Feb. 13, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

The First Declared War

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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.

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