Consequences of the War of 1812

Here is the final post in our series on the War of 1812, dealing with the situation of Britain, the United States, Canada, and Native Americans of the western frontier in the aftermath of the war.

After the Treaty of Ghent took effect in February 1815, the U.S. and Britain were officially at peace. But so had they been in 1812, when the war started; was anything different?

On the surface, the answer was clearly “no.” Neither the U.S. nor Great Britain gave up any territory during the war or as a result of the peace. That meant Britain was still sitting on the western frontier (at that time, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, etc.). The British were free to continue to harrass U.S. settlement of its territories, and to ally with Native Americans to do so.

But they did not. The British no longer needed to keep the U.S. off-balance and in check. Now that there was no war between Britain and France for the Americans to join with France in fighting, Britain stopped doing all the things that had led the Americans to declare war: impressing U.S. sailors, capturing U.S. ships, harassing U.S. settlement. Britain concentrated its defensive efforts on maintaining Canada, and left the U.S. alone. Indeed, Britain was now anxious to engage in its profitable trade with the U.S. once again, and had no desire to weaken the new nation.

The U.S., for its part, was glad to go back to the status quo land-wise, no longer certain of its ability or desire to conquer Canada. With British pressure off the western frontier, the U.S. could focus on re-establishing its strength and reputation after the disastrous and embarrassing losses of the war. Washington DC was rebuilt and a modern navy was constructed—no more relying on gunboats to defend the U.S. coast or forts.

The areas of the U.S. that suffered after the war were New England and the Deep South. New England had opposed the war vigorously throughout and had been seen to ally itself with Britain; after the war, which most Americans saw as a massive victory (mostly because of the Battle of New Orleans), there was hostility toward the traitorous region. New England states had held a conference from December 1814-January 1815 at which they asked the federal government to give them back full control over their militia and their finances (they didn’t want to participate in the blockade or war taxation). Word spread that the New England conference was actually a secession conference, that New England wanted to leave the Union, and popular anger at the region was inflamed. It would take a few decades for New England to regain its standing in the eyes of the nation. New York took over as the most important city in the northeast, and Boston and New England took a backseat to that thriving metropolis.

In the Deep South, slaveholders had seen their fantasy that enslaved black Americans loved slavery exploded before their eyes by the numbers of enslaved people who ran away to join the British war effort. Promised their freedom if they did so, black Americans put themselves at great risk to aid the British. (They would be cruelly disappointed by their ally, for Britain launched a few very feeble efforts to resettle black Americans in howling wildernesses in Canada and overseas.) Slaveholders tried to convince themselves and the nation that this was an anomaly, but Denmark Vesey’s and Nat Turner’s slave uprisings in 1822 and 1831 showed it was not, and the South clamped down on enslaved Americans even harder.

Native Americans were losers in the war on a par with enslaved black Americans. The British withdrew their financial and military aid from Native Americans on the western frontier, who were left to face increasing white settlement with no leader to unify them and no money or ammo to fight.  Native Americans either moved west or lived in segregation with white settlers. Their plight would worsen when the hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, became president; an inveterate “Indian” hater, Jackson would set out to destroy all Native American groups within the U.S., most famously when he overturned a Supreme Court order protecting the Cherokees and sent them on their death march from Georgia to Oklahoma in 1838-9.

So at the end of the war we see the U.S. in a position to grow stronger and richer thanks to the constant threat of French or British harrassment being removed. Britain is the undisputed superpower of the world, and has no need to hassle the U.S. Slavery is threatened but viciously preserved in the southern U.S., the northeastern U.S. loses its pre-eminence over New York, and Native Americans are miminalized in the western U.S.

The War of 1812 did not have to happen. If the U.S. could  have held off from entering into a trade agreement with France that was bound to provoke Great Britain to war, if the U.S. could have made itself as invisible as possible, suffering insults at sea and at home, from 1794 to 1814, the Napoleonic Wars would have ended on cue and suddenly the pressure would have been off and the nation could have gone straight to being Britain’s good trading partner and skipped the mostly disastrous war.

