Mr. Madison’s War: The War of 1812. An Age of Conflict, Contradictions, and Change, 1804 - 1815. The War of 1812.
An Age of Conflict, Contradictions, and Change, 1804 - 1815
The conflict which might be renamed the Second American Revolution took place from 1812 – 1814; yet, the origins of the war went back much further, and the best remembered American victory – during the Battle of New Orleans – took place after the Treaty of Ghent was signed.
Thomas Jefferson’s plan for an agrarian republic relied heavily on economic interdependence between American and European groups. He envisioned a world where American grown crops would feed European economies, and where free trade – along with free navigation of the seas – would allow Americans to import manufactured goods from Europe. There was plenty of good logic behind his thinking, but there were even more obstacles to contend with.
Jefferson remained committed to the idea of Americans exporting foodstuffs to Europe – and persistent war created a healthy demand for food. But persistent war also caused European markets to resent American neutrality and profits. The British, by 1803, had started a policy of impressment of sailors and disruption of supposedly neutral shipping. Napoleon, meanwhile, found a new food source in Russia and encouraged privateers and other French vessels to interrupt American trade with England.
The British ship HMS Leopard stopped, shelled, and boarded the American vessel Chesapeake in June of 1807, killing three Americans, injuring eighteen, crippling the ship. American sailors were impressed – or robbed of their liberty and conscripted into the British Navy as a result. The incident damage American pride significantly, and rumblings towards war began very early…
In violation of his own principles, Jefferson placed an embargo on all trade with England and France. The result was an 80% reduction in the exports taken into the United States, and the onset of the worst economic depression the nation had ever known. Lost jobs, bankruptcy, and business failures occurred at a catastrophic rate, and the debtors prisons filled. New England suffered terribly, but so did Western farmers, who saw prices drop dramatically when their ability to export foodstuffs was limited to nil.
In spite of the fact that economic depression had devastated local economies in the Northeast, South, and West, many Americans harbored so much resentment still towards England that they blamed the English for the crisis. Moreover, many in the West suspected that the English, still occupying western forts, were conspiring with Native Americans to do Americans on the frontier harm. Calls for war were frequent in the West, where War Hawks won seats in Congress.
James Madison was always the political brains behind the Republican Party and received Jefferson’s endorsement in the Election of 1808. Since there had been no real decline in Jefferson’s popularity during the recession, Madison easily won election; nevertheless, some resurgence in the Federalist Party was shown as they gained seats in Congress that year.
While James Madison continued to equivocate and make concessions with European powers to avoid war, a growing number of Western congressmen were inclined to opt for war. Concerned about English tampering with Native Americans in the West and the injuries to American pride inflicted by impressment and the harassment of American traders, these men called for war. Increasingly, Madison would be required to listen. Henry Clay, pictured to the right, was one of the most prominent of the War Hawks.
Why Madison Ultimately Capitulates to War.
By the late 18th Century, Native American tribes to the east of the Mississippi were disjointed and reeling from military losses, relocation, and the difficulties of cultural assimilation as tribes in decline formed coalitions in order to satisfy basic needs, defend themselves, trade, and survive. During this period, “The Prophet” establish a following among Indians by urging a return to traditional values and a Pan-Indian movement to protect their territory. He established Prophetstown on the banks of the Tippecanoe creek in present day Ohio.
The idea of a Pan-Indian movement with monolithic goals in opposition to American expansion was seen as a plot against American interest inspired by the British. Opportunists that they were, many Americans – including future President William Henry Harrison – envisioned a war that would result in the acquisition of Native American lands, the removal of the British from western forts, and even the control of Canada – for its fur, timber, and natural resources.
With the so-called Non-Intercourse Act, James Madison had effectively ended all trade with both England and France – with the stipulation that if either side agreed to respect the rights of neutral shipping that Americans demanded, trade would be restored. England refused. Napoleon, however disingenuously, agreed. Americans were one step closer to war with England.
