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The First Declared War

Two hundred years ago Friday, President James Madison sent a carefully worded message to Congress making the case for war against Great Britain. A British blockade of Napoleonic France was keeping U.S. exports from reaching European markets, cutting off the young nation’s trade and violating its right to remain neutral.

In 1812, the United States had never declared war on another nation. And though Madison believed Britain’s actions were turning America back into a colony, the “Father of the Constitution” was careful to defer to Congress’ war-making powers and the put the burden on elected representatives. 

“I am happy in the assurance that the decision will be worthy the enlightened and patriotic councils of a virtuous, a free and a powerful nation,’’ he wrote.

Within 17 days, Congress opted in. 

The House and Senate, coached by  the Madison administration on key details, passed war resolutions plunging the 36-year-old nation into battle with the world’s pre-eminent superpower. In the process, they embarked on what became arguably the defining test of U.S. identity between the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

The War of 1812 is remembered today for iconic moments such as the burning of Washington, D.C., and the bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It helped send four men — James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison — to the presidency and settled the question of who’d dominate the heartland of North America, mostly at the expense of American Indian tribes. The political and economic fallout also helped lay the groundwork for the modern two-party system.

For all of that, the war didn’t have a clear-cut outcome, petering out after England’s victory over France. The most decisive military victory, the Battle of New Orleans, was actually fought after a formal peace treaty was signed. The conflict also exposed embarrassing deficiencies in the U.S. Army, which stumbled through an unsuccessful invasion of Canada intended to bring pressure on the British. The costs drained the U.S. Treasury and bankrupted hundreds of businesses.

“The assumption, in hindsight, is if the U.S. could have just hung on for a couple of years, all the unpleasantness could have been avoided,” said John Stagg, editor-in-chief of the Papers of James Madison and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. “But nobody thought the whole thing would be over shortly or that Napoleon would be defeated. Madison was looking at a long-term crisis of American neutrality and felt he had to go to war to vindicate the independence of the nation. It was a decisive phase in how the United States charted its course in the community of nations.” 

Setting the Course of Empire

Ironically, Madison’s war declaration might have never materialized had news traveled faster in the early 19th century.

The commander in chief sent the message to Congress without knowing that British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, an enthusiastic supporter of intercepting and boarding U.S. merchant ships, had been assassinated weeks earlier and succeeded by the more moderate Robert Jenkinson, the second earl of Liverpool. 

As Congress was debating war, Britain actually scrapped its system of blockades — a concession Madison later acknowledged could have delayed hostilities had he known about it.

Most popular history accounts credit a group of Republican Members of Congress known as the “war hawks” for stoking sentiment for the conflict. Yet the group, which included Speaker Henry Clay (Ky.) and Rep. John C. Calhoun (S.C.), lacked staff with expertise in military and foreign affairs and deferred to the Madison administration to produce the casus belli. Stagg notes the House report justifying the decision to go to war was written by John Graham, the chief clerk of the State Department, which had negotiated in vain to lift the maritime obstructions.

The war sharply divided Federalist  merchants and shippers from New England, who were fearful about the long-term consequences for trade, and Southern Republican planters, who harbored an intense distrust of Britain. Despite the highly charged environment, lawmakers didn’t agonize about public opinion in the days before universal suffrage and mass-produced newspapers.

“Not many people could vote, so their conception of who made up the electorate was much narrower than it would be a generation later,” said Julie Miller, specialist in early American history in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. “They were thinking of people very much like themselves and much less about settlers on the frontier or workers in cities.”

One view holds the declaration of war might have essentially been a bluff, designed to shock the British into making concessions. Secretary of State James Monroe echoed widespread sentiment when he complained Britain didn’t take the American threat seriously. Historian Donald Hickey, author of a seminal book on the conflict, notes that the speed with which Madison sent out peace feelers showed he, too, might have expected a bloodless victory.

Instead, the war resolutions set the nation on a painful course. Congress soon had to issue $5 million in debt, raise duties on imported goods and tax land, stills, sugar, carriages and bank notes to help fund the war effort. A shifting coalition of Senators known as the “Invisibles” opposed numerous Madison initiatives, making life so difficult for the administration that Vice President Elbridge Gerry refused to follow custom and vacate his seat as presiding officer, preventing the election of a President Pro Tem.

The awkward machinations did provide the government with its first coordinated preparations for conflict. Hickey notes the experience over time promoted national self-confidence and encouraged a heady expansionism that would drive American foreign policy for the rest of the century. It also left a legacy of suspicion and distrust between Canada, Great Britain and the U.S. that persisted into the 20th century, according to Stagg.

“People forget independence from Britain at that time was something people seriously worried about,’’ said Stagg, who has authored a new account of the political, military and diplomatic dimensions of the conflict for Cambridge University Press. “Had Andrew Jackson not taken millions of acres from the Creek Indians that would become the cotton kingdom, the course of history would have been very different. He wouldn’t have become president and Jacksonian Democracy wouldn’t have happened. In these senses, Americans should remember the significance of the war for its role shaping the larger contours and destiny of their republic.”

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