But 20 years is a long time to be insulted and invisible, and really, if the U.S. had allowed Britain to push it around entirely for 20 years, would the U.S. have seemed so desirable a partner by 1815? Perhaps not. The war itself strengthened the U.S. in important ways. The war taught the states that they needed to shake off their chronic unwillingness give the federal government any money and put out the cash needed to build an Army and Navy to defend itself. It taught the U.S. that it was not yet a major player in world affairs. It taught the U.S. that diplomacy was as important as an army and navy. Last, the War of 1812, despite the complaints and isolation of New England during the war, taught the U.S. that it was one unit, not just a group of unaffiliated states. It lived or died as a cooperative unit. The “Era of Good Feelings” that followed the war was the result of feeling that the states had been more closely welded together into a nation. The continuing fight over slavery would take over 40 years to rip that nation apart again.

The War of 1812 is not well-remembered today. It is a blip between the Revolution and the Mexican or even the Civil War. But the U.S. had a very great deal to lose in the War of 1812, and came very close to losing it all. This near-miss is worth a closer look.

The Burning of Washington and the Battle of New Orleans

Welcome to part 3 of our series on the War of 1812. Here we focus on two epic moments in that conflict. The first gave us our national anthem, the second gave us a controversial president.

We covered the attack on Washington briefly in the last post, Overview of the War of 1812. The British navy had been terrorizing the Atlantic coast, particularly the Chesapeake Bay area, from the start of the war. The U.S. had few warships with which to challenge the British, who sometimes sent detachments to coastal towns offering them the choice of paying a fine or being bombarded. The British moved up the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1814, heading not really toward Washington but toward Baltimore.

Baltimore was a thriving port and an important U.S. city. The British plan was to destroy Washington for the symbolic value of it, then overcome nearby Baltimore to drive home the final nail in the coffin of U.S. resistance. On August 24 a battle was fought at Bladensburg, Maryland, just miles from Washington, between desperate Americans and the determined British. It was a defeat for the Americans. President James Madison had left the White House to watch the battle from a short distance away, and when it became apparent that the British were victorious, and heading directly for the capital, a messenger was sent to the White House to let the First Lady, Dolly Madison, know that she had to leave immediately.

First Lady Madison did not do so. With nerves of steel, she collected important documents from the president’s office, and with the British vanguard in sight, she finally took the portrait of George Washington from the president’s walls and fled, her carriage just escaping the attack on her home.

The British intent was to destroy the city as completely as possible. One British soldier, George Gleig, happily described the scene in an 1826 history: “[We] proceeded, without  a moment’s delay, to burn and destroy everything in the most distant degree connected with government. In this general devastation were included the Senate House, the President’s palace [the White House], an extensive dockyard and arsenal… the blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs informed them, as they proceeded, of what was going forward. You can conceive nothing finer than the sight which met them as they drew near to the town. The sky was brilliantly illuminated by the different conflagrations, and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face.”

Washington was quickly vanquished, and British sights set on Baltimore. The attack was two-pronged: a land attack on North Point and a siege of Fort McHenry in the harbor. Major General Samuel Smith stopped the British at North Point, in an unexpected and certainly unusual American victory. All now waited to see how the siege would go at the important fort. Major George Armistead was in charge of U.S. defenses there. Bombardment of the fort by British ships began on September 13th. Nearly 2,000 cannonballs were launched at the fort over 24 hours, but damage was light.

The British commander decided to land troops west of Fort McHenry, hoping to lure the U.S. army away from North Point, but Armistead discovered them and opened fire, scattering the landing party of British soldiers. Early on the morning of September 14, the giant American flag that local seamstress Mary Pickersgill and her daughter had made was raised over the fort, to replace the one torn apart the night before. Seeing that the fort still stood in American hands, British land forces withdrew and returned to the ships. British General Cochrane then withdrew the fleet to prepare for the attack on New Orleans.

Francis Scott Key was an American lawyer who had gone on a mercy mission to the British to gain the release of an American doctor who had been captured but had previously tended British soldiers. Key was on a truce ship in Baltimore Harbor during the bombardment. When morning dawned on the 14th, and Key saw his country’s flag still flying over Fort McHenry, he wrote the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter in a paroxsym of joy. It became the U.S. national anthem in 1931.

Now to the Battle of New Orleans. The goal of the British was not just to capture the port city, but to do so and then lay claim to all of the territory included in the Louisiana Purchase.

