Politicians of the old school looked coldly on the war spirit. Nations like individuals, when driven to choose between desperate courses, might at time be compelled to take the chances of destruction, often destroying themselves, or suffering irreparable harm. Yet the opponents of war could argue that Americans were not placed between desperate alternatives. They had persevered hitherto, in spite of their leaders, in the policy of peace; had suffered much injury and acute mortification, but had won Louisiana and West Florida, had given democracy all it asked, and had remained in reasonable harmony with the liberal movement of the world. (374)
In 1811 and 1812, the Jeffersonian Revolution could be said to have died with the coming of war with England. If Henry Adams’ account is to be believed, it was less a problem of war itself, but the consequences of war such as a standing army, increased taxation, and acceptance of the fact that the United States would and could play the imperial game were more devastating to the imagination of the Republicans. They seemed to really believe, for a time, that the nation was not their parents’ children. There are three important themes that this volume of Henry Adams’ history covers: the war against the Shawnee, the war debate, and the first year of the war and the changes it brought to the political system.
Adams throws the relationship between the white Americans and the Indians into the background. It only emerges momentarily. Thus when it came time to document the Shawnee revolt, Adams had to go back and review Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward them. While he believed that they should be brought into civilization, he was as brutal as any other president in the seizure of their lands. “His greed for land equaled that of any settler on the border, and his humanity to the Indian suffered the suspicion of having among its motives the purpose of gaining the Indian lands for the whites.” (348) Jefferson’s actions toward the Northwest territory Indians caused the Shawnee revolt as much as his foolish embargo pushed the nation to war. Both of these would be Madison’s job to clean up while Jefferson enjoyed blissful retirement. As anyone who has gotten this far into Adams’ history would expect, we learn much more about William Henry Harrison than we do about Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet. There is enough here, however, to know that the US policy toward the Northwest territory was imperial and violence was the end result of the U.S. greed for land. It was not so much one of the causes of the later War of 1812, it was a branch of the same tree.
In regards to the build up to war, Adams is most fascinated by the irony of the Jeffersonian Republicans taking such a violent lead to war. Was their earlier passivity, reflected in the Embargo Act, a reflection of their earlier naivety. Was the violent calls for war issued from Congress in 1811 their true colors? He momentarily plays with the idea that 12 years is as long as any such revolutionary spirit can be sustained before more cynical forces take over. “After the Declaration of Independence, twelve years had been needed to create an efficient Constitutions; another twelve years of energy brought a reaction against the government then created; a third period of twelve years was ending in a sweep toward still greater energy.” (380-381) In any case, the war debates overtook all other Republican policies. Adams argues that the army bill that funded the war was really a revolution in domestic policy, sealing the final gap between the Federalists and the Republicans.
As for the war, Adams’ position is that the United States was unprepared for the conflict, particularly against a nation that had been at almost continual war against France for literally decades. The lessons of the American Revolution, a war of liberation, would not serve the United States in a war of empire. I am now thinking that it is interesting that historians called this the “Second War of Independence” in yet another attempt to avoid the confession that their republic had become an empire. A proclamation to the people of Canada painted the U.S. invasion of that territory as a liberation. “You will be emancipated from tyranny and oppression, and restored to the dignified station of freemen. . . The United States offer you peace, liberty, and security.” (503) How many people have heard those words as they looked down the barrels of U.S. rifles? Well, for better or for worse, the U.S. designs on Canada faltered.
Like other American wars of empire, the War of 1812 was fought with little sacrifice of the people. There was little physical damage and few casualties. “The country refused to take the war seriously. A rich nation with seven million inhabitants should have easily put one hundred thousand men into the field, and should have found no difficulty in supporting them.” (567) Instead, the was was fought by the poor, who needed the meager army salary. The patriotic but well-off served the nation by joining the militias for six months of voluntary service, although never saw action. (These were the G.W. Bushes of the 19th century.)
The year 1812 ended with the nation at war, Madison easily re-elected president, but deep discord across the nation over who will fight the war, what the war is being fought for, and who would pay for the war expenses. The pattern established in this conflict would be carried on in future American conflicts. The war will be paid with debt, fought by the poor, and in the end celebrated as a great victory of a united people.