Opinions About the War of 1812
By the early 19th century, Britain was in a full-fledged war with Napoleonic France, and part of its economic warfare against that country involved attempts to cut off trade between France and the United States, one of the wealthiest neutral powers. To that end, the British Navy began forcibly impressing U.S. sailors into service. It was an egregious offense on the national sovereignty of a country that had just recently won its independence from British tyranny – but the question over whether or not Americans should go to war against the British (again) was a deeply divisive one. Let’s take a closer look at the opinions in American politics at the time that shaped the national discussion.
The War Hawks
On one side of the discussion in 1811 and 1812 were the so-called War Hawks, a group of up-and-coming Democratic-Republicans in Congress, mainly from the South and the West. The War Hawks pressed President James Madison to declare war against Britain and thereby salvage American honor, which they argued was being thoroughly violated by the British forcibly commandeering U.S. citizens on the high seas. But their motives weren’t as pure as that. At the core of the War-Hawk agenda was territorial expansion. They wanted not only Canada and Florida but also a relentless westward extension of the American frontier. They endorsed fighting Native-American tribes on these lands in order to claim them, believing that the British were actually funding these tribes to prosecute a guerrilla war against American settlers.
The War Hawks had considerable intellectual firepower, and they deployed it effectively. John C. Calhoun, a Yale-educated rising star in the House of Representatives from South Carolina, would eventually deliver a series of four speeches that catapulted him into a leading position within the faction. In the first, given in November 1811, he summed up the situation by stating, “The occasion is now presented, when the national character, misunderstood and traduced for a time by foreign and domestic enemies, should be vindicated.”
The Hawks soon enlisted the support of another dynamic rising star, one Henry Clay of Kentucky, who was elected Speaker of the House on December 1811. Clay and Calhoun became the de facto leaders of the War Hawks, and Clay proved to be another passionate speaker, pushing for the opening of hostilities. Importantly, as Speaker of the House, Clay controlled the appointments to key committees in the House, which he promptly filled with fellow War Hawks, including Calhoun, whom Clay appointed to chair the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. In a speech given in January 1812, Clay said, “This country only requires resolution, and a proper exertion of its immense resources, to command respect and to vindicate every essential right.” The argument was persuasive in its simplicity, since the U.S. was expanding its territory and commerce and therefore needed more military muscle to defend its gains.
Britain’s continued violation of American sovereignty through its impressment campaign was perhaps still the most-powerful pretext for war, and the hawks exploited this pretext ruthlessly. Calhoun had drafted the “Report on Foreign Relations” and the “War Report of 1812,” which proved to be influential documents in swaying President Madison into the war camp. In his fourth speech calling for war, on June 3rd, 1812, Calhoun summed up the Hawks’ views by saying, “The mad ambition, the lust of power, and commercial avarice of Great Britain, arrogating to herself the complete dominion of the Ocean, and exercising over it an unbounded and lawless tyranny, have left to Neutral Nations – an alternative only, between the base surrender of their rights, and a manly vindication of them.” Roughly two weeks later, Congress had issued a declaration for war against Britain, in motions that divided along partisan lines – 79 to 49 in the House and 19 to 13 in the Senate. On June 18th, President Madison signed the declaration into law.
Arranged against the War Hawks were the Tertium Quids (derived from a Latin phrase meaning “a third something”), comprised mainly of politicians in the Northeast who opposed war for various reasons. As Madison was himself a Democratic-Republican, the Federalist Party found itself suited to enunciate its opposition to war as part of its political aim of distancing itself from the president’s policies. Some Democratic-Republicans, meanwhile, feared a rise in popularity of the Federalists if the country went to war, and so opposed military conflict on those grounds. Of the 62 Congressmen who voted against war, 22 were Democratic-Republicans, and 40 were Federalists.
Overall, the opposition’s arguments against war with Britain, like those of the War Hawks, also claimed its suggested course would best protect and increase the prosperity of the country – prosperity which it believed was severely threatened by armed conflict with the world’s foremost naval power, which could disrupt American trade. Democratic-Republican Representative John Randolph of Virginia was a leading proponent of this argument. In the run-up to the June 1812 declaration of war, he even coined the term “Hawk” by referring to the warmongers as War Hawks. Randolph and other Tertium Quids also felt that their supporters, situated in coastal states, would be more damaged by British naval attacks in the event of war than would the southern and western states.
There was a concurrent war of words erupting in the press. In the Northeast, especially in parts of New England, many newspapers routinely leveled the charge that Madison was a corrupt president. This charge lent weight in March 1812 when it was revealed that the president had paid a British spy named John Henry for papers that indicated treasonous behavior by the Federalists, even though the claims in the papers could not be proven. And in Federalist circles the suspicion reigned that Madison wanted to provoke war with Britain in order to bring the U.S. into close alliance with Napoleonic France. Newspapers loyal to the Hawks, meanwhile, asserted that the Federalists were pawns of the British who desired reunion with the British Empire.
Throughout the summer of 1812, the declaration of war divided the states. The governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts refused to comply with a presidential demand for their militia troops, on the grounds that only an invasion would justify such an order – and the country was not then under invasion. New Jersey’s state legislature condemned the war through an official resolution, but Pennsylvania’s legislature passed its own resolution in support of the war, criticizing the governors in New England who were withholding their state militias from federal requisition. In Maryland, the situation escalated into open violence. On June 20th, 1812, pro-war rioters destroyed the printing press of a Federalist anti-war newspaper in Baltimore, forcing its editor Alexander Hanson to flee the city. When Hanson returned a month later and fortified the office with armed adherents, intent on continuing to publish anti-war pieces against the Madison Administration, pro-war rioters attacked again, and in the ensuing clash several people were killed.
The War of 1812 would prove both the Hawks and the Doves right, each in their own way. The American launch of hostilities increased tensions in the western part of the country – the war prompted the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his adherents to enter a formal alliance with the British for the defense of their lands. The war was enormously costly, and coastal areas suffered severely – including Washington, DC, where the British burned the White House and the Capitol building. The Treaty of Ghent, signed in December 1814, officially ended hostilities on a status quo ante basis, with all lands, ships, and prisoners taken by each side ordered to be returned – but no mention was made of the rights of neutrals to be free of impressment at sea, one of the main causes for the war. Yet because the peace settlement led to British evacuation of the American Northwest and a severing of British ties with the Native Americans there, U.S. settlement of the region accelerated.
The War of 1812 was deeply controversial and divided American opinion, yet the result begs the observation that the U.S. may not have expanded to the west as quickly as it did – if at all – had it not taken the plunge and gone to war for the second time against a country that was, in many ways, still hostile to its independence.
Ok, now that we’ve looked at the opinions of the war, let’s go over a review question.
Which of the following was NOT an instance of American opposition to the War of 1812 that had materialized by the summer of 1812?
- News coverage of the purchase of papers on the Federalists from British secret agent John Henry in order to show that President Madison was corrupt.
- The Massachusetts governor’s refusal to abide by a federal order to use troops from the state militia for the US war effort.
- The Pennsylvania state legislature’s issuance of a resolution calling the war fraudulent.
- Virginia Representative John Randolph’s argument that war with Britain would damage US international trade.
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!
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- Wills, Matthew. 2016. “The Original Hawks and Doves.” JSTOR Daily
- “Tecumseh.” Wikipedia
- “Treaty of Ghent | United States-United Kingdom .” In Encyclopædia Britannica