Cochrane’s fleet arrived from the failed attack on Baltimore on December 12, 1814. They anchored in the Gulf of Mexico and planned their attack to capture Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne surrounding New Orleans. Once again, the U.S. had only gunboats to defend its territory. Lake Borgne was captured by the British on December 14.

On December 23, the British reached the Mississippi River, only six miles south of New Orleans; rather than attack immediately, their commander waited for reinforcements and was surprised by U.S. soldiers under Andrew Jackson. After a brief but devastating attack, the Americans pulled back to a canal four miles from New Orleans and fortified it. The British made small attacks on the earthworks on December 28, but the first heavy attack came on January 1, 1815. The earthworks were partially destroyed, and the British ran out of ammunition. British Major-General Pakenham decided to wait for reinforcements before launching another attack.

It came on January 8. The British advanced early that morning in a heavy fog, but that fog lifted as they came upon the earthworks and the Americans began to fire. Lt. Col. Thomas Mullins, leading a British regiment, had forgotten to bring the ladders his men would need to scale the defenses, and as the British stalled in front of the earthworks they were mowed down by American fire. As different groups of British soldiers crossed the battlefield, one managed to briefly overtake a section of the earthworks but could not hold it without reinforcements. The Americans, however, received reinforcements from the 7th Infantry, and before the battle was over most of the British officers  leading the charge were dead.

The victory was significant, but the battle for the city was not over. On January 9, the British began a 10-day bombardment of Fort St. Philip. The fort held, and the British withdrew to Biloxi, Mississippi. They were preparing to attack the port city of Mobile when word came that the war had in fact ended before the Battle of New Orleans had even begun. Jackson was a hero, and Americans rejoiced.

Next time: after the war

Overview of the War of 1812

Welcome to part 2 of our series on the War of 1812. Here we look at the fighting of the war.

For very different reasons, neither the U.S. nor Great Britain really hit the ground running once war was declared. Britain was in the midst of its French wars, and its navy was blockading Europe while its army was fighting the Peninsular War in Spain. There were barely 6,000 British soldiers in all of Canada when the War of 1812 began. Because no soldiers could be spared from the battles in Europe, Britain took a defensive position with its army in Canada and sent a few warships across the Atlantic to do battle on the coast.

The U.S. was unprepared for war because it was poor, the U.S. Army had fewer than 12,000 soldiers in it, and when the federal government tried to expand the army, Americans resisted. They were happy to serve at their pleasure in their local state militias, but would not volunteer for the Army. Another major problem was the refusal of New England to join the war effort. The embargo on trade with France and England, first imposed by Jefferson and reinstituted by Madison in 1808, wrecked the trade economy New England was based on, ruining banks, merchants, and the livelihoods of countless ships’ crews. Thus New England did not support the war when it came, seeing it as another plan by Washington to ruin the New England economy. Without the fountainhead of revolutionary spirit—and shipbuilding—on board, whipping up support for the war would be difficult.

The United States’ real aim was to capture British Canada. The U.S. had always hoped to incorporate Canada into the union, and during the congress to write the Articles of Confederation in 1781 had left the door open to Canadians, saying that any time they wanted to join the union they would be immediately accepted as a state. The Canadians had not taken the U.S. up on this deal, and now the U.S. hoped to incorporate them by force.

In August 1812, the American army under General William Hull invaded Canada but was defeated, and the British chased him back to what is now Michigan, promptly capturing both Fort Dearborn and Fort Detroit with the aid of Canadian militia and Native American forces led by Tecumseh. Losing Detroit was a blow. It was the most powerful American fort in the western territories. If the U.S. continued to lose its forts in the west, it would be easy for Britain to claim those lands permanently (which was the British plan). Another invasion attampt ended in defeat for the Americans  in October at the Battle of Queenston Heights.

Despite the attractions of conquering Canada, the U.S. was forced to turn its attentions west and east rather than  north. In the west, the Americans were struggling to keep control of the frontier from the British and Native Americans. In the east, they were trying to end the British blockade of their coast and prevent the capture of their capitol city, Washington DC. The U.S. raced to build warships to take on the British Navy, but until those ships were ready the Americans had to rely on small gunboats, which was disastrous. The famous attack on Washington, which we’ll cover in the next post in more detail, was only the most important and devastating of many British attacks on the east coast. The British Navy even sent messages to seaside towns in the Chesapeake region offering them the choice of paying huge bribes to the British or being burned down. The U.S. federal government was powerless to protect its own territory east or west, and would have to rely on a small, inexperienced army and an at-first mostly civilian navy to win the day.

