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AFTER TIPPECANOESome Aspects of the War of 1812
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2011 Michigan State University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE COMING OF THE WAR
William T. Utter
Throughout the nineteenth century, historians interpreted the causes of the War of 1812 with remarkable consistency. They simply enlarged upon President Madison's War Message. Henry Adams, in his magnificent history of the period, had thrown some doubts on Madison's reasons for the declaration. But it was not until the early decades of this century that younger and more critical historians began to wrestle with the problem of the causes of the war. In 1902 Woodrow Wilson, a young professor at Princeton University, wrote a pot-boiler which he called A History of the American People. At the conclusion of his discussion of the outbreak of the war, he wrote this sentence: "The grounds of the war were singularly uncertain." Let me give you my assurance that historians dislike writing a sentence like that and that you can take Professor Wilson's phrase literally.
In the first quarter of this century the influence of Frederick Jackson Turner became dominant among scholars who were studying early American history. Turner's name is forever associated with the history of the American frontier, but his true interest seems to have been in the analysis of sectionalism, with emphasis on the West. The sectional nature of the support of the war had long been noted; as it was now studied in detail, a sort of double paradox became apparent. The declaration of war had received its greatest support from the West and the South, whereas the maritime sections, notably New England, were strong in their opposition—and this in spite of the fact that the war was being fought ostensibly for maritime rights. This paradox could be approached in many ways, no doubt, but the first, and possibly the most plausible, critic of the older interpretation was Louis M. Hacker, then a young professor at Columbia University, who in 1924 contributed an essay to the Mississippi Valley Historical Review entitled "Western Land Hunger and the War of 1812: A Conjecture." The word "conjecture" might seem to indicate an uncertainty on the part of the writer, an uncertainty which does not appear in the essay itself. Hacker abandoned almost completely Madison's list of causes for the war, on the ground that he saw no association between those causes and the enthusiasm which westerners were displaying for the war. The true key to the paradox of the western attitude lay in covetousness, Mr. Hacker said. We were sinning; we coveted our neighbors' lands. He asserted that Canada represented the greatest reserves of agricultural lands immediately accessible to westerners. To make his thesis more tenable, Hacker minimized even the Indian danger and exaggerated the hesitation which frontiersmen felt toward settling in the prairies—perhaps based on the assumption that prairies which could not grow trees could not grow crops.
Mr. Hacker's point of view was much criticized, and answered in part, but never completely refuted. My own reaction is that he did not search very ardently for contemporary evidence which might not support his theory. For example, he lists at some length toasts drunk at various banquets which made allusion to the glories of a war in which Canada would be conquered. These toasts were taken largely from a Zanesville paper. I could match this evidence, toast for toast, with expressions of the contrary point of view from such towns as Putnam and Marietta, where Federalist sympathies were much in evidence.
It is a little as if historians had turned psychiatrists, got Madison and his lieutenants on the leather couch, and addressed them: "We know that the reasons you give for this declaration are not the true reasons. Now give us the truth, preferably something sinful."
We must distinguish between two ways of putting the matter. Historian A will say: there were a number of reasons why we were justified in declaring war against Britain. If we were to fight Great Britain we could do so only in Canada. In this way the conquest of Canada became, of necessity, one of our war aims. Historian B will say: we wanted Canada and therefore pretended that we were fighting Britain for causes one, two, three (the maritime causes), while it was understood among ourselves that our real reason was to conquer Canada. For historian B, expansionism becomes the primary cause. With all deference to Mr. Hacker, I feel that he used the latter approach.
