The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, Bicentennial Edition

The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, Bicentennial Edition

by Donald R Hickey

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252078378
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/03/2012
Edition description: Revised edition
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 251,332
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Donald R. Hickey is a professor of history at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska. He is the author of seven books, including Don't Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812, and numerous articles.

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The War of 1812

A Forgotten Conflict

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07837-8

Chapter One

The Road to War, 1801–1812

On March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked from his boardinghouse in Washington City, as the nation's capital was then called, to the Capitol building, where he was inaugurated as third president of the United States. The walk was short but symbolic. Jefferson pointedly refused to take a carriage, a vehicle he considered a badge of aristocracy. The nation's new leaders favored a more democratic style than their Federalist predecessors. They also planned to adopt a new set of policies. It was these policies—initiated by Jefferson and carried on by Madison—that put the United States on a collision course with Great Britain and ultimately led to the War of 1812.

Republicans did not differ with Federalists over the broad objectives of American policy in this era. During the long series of Anglo-French wars that lasted from 1793 to 1815, all Americans agreed that the nation should work to promote prosperity at home while protecting its rights and preserving its neutrality abroad. But what was the best way to achieve these ends? It was this question, more than any other, that divided Americans into two political camps.

Federalist Policy: Preserving Peace, Preparing for War

Federalists believed in the old Roman doctrine, proclaimed and popularized by Washington, that the best way to preserve peace was to be prepared for war. "War is a great calamity," said Federalist Congressman Benjamin Tallmadge, "and the surest way to avoid it, is to be prepared for it." "Even in time of profound peace," echoed the Boston Weekly Messenger, "it has been considered a maxim of wisdom to be prepared for war." Toward this end, Federalists implemented a broad program of financial and military preparedness in the 1790s. Their aim was not only to deter war but to put the nation in the best possible position to defend itself if hostilities erupted.

The Federalists' policy of financial preparedness was based on Alexander Hamilton's program, which was adopted in the early 1790s. This program provided for the federal government to assume responsibility for more than $75 million of indebtedness incurred by the state and Continental governments during the Revolutionary War. It also provided for the imposition of internal and external taxes and the creation of a national bank. Together these measures initiated a financial revolution that restored public credit, created millions of dollars of investment capital, and established a stable and uniform national currency.

To complement their financial policies, the Federalists also expanded the defense establishment. The peacetime army was gradually increased from 840 men in 1789 to 5,400 in 1801. The navy, which had been scrapped after the Revolution, was rebuilt so that by 1801 there were 13 frigates in service and 6 ships-of-the-line under construction. The Federalists also began a modest system of coastal fortifications, devoting $1 million to the construction and repair of forts to protect American cities from assault via the sea.

Jay's Treaty (1794)

While promoting preparedness at home, the Federalists pursued a pro-British foreign policy abroad. The sheet anchor of this policy was the Jay Treaty, an Anglo-American agreement forged in 1794 that regulated commerce and defined neutral rights in time of war. Although the Republicans were always critical of this treaty—one paper called it the "death-warrant to our neutral rights"—there is no denying that it achieved two important ends. It ensured peace with the one nation whose naval power could menace the United States, and it ushered in an era of Anglo-American accord that allowed American commerce—and hence the American economy—to flourish. American exports, which stood at $33 million in 1794, soared to $94 million in 1801, and the entire nation basked in the resulting prosperity.

The only liability of the Jay Treaty was that it was deeply resented by the French, who regarded it as a betrayal of the alliance that had bound them to the United States since the Revolution. France responded to the treaty by severing diplomatic relations and unleashing her warships and privateers on American commerce. Between 1795 and 1799, the French seized upwards of $20 million in American mercantile property, mainly in the Caribbean. These losses were significant and cast a pall over all trade with the West Indies. "The risque is so great," said a North Carolina Republican in 1797, "that to send a Vessel to the West Indies ... seems like giving the property away."

The Quasi-War with France (1798–1801)

The French depredations led to the Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war that lasted from 1798 to 1801. This contest provided the first real test for the Federalist navy, a test that it passed with flying colors. Cruising mainly in the Caribbean, the navy defeated or destroyed three French warships (while losing only one of its own), captured 82 privateers, and recovered 70 American merchant vessels. No less important was the performance of American merchant vessels, which were authorized to arm for defense. Besides capturing six privateers and recapturing eight prizes, armed merchantmen forced many small French privateers, which invariably were more interested in booty than battle, to shear off rather than risk a fight.

As a result of the successful defense of American commerce, rates for shipping insurance dropped sharply all along the Atlantic coast. Rates which had peaked at 25–30 percent in the spring of 1798 fell to 10 percent by the end of 1799. In the Convention of 1800, which brought this war to an end when it was ratified the following year, the United States waived any claim for compensation for the depredations that had occurred since 1795. In return, France agreed to suspend the treaties that had bound the nations together since the Revolution.