That private navy provided the one bit of success the Americans had in the first year of the war. Privateers were sent out to attack British shipping, from Maine to the West Indies. Owners of  private merchant ships had a long history of smuggling, stretching back to the 1760s, especially in New England. While New Englanders didn’t support the war, they couldn’t ignore a chance to make back some of the money they were losing in the embargo. Privateering, then, did most of the damage to British interests in the first year of the war.

In the west, future President William Henry Harrison led an attempt to retake Detroit, but part of his army lost the battle of Frenchtown or River Raisin in January 1813; 60 American prisoners were killed there by North American allies of the British.  In May 1813, the British moved to capture Fort Meigs in Ohio, and while U.S. army forces were defeated by Native American forces there, the fort managed to stave off capture, and a siege set in which led many Native American soldiers to eventually leave the area. Hoping to keep his invaluable Native American fighting force, British General Procter mounted a second attack on Fort Meigs in July, but it was rebuffed. Procter and Tecumseh then attacked Fort Stephenson, also in Ohio, but suffered a serious defeat, and the war in Ohio ended.

Naval battles in the first year of the war were not fought on the Atlantic Coast but on the Great Lakes, those watery territories between the U.S. and Canada. The famous American Captain Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, carrying his battle flag which read “DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP”  and reporting back to Harrison after his victory “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Perry’s motto “Don’t give up the ship!” (the dying words of one of his fellow officers) would be used by U.S. sailors during WWII.

The victory gave the U.S. control of Lake Erie, which prompted the British to flee from Fort Detroit. Emboldened, the U.S. made another invasion attempt on Canada under Harrison at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813. At last the Americans had a victory, winning the battle and stripping the British of their most valuable ally, Tecumseh. When Tecumseh was killed in the battle, the alliance of Native Americans that he inspired and controlled dissolved. The British tried to keep the allies together, but they were unable to provide them with weapons from the east now that Lake Erie was in American hands. A further attempt to conquer Canada, however, ended in defeat at Crysler’s Farm in November 1813, and the U.S. gave up the attempt permanently, happy to focus on keeping control of the western forts.

1814 brought important changes. The Napoleonic Wars finally ended, leaving Britain free to send more men and ships to fight in America but also giving them less reason to do so. Now that there was no need to worry about the U.S. allying in battle against Britain with France, there was no need to blockade the American coast or impress U.S. sailors or seize U.S. ships. The U.S., for its part, no longer believed it was possible to conquer Canada, and desperately needed to remove the British threat from its coast and western frontier.

The Treaty of Ghent was signed in what is now Belgium on December 24, 1814, ending the war. News of the peace took two months to reach America, during which time fighting went on and the British lost a very important battle to take the vital western port city of New Orleans on January 8, 1815 (which we will also look at in more depth in the next post).

So we see that the actual fighting of the war took place mostly in the west, as Britain tried to take possession of  the U.S. territory it had refused to leave after the Revolutionary War, and that the great naval battles really took place on the Great Lakes, and that the British did the most damage to American morale and self-confidence on the Chesapeake coast.

Next time: the burning of Washington and the Battle of New Orleans

What caused the War of 1812?

Welcome to the first in a series on the War of 1812—the United States’ most forgotten war (even more forgotten than the Korean War). Here we look at its causes.

The years following the end of the American Revolutionary War were turbulent. France underwent its own revolution beginning in 1789, and that nation quickly descended into terror. Great Britain organized seven different international coalitions between 1793 and 1815 to overthrow the French revolutionary government, which was led from 1797 by Napoleon Bonaparte.

During this period, many Americans thought it only right that the United States go to war on France’s behalf, returning the favor France had done them by coming to the Americans’ aid during the American Revolution. The full extent of the Terror in France was not known to most Americans, and even those like Thomas Jefferson who did know about the despotic rulers in Paris admired their spirit, believing it to be truly revolutionary. The terror, they reasoned, was a temporary over-exuberance of revolutionary spirit and would soon settle down. Under the leadership of George Washington, however, the U.S. would not enter a foreign war. Washington knew the nation had no money to fight a war, and was still fighting to bring its own citizens under the control of the federal government (see the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794).