In 1925 there appeared a volume entitled Expansionists of 1812, by Julius W. Pratt. I remember when the book appeared, because Dr. Pratt was ending his graduate study at the University of Chicago at the time I was in the midst of mine. I regarded him then and do now as an exceptionally able scholar. The title of the book has a ring to it; for the first time a thorough study was made, fully documented, of sectional contentions over the declaration of war. Dr. Pratt not only looked into the western desire for Canadian land and the whole problem of the Indians, but really broke new ground in his study of southern ambitions for Spanish territory along the Gulf. This book has had enormous influence, particularly among writers of textbooks in American history. As a result, recent students of American history have been rather thoroughly indoctrinated in the "land hunger" theory, and are ready to make statements far more critical than those of Dr. Pratt. He is a judicious scholar, and at the close of the introduction to his work he wrote, in regard to the scope and proportions of his study, that it makes no effort to give a full account of the causes of the War of 1812 but deals with one set of causes only. He goes on to say that despite his failure to deal with the maritime grievances he was convinced that without them there would have been no war. He felt that it was also safe to say, however, that without the peculiar grievances and ambitions of the West there would have been no war. One set of causes was in his mind as essential as the other. It is no fault of Dr. Pratt that textbook writers as well as college students have failed to read what he wrote in his introduction. Whatever Dr. Pratt may have wished, his book fastened the "land hunger" theory firmly in the minds of students of American history. Dr. Pratt's is the best study of rival factions and personalities in this period of acute political fractiousness. He shows that Secretary of State James Monroe hardly mentioned the notion that the conquest of Canada was a war aim. He shows, too, the contentions between the northern and southern wings of the Republican party, each with hopes for territorial aggrandizement. Once again I raise my earlier questions: are the conquests of Canada and the Gulf Coast to be considered as primary or secondary factors in the declaration of war? If you hold that they were primary, then you place a charge of hypocrisy against Americans in high places.
A valid criticism of the "land hunger" thesis is that it is too simple an explanation of a complex matter. If I were asked what school of historiography I belong to I should probably reply that I am of the school of multiple causation, which is no school at all. Woodrow Wilson found that the grounds for the war were singularly uncertain; here, if anywhere in American history, one must list all the factors which entered into the decision made in Washington and give the various factors their appropriate weight, thus avoiding the absurdity of explaining everything by a single motive. Land hunger and the Indian menace would doubtless be given considerable weight; so, too, would the genuine grievances which we had against Britain.
Let me list a few factors to which I would give attention, but possibly not a great deal of weight. I have always been intrigued by the fact that almost within the week in which we declared war, Napoleon set in motion his invasion of Russia. Would we have declared war if we could have foreseen the disaster which was about to overwhelm the great French leader? This is almost the equivalent of saying, although we did not admit it even to ourselves, that we were betting on Napoleon's continued success, that we were tying our future to his. This is not the equivalent of saying that we approved of what he was doing, as the Federalists generally charged. Readers of the four-page weekly papers of the frontier towns were able to follow the career of Napoleon in great detail. The news was not generally colored in his favor.
American resentment at restrictions on our commerce might have been directed as well at Napoleon as at the British, and some hotheaded patriots wanted us to commit the absurdity of declaring war against both. In our exasperation against both parties, we chose to fight the one which was the more accessible.
Then there is the less tangible matter of a war to defend national honor. I have never forgotten that the Ladies Aid Society of one of the Chillicothe churches passed resolutions which were most belligerent, at the time of the Chesapeake-Leopard episode. Let me read you a brief extract from a letter written by a friend to Senator Worthington. 5 The date was late December, 1811: "... in the event of an army of the United States being sent to affect the conquest of Cannady we wont have no invation to apprehend from the British on that quarter, indeed from every view I can take of the subject I have been unable to discover on what quarter the British could do the U. S. any material injury and we would invade and conquer Cannady and humble their overbearing pride." Dr. Pratt quotes this letter to uphold the "land hunger" idea. It might be quoted with equal weight to uphold the idea that there was general resentment of England's air of condescension towards us, even her hesitancy in apologizing for her flagrant abuse of power in the Chesapeake-Leopard affair. It is certainly difficult to evaluate a factor such as this, but that it was a factor few could doubt.
Here is a short passage written by a young patriot shortly after Hull's surrender. His letter speaks of "the most shameful surrender that ever took place in the world. Our brave captain Harry James cursed and swore like a pirate, and cried like his heart would break. He's got the true blood of his uncle John James flowing in his veins. He would fight a regiment of British. He has treasured up all the stories of the suffering of his forefathers in South Carolina during the war of liberty in '76 and he hates the damned rascals as bad as I do. Give my love to my father and tell him I have suffered greater hardships in six months than he did in North Carolina during the war for liberty."
Many other letters in this vein could be found. One might be tempted to conclude that the younger generation, becoming bored with their fathers' stories of their heroism in the war for liberty, decided to go out and fight the British so that they would have some stories of their own. Or one might choose simply to say the participants in this war fought for the love of their country. But I must not continue in this line for fear you charge me with being facetious.
