Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of James Madison” (Part One)

The government expected no other difficulties in the Southern country, and had no reason to fear them. If new perils suddenly arose, they were due less to England, Spain, or the United State than to the chance that gave energy and influence to Tecumthe. The Southern Indians were more docile and less warlike than the Indians of the Lakes. The Chicksaws and Choctaws, who occupied the whole extent of the country on the east back of the Mississippi from the Ohio to the Gulf, gave little trouble of anxiety, and even the great confederacy of Muskogees, or Creeks, who occupied the territory afterward called the State of Alabama and part of George, fell in some degree into a mode of life which seemed likely to make them tillers of the soil. (771)

In the final quarter of his history of the Jeffersonian Republicans during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Henry Adams breaks from tradition. Previously, he divided each term into two volumes, each covering a legislative session. In his coverage of the second term of Madison, however, he uses three volumes and spends most those three volumes on the first year and a half of that term, up until the Treaty of Ghent ends the War of 1812. He has little to say about the rest of Madison’s achievements (perhaps there were none) and instead centers on the changes to the nation since Jefferson took office.

My basic reading of Henry Adams history (see the previous six posts) has been a bit contrarian but largely supportive. He was writing a history of the United States in the world a century before it would become cool to do so. Indeed, it is now the newest way to be trendy enough to (with a little luck) land an academic post. My own book is in this tradition. Certainly, he is still too much in diplomatic history, but my placing much of the story in London, Paris, or Madrid, Adams was being quite forward thinking. While another great historian of the turn of the century, Frederick Jackson Turner, was looking to the frontier, Adams still saw the American story in an Atlantic context. Adams sees a general irony in the Jeffersonians. They came into office hoping to undo the Federalist project, but had more or less enshrined it by 1817, when Madison retired. Yes, the Federalists were defeated, but not because their ideas were destroyed. Instead, the Federalists were co-opted. This is a common enough occurrence in American politics that we need not dwell on it now. My contrarian reading has been that Adams missed a larger irony, and one much more destructive. What the Jeffersonians did not want to confess was that the United States was like Europe in imperial ambition. By doubling the size of the nation and then fighting what can only be looked at as a war of empire. Britain and the U.S. were fighting over who would dominate North America. In my last post I argued that the war, being fought with debt and by the working poor, should be eerily familiar to American readers. The U.S. made at least three invasions during the war with England. The first was in Canada, where the army announced their goal of spreading liberty. They also invaded the Northwest territories, finishing the job Harrison began in the war against Tecumseh. Third, they began the conquest of the southern tribes such as the Creek, beginning Jackson’s fatal work.

So, the War of 1812 was not the second war of independence, but the next in a series of wars for a North Americana empire. The first was the Revolutionary War, followed by the Whiskey Rebellion, followed by the Shawnee War. There is enough in the text to suggest Adams was aware of this, but was either too prejudice or too hesitant to point it out. Being written at a time when the United States was projecting its imperial power into the Pacific, we are right to question his oversight (others such as Mark Twain were not so blinkered.)

Well, the volume for today is devoted almost exclusively to 1813. To Adams’ credit, he spends much of this volume reporting on the violent and suppression of the Creeks during the war. Patriots often forget about Andrew Jackson’s activities prior to his 1814 victory in New Orleans. He was down there suppressing the Creek uprising against the United States. Apparently efforts at bringing the Creek into a grand coalition to oppose the expansion of the United States into the West had been going on for a while. Tecumseh had worked on it and left among the Creek many of his ideas, and more importantly likeminded leaders. The battle (or massacre) at Fort Mims was one of the great victories of the Creek in this uprising. Adams’ account of this is the first I have ever read, but it is a compelling read. The enslavement of all the blacks at Fort Mims by the Creek reminds us that one of the reasons the southern nations were seen by whites as more “civilized” is that they embraced agriculture and slavery.


So, we certainly have wars of conquest going on. Despite the claim made my Adams that the only territory gained during the war was of Mobile (the Spanish Fort Stoddert), we should not forget these internal conquests of Indians. Tecumseh, of course, died during the war in similar actions in the Northwest.

Surrender of the Creek

Surrender of the Creek

Adams continues to point out of Republican ideology led to the government to try to fight the war on the cheap, ensuring that the poorest Americans would do the fighting and dying. Much of what the government dealt with during the war was how to fund the army. Keeping costs down, “doing more with less,” is not a recent delusion. “Even if the whole bounty were added to the pay, and the soldier were to serve but twelve months, he would received only twenty dollars a month and his land-certificate. If he served his whole term of five years, he received little more than twelve dollars a month. The inducement was not great in such a community as the United States. The chances that such a measure would fill the ranks was small; yet the measure seemed extravagant to a party that had formerly pledged itself against mercenary armies.” (883) “Mercenary armies,” of course, is code for a professional, trained, and paid army.


Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of James Madison” (Part Two)

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)

Henry Adams

Henry Adams

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.

War in Canada

War in Canada

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.