But the U.S. could not keep out of the war. Both Britain and France saw the U.S. as a powerful tool to use for their own benefit. Britain, hoping to keep the U.S. from allying with France, offered the Jay Treaty, which the U.S. ratified in 1794. In it, Britain promised to remove its soldiers from six forts in the Great Lakes region (which was U.S. territory), and to pay over $10 million to U.S. shipowners whose ships had been seized by Britain in 1793-4. The ships had been taken as part of Britain’s ongoing efforts to sabotage U.S. growth and expansion (Britain was also helping Native Americans fight U.S. settlement in Ohio). The seizure of the ships had led the U.S. to embargo trade with Britain.

Afraid that the embargo was a sign that the U.S. would ally formally with France, Britain offered the Jay Treaty. The U.S. accepted it (over Jefferson’s strenuous objections), and gave Britain most favored nation trading status in return.

In its turn, France saw ratification of the Jay Treaty as a sign that the U.S. would formally ally itself with Britain. Outraged, France retaliated against the U.S., seizing 300 U.S. ships bound for British trading ports. Worse, when the U.S. sent envoys to Paris to negotiate the ships’ return, three French agents representing their government demanded humiliating bribes from the Americans that would have to be paid just for the privilege of speaking to the French: 50,000 pounds sterling (the U.S. still used the pound as one of its currencies, especially in trade with Great Britain), a $10 million loan, $250,000 for the personal use of the French foreign minister, and a letter of apology for the Jay Treaty from President John Adams.

When news of this insult reached the U.S., Americans demanded that President Adams declare war on France. The “X, Y, Z Affair,” as it was known, was too infuriating to bear. But Adams, like Washington before him, skilfully refused to be drawn into war, and managed to settle the dispute through diplomacy. Adams knew the U.S. was still in no shape to get involved in a war between the two superpowers of the day.

The price of British peace was high. British navy ships routinely stopped U.S. trade and Merchant Marine ships and impressed their crews (this meant forcing the sailors to work basically as slaves aboard British ships). Impressed men never saw their homes again. They were forced to labor for the British navy—often to impress other Americans. Britain also continued to work with Native Americans in Canada and northwestern territories of the U.S. to overthrow the federal government and stop U.S. settlement. According to both the treaty ending the Revolution and the Jay Treaty, the British were supposed to withdraw soldiers from U.S. territory, but did not. The British also tried to stop the U.S. from trading with France.

By 1808, James Madison was president of the United States. One of his first international actions was to stop trade with Britain and France. This was finessed in May 1810 to a statement that the U.S. would trade with whichever nation accepted U.S. neutrality. In France, Napoleon seemed to accept this deal, but he did so only to get the U.S. to embargo trade with Britain. With Britain still in mind as the natural enemy of the U.S., many Americans became “War Hawks” at this point, urging war with Britain. In Congress, War Hawks like John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay pushed Madison to declare war.

Madison knew the odds of winning a war against Britain were no better than they had been in Washington’s or Adams’ day. But continued British impressment and ship seizures, combined with France’s seeming support of U.S. neutrality, led him to bow to public and political pressure.  On June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress to declare war on Britain. It was just 29 years after the Treaty of Paris had ended the Revolutionary War.

Next time: How and where the war was fought

Gay marriage defeated in Maine

The voter referendum held in Maine on November 3, 2009 on whether to revoke the law recently passed there allowing gay Americans to legally marry was marked by claims that the people—rather than the courts or the state legislature—should decide whether gay people should marry. After state judiciaries in Iowa and Vermont in April 2009 legalized marriage for gay people, the usual outraged claims that the judiciary had gone too far filled the air. “We’re not governed by the courts,” sputtered one angry man on the radio.

This basic misunderstanding of the U.S. government leads me to repost this article, originally written in 2008 when California’s courts ruled on marriage for gay people. It applies to Maine, Vermont, Iowa, California, and any other state whose court decides in favor of allowing gay people to marry:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen. In the case of Maine, someone claimed that “using the courts as a battering ram to push gay marriage will only turn people against it [gay marriage].” The same could be said—and was said—about desegregation of schools. Popular approval is not the sole measure of a law in a democracy; it simply can’t be.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.