By the end of the Quasi-War, the Federalists had been in power for more than a decade, and their policies had served the nation well. Their program of preparedness was in place, and the nation was at peace with France and on especially good terms with Britain. Best of all, because of the mounting profits from neutral trade, Americans were enjoying an unprecedented level of prosperity.

In spite of the success of their policies, the Federalists suffered from several liabilities that doomed them at the polls. The additional taxes necessitated by the Quasi-War and the attempt to target immigrants and suppress opposition with the alien and sedition laws alienated many voters. In addition, the Federalists' approach to politics was too elitist for this era of rising democracy, and their foreign policy too pro-British for a people whose revolutionary experience had left them steeped in anglophobia. As a result, the Federalists were defeated in the election of 1800.

When the Republicans took office in 1801, they began to reverse the policies they had inherited. They had no love for the Jay Treaty and no desire to maintain such a cozy relationship with Great Britain—at least not on the terms laid down in that treaty. Moreover, they were committed by their ideology as well as by their campaign promises to reforming public finance and reducing government expenditures. "We shall push you to the uttermost in economising," Jefferson told a Congressional leader in 1801.

The Republican Ascendancy

Determined to overhaul the nation's finances, the Republicans took direct aim on Hamilton's program. They regarded the national debt as a curse—a source of unearned profit for the rich and a heavy burden on current and future taxpayers. Hence, they devoted a large share of the government's annual income to paying down the debt. They were equally hostile to the internal taxes, which they considered an excessive burden on their constituents, particularly in the West. Hence these duties were swept away in 1802. The Republicans had no love for the national bank either. Most considered it an engine of aristocracy of doubtful legality that was vulnerable to British control (even though foreign stockholders had to be in the country to vote for the bank's directors). The bank was protected by a twenty-year charter, but this charter was not renewed when it expired in 1811.

The Republicans were also determined to cut defense spending. As a matter of principle, they were opposed to a large defense establishment, believing that it increased the likelihood of war and fostered special interest groups that posed a danger to republican government. They considered a cut in spending essential anyway because the internal taxes had been repealed at a time when large sums were being devoted to debt retirement.

Accordingly, the peacetime army was trimmed from 5,400 to 3,300 men in 1802. Many good officers were lost in the process. Although the authorized level of the army was increased to almost 10,000 men during a war scare in 1808, Republican leaders used the expanded officer corps to reward the party faithful. Winfield Scott, who served with these officers in the War of 1812, claimed that most were "imbeciles and ignoramuses." Those from Federalist states, he said, were mainly "coarse and ignorant men," while those from Republican states were "swaggerers, dependants, decayed gentlemen, and others—'fit for nothing else.'" By 1810 incompetence in the officer corps had so demoralized the army that Republican Nathaniel Macon suggested that it might as well be disbanded. The men hated their officers so much that they could not be counted on to obey them in time of war. "The state of that Army," concluded Macon, "is enough to make any man who has the smallest love of country wish to get rid of it."

The Republicans were even more hostile to the navy. "Every nation," said one Republican, "which has embarked to any extent, in Naval Establishments, has been eventually crushed by them." "Show me a nation possessed of a large navy," said another, "and I will show you a nation always at war." The Republicans never resumed construction on the ships-of-the-line (which had been halted at the end of the Quasi-War), and they took most of the frigates out of service. Six of the frigates were subsequently lost to rot or other causes so that by 1812 only seven survived. The only concession that Republicans made to naval defense was the construction or purchase of six sloops needed for service in the Tripolitan War (1801–1805).


Excerpted from The War of 1812 by DONALD R. HICKEY Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
Preface to the First Edition....................xiii
Preface to the Bicentennial Edition....................xv
1. The Road to War, 1801–1812....................5
2. The Declaration of War....................28
3. The Baltimore Riots....................48
4. The Campaign of 1812....................66
5. Raising Men and Money....................100
6. The Campaign of 1813....................123
7. The Last Embargo....................162
8. The British Counteroffensive....................183
9. The Crisis of 1814....................229
10. The Hartford Convention....................261
11. The Treaty of Ghent....................284
A Note on Sources....................317

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The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, Bicentennial Edition 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
tim-1969 More than 1 year ago
To say the America was lucky in the War of 1812 is an understatement. The author shows the reader how leadership or lack there of can affect armies. We see how Jeffersonian democracy made the US unprepared for war and how the lack of a professional army almost cost the US. We were lucky that England was more interested in events in Europe than the side show in North America. We may have almost lost the war but we won the Treaty of Ghent because England was interested in the events of Europe and did not sent skillful diplmats to the peace talks.