Tecumseh was the brother of “The Prophet” and an advocate of pacifism, for the most part. He objected to the notoriously unfair Fort Wayne Treaty – a typical diplomatic maneuver whereby American negotiators got one tribe to cede land which was possessed by another. Tecumseh’s objections and posturing against Harrison resulted in an attack at Tippecanoe Creek – “Prophetstown” with devastating results. Although largely unprovoked, the battle was blamed on “British Indians” and led to a war declaration.
The USS Constitution – “Old Ironsides” won it’s reputation as a great battle vessel in its conflict with the HMS Guerriere. Another victory was achieved by the USS United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur, over the HMS Macedonian. The British were shocked by their ineffectiveness, and redoubled their efforts to improve their results.
Colonel Oliver Hazard Perry was the speaker of these words – having just defeated much of the English fleet on the Great Lakes at the Battle of Put-in-Bay. Perry used a smaller and swifter American fleet to destroy a more powerful English navy. In doing so, he cut off English soldiers in the American West from their supply routes and gave Americans an advantage to press forward.
The Canadian one, not the one in London. William Henry Harrison and his army thrashed the combined forces of the English and Native Americans at this battle. Tecumseh was killed during the engagement, and English soldiers retreated hastily.
It is inaccurate to describe what happened at Horseshoe Bend as a battle, since the vast majority of Indians were murdered as they begged for mercy. Andrew Jackson rose to fame because of the victory, which further robbed the Creek Confederacy of their lands in the Southeast.
Enforcing the Embargo
In order to raise an army and supply the soldiers, James Madison was required to operate a budget which did not balance. The idea of deficit spending was something Americans were familiar with due to the Revolutionary War, but very few Americans were comfortable with the idea of spending more than they had collected in revenues.
Meanwhile, the embargo against English trade was proving especially difficult to uphold. Unscrupulous or unpatriotic Americans were more than willing to disguise their cargo as bound for neutral ports and then trade with the enemy – too make a profit in the midst of the war. New York and New England were essentially shut down during the conflict – and desperate.
The Battle of Waterloo wasn’t really a part of the War of 1812 at all. But the result – the catastrophic defeat of Napoleon – allowed England to focus its entire military might on the United States. By the end of 1814, the complexion of the War of 1812 had changed dramatically.
In 1814, the British sailed straight up the Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Potomac River, disembarked at Washington, D.C., and destroyed the capital. Even the White House burned.
After the storm passed through, British soldiers marched on to Fort McHenry. Having regrouped by now, American Soldiers successfully defended the fortress and turned back the British. Moreover, Francis Scott Key took the time to pen our nation’s national anthem: The Star Spangled Banner.
In an invasion that was eerily reminiscent of the Battle of Saratoga, the British campaign in New York was halted and turned back by American soldiers whose knowledge of the terrain proved decisive.
Using an army of Western Americans, free blacks, Native Americans, and even the pirate Jean Lafitte, Andrew Jackson was able to successfully defend the city of New Orleans. Well placed American soldiers were able to annihilate their British adversary – killing or wounding over 2000 British. That the Treaty of Ghent was already signed, sealed, and delivered before the battle began hardly even troubled the American soldiers who thrashed the British.
In the Northeast, the embargo restricting trade with England had inspired Americans to become more self-reliant when it came to manufacturing their own goods. Samuel Slater had stolen the secret to creating the factory from England in the 1790s. Now, Lowell Mills and other copycat industries would be established and thrive in New England. There were hundreds of factories and mills built and thousands of new jobs created.
The population of the ‘Old Northwest’ was growing rapidly. States like Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, and Ohio all saw their population double each decade going forward. Now that the threat of Native American conflict was removed and British military outposts were rendered useless, the land of the Northwest Territory became more attractive to settlement. Native Americans, meanwhile were marginalized even further; many chose to retreat west of the Mississippi.
In the South the restoration of free trade with Europe and the evolution of the factory system in the Northeast – coupled with Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin – led to an explosion in the production of cotton. Plantation agriculture moved West, rapidly and efficiently. As far as Texas, ‘Cotton was King.’
The cotton revolution, of course, also caused the expansion and growth of slavery. The institution itself –which had been diversifying in terms of occupations – was now to be further dehumanized by relegating most slaves to cotton production – especially in the deep South and West.