.

The ideas debated at Hartford gained increased attention as British forces once again launched attacks into the United States and British warships blockaded U.S. ports. In August 1814, the British sailed up the Chesapeake. As American troops retreated, Dolley Madison and a family slave, Peter Jennings, gathered up government papers and valuable belongings before fleeing the city. The redcoats then burned and sacked Washington City. The invasion of the U.S. capital was humiliating, but American troops quickly rallied to defeat the British in Maryland and expel them from Washington and New York.

Meanwhile news arrived from the South that in March 1814 militiamen from Tennessee led by Andrew Jackson had defeated a force of Creek Indians, important allies of the British. Cherokee warriors (and adjutant John Ross), longtime foes of the Creeks, joined the fight as well. At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, in present-day Alabama, the combined U.S.-Cherokee forces slaughtered some eight hundred Creek warriors. Jackson then demanded punitive terms, and in the resulting treaty the Creek nation lost two-thirds of its tribal domain.

Despite sporadic U.S. victories, America was no closer to winning the war. In June 1814, the British finally defeated Napoleon, ending the war in Europe. And in December of that year, the British fleet landed thousands of seasoned troops at New Orleans, threatening U.S. control of that crucial port city. But exhausted from twenty years of European warfare, the British were losing steam as well. As a result, representatives of the two countries met in Ghent, Belgium, to negotiate a peace settlement. On Christmas Eve 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, returning to each nation the lands it controlled before the war.

Although the war had officially ended, it took time for the news to reach the United States. In January 1815, American troops under General Andrew Jackson attacked and routed the British army at New Orleans. The victory cheered Americans, who did not know that peace had already been achieved, and Jackson became a national hero.

Although the War of 1812 achieved no official territorial gains, Jackson’s late victory in the Battle of New Orleans made it appear that American forces had vanquished Great Britain. The war did represent an important defense of U.S. sovereignty and garnered international prestige for the young nation. In addition, Indians on the western frontier lost a powerful ally when British representatives at Ghent failed to act as advocates for their allies. Thus, in practical terms, the U.S. government gained greater control over vast expanses of land in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys held by these Indian nations.


• How were conflicts with Indians in the West connected to ongoing tensions between the United States and Great Britain on land and at sea?

• What were the long-term consequences of the War of 1812?

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