Another argument, both new and old, regards the matter of impressment as the leading cause of the conflict. President Madison said it was, and if I should attempt for a short time to uphold this position it would in a sense be to come full circle, back to the point of origin.
In October 1811, some eight months before the declaration of war, J. Q. Adams wrote to Secretary of War William Eustis, "The practice of impressment is the only inerradicable wound, which if persisted in can terminate no otherwise than by war. But it seems clearly better to wait our increasing strength and our adversary's more mature decay before we undertake to abolish it by war." This was the summary of a very wise and widely experienced American, a man of a good deal of objectivity. He went on to say that he did not think that the nation should declare war explicitly on the point of impressment. Dr. James F. Zimmerman, who wrote a dissertation at Columbia University on the matter of impressment, holds that Madison was in substantial agreement with Adams' point of view. Madison, in other words, was willing to postpone a declaration. The leadership of the new Congress made this difficult if not impossible. This view would certainly be that held by Senator Thomas Worthington, one of the great leaders in Ohio, who felt so keenly that our nation was unprepared for war that he voted against the declaration, although he would have conceded that we had causes which would have justified us.
In his war message of June 1, the President placed impressment first in his list of British aggressions. "Thousands of American citizens under the safeguard of public law and of the national flag have been torn from their country and everything dear to them, have been exposed under the severity of their disciplines to be exiled to the most distant and deadly climes, risk their lives in the battles of their oppressors and to be the melancholy instruments of taking away those of their own brethren. Against this crying enormity, which Great Britain would be so prompt to avenge if committed against herself, the United States have in vain exhausted remonstrances and expostulations. ..." Those who voted against the declaration generally agreed that impressment was an almost intolerable grievance but that it should be the subject of further negotiations. Congress had already indicated that it was willing to prohibit the employment of British subjects in its public and private shipping, which had been an obstacle in the way of reaching a solution with Britain.
The offensive Orders-in-Council which had authorized the "paper blockades" were repealed almost simultaneously with our declaration of war. The textbooks commonly say that if there had been an Atlantic cable the war would never have come. No one knows whether this is true or not, since the British had made no concession on the impressment question. I have been intrigued with the negotiation which continued between the two countries after the declaration of war.
Our minister to Great Britain, William Pinkney, had returned to the United States in the spring of 1811, leaving his post in the hands of chargé d'affaires Jonathan Russell. At the time of the declaration of war, our State Department authorized Russell to make contact with Viscount Castlereagh, the British Foreign Minister. This he did, and was treated rather cavalierly by Castlereagh, who questioned Russell's powers to negotiate. On the matter of impressment Castlereagh was as adamant as ever, expressing surprise that the Americans should demand that the British government should desist from its "ancient and accustomed practice of impressing seamen from the ships of a foreign state." Russell had given Castlereagh his word that if the British would desist from impressment, the Americans, on their part, would agree not to allow British seamen to be employed on any of their ships. Castlereagh was unmoved, and in spite of repeated eff orts Russell made no progress.
Another series of events, which took place after the war began, is not, I think, generally known. The British minister to the United States, Augustus Foster, left for home when war was declared. On reaching Halifax he learned of the revocation of the Orders-in-Council and felt, naturally enough, that if this action had come sooner that war would have been avoided. He thought, even so, that an armistice might be arranged. He made contact with General Dearborn on the Niagara frontier and on Foster's assurances Dearborn persuaded himself that an armistice should be declared. So from August 9th to 29th, the very period when General Hull was in greatest need of help, Dearborn was inactive. When Madison learned of this he wrote bluntly to Dearborn to the effect that Dearborn had no authority to declare an armistice when it was the intent of the government to prosecute a war. Generals have been dismissed for less.
A plea for an armistice was lodged in Washington by a more responsible officer. Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, who commanded the British fleet in American waters, was authorized by the British government to open negotiations for an armistice based primarily on the revocation of the Orders-in-Council. Nothing was said in regard to impressment. I believe that Secretary Monroe's reply to Warren is worth quoting: "If the British Government is willing to suspend the practice of impressment from American vessels on the consideration that the United States will exclude British seamen from their service, the regulations by which this compromise should be carried into effect would be the sole object of negotiations. The armistice would be of short duration. If the parties agreed, peace would be the result, if negotiations failed each would be restored to its former state and all of its pretention by recurring to war."
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