The following is a reply to Stephen Knott, “Republican Ideology and Its Failure in the War of 1812,” a review of Donald Hickey, The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence.
BY MICHAEL SCHWARZ
Only the most humorless of doctrinaire Jeffersonians could resist being amused by my good friend Steve Knott’s sardonic assessment of the War of 1812. And anyone familiar with Knott’s writings, in particular his justly acclaimed work on Alexander Hamilton, had to expect that sooner or later Knott would train his weaponized witticisms on the Republican leaders most closely associated with that war. President Madison, for instance, “makes Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush look like Sun Tzu,” which is to be expected, Knott implies, from a president whose approach to national security and wartime statesmanship amounts to “speak boisterously and carry a small twig.” Diminutive in stature and temperamentally averse to the pageantries of military life that Hamilton found so alluring, Madison offers an easy target for Federalist critics who prefer dismissing him through gentle mockery rather than bludgeoning him altogether. On the other hand, not even the good-natured Professor Knott can conjure a laugh-inducing barb for Thomas Jefferson, the mere mention of whom reduces all but the most genially comported Hamiltonians to fits of apoplexy. Jefferson, Knott asserts (and twice reiterates) was a “fanatic” and, like most fanatics, “blinded by ideology.” This is no ad hominem; it’s the crux of Knott’s (and Hickey’s) critique: the nearly disastrous War of 1812 was an unnecessary and unfortunate product of failed Republican ideology—a damning critique indeed, if it were true.
Republican ideology, we’re told, amounts to little more than Anglophobia. Hickey’s skillful selection of primary sources, according to Knott, captures “the hatred of the Madisonians toward Great Britain.” Madison’s June 1812 war message in particular shows that the president “was clearly irritated with the English.” “Jefferson’s anti-British fanaticism” is also important thanks to the two-centuries-old Federalist delusion, first articulated by Hamilton, that Madison drifted toward Republicanism because of Jefferson’s insidious influence. (The evidence for 1789-90 strongly suggests that Madison brought Jefferson into opposition.) The Knott-Hickey Anglophobia argument merely follows Hamilton’s 1792 description of Jefferson and Madison as possessing “a womanish attachment to France and a womanish resentment against Great Britain.” Unfortunately, throughout the party struggle of the 1790s but especially in that famous 1792 letter, Hamilton did more to distort than to illuminate the Republican opposition, the nature of which he very plainly did not understand. While some Republican newspaper editors undoubtedly were infected with a virulent strain of Anglophobia, one cannot dismiss Republican ideology and the Republican leadership on those same grounds. As president, for instance, Jefferson declared that if France were to take possession of New Orleans, then the U.S. must “marry” itself to the “British fleet and nation.” In 1823, both Madison and Jefferson encouraged President Monroe to accept a British offer of alliance in defense of the newly independent republics of Latin America, Jefferson adding that the U.S “should most sedulously cherish a cordial friendship” with Great Britain. Something other than Anglophobia, therefore, explains early Republican attitudes and policies toward the British.
Another longstanding Federalist accusation is that Jefferson and Madison antagonized the British so as to draw the U.S. into war on the side of the French, with whom they long had sympathized. Knott avoids the slanderous charge that Jefferson and Madison schemed for war against Britain, but he does point out that “France was guilty of many of the same affronts to American honor as the British,” so President Madison must have “understood that by ignoring French violations of neutral American shipping, one of the main factors cited in the case for war against Britain, his administration was open to accusations of hypocrisy.” Accusations, perhaps—but were the Republican leaders hypocrites? Did French hostility toward the U.S. rival that of Great Britain? And did Jefferson and Madison, blinded by Francophilia, fail to see this? A very brief history of the first party struggle and U.S. relations with Britain and France since the end of the Revolution should suffice to answer all of these questions in the negative.
James Madison argued on at least three different occasions in the late 1780s and early 1790s that lingering British hostility toward the U.S., more than any other single factor, explains why the Framers replaced the Articles of Confederation with our present Constitution. The evidence from the 1780s supports Madison’s claim: every national-minded American statesman who commented on the subject, including Alexander Hamilton, agreed that the U.S. national government needed strengthening so as to combat hostile and damaging British policies. When he became Treasury Secretary, however, Hamilton abandoned Madison and set about building a British-style fiscal-military state, including policies and institutions like a funded debt and a national bank that mimicked their British counterparts and relied upon revenue from a vibrant Anglo-American trade. He envisioned his own office as a kind of American prime minister and even referred to “my administration.” While Jefferson and Madison greeted the French Revolution with enthusiasm, Hamilton and his Federalist allies were appalled by events in Paris. Thus the lines between pro-French Republicans and pro-British Federalists were clearly marked. But this simple demarcation did not last. The radicalization of the French Revolution had a sobering effect on the Republican leadership. In 1796, French minister Pierre Adet astutely observed that “Mr. Jefferson likes us because he detests Britain…but tomorrow he might change his opinion of us if tomorrow Britain should cease to inspire his fears.” In a letter to Elbridge Gerry at the height of the Quasi-War, Jefferson admitted that he was “not insensible” under the depredations French warships had committed against U.S. commerce. For Jefferson, at least—and I believe the same was true of Madison—the love affair with France ended long before the War of 1812. Meanwhile, the Federalist leadership came unhinged by its fear of the French Revolution. Jay’s Treaty, a de facto alliance with Britain, was not only an abomination against reason and the spirit of the U.S. Constitution but also a strong justification for sudden French hostility toward the U.S. And the Federalist reaction to the Quasi-War, in particular the tyrannical Alien and Sedition Acts, was simply shameful. In short, by the time Jefferson ascended to the presidency in 1801, the Republican leadership had abandoned its support for the French Revolution while maintaining (healthy) suspicion of the British government, whereas the Federalist leadership continued to cling to a worldview that would define it for the remainder of its existence: a belief that British power served as a bulwark against proselytizing French atheists, democrats, and tyrants. No matter how obstinately the Federalists insisted otherwise, Presidents Jefferson and Madison were no Francophiles.
Madison’s 1812 war message traces the history of Anglo-American relations over the prior decade and thus offers by far the best explanation of why the U.S. went to war. It is not an ideological treatise but rather a review of British policies and behavior, which, Madison rightly concludes, placed the U.S. in a state of war. Madison cites U.S. grievances onlysince the renewal of war between Britain and France in 1803—a very significant piece of evidence, for it shows that Madison did not view the War of 1812 as an extension of the ideological struggle of the 1790s but rather as a righteous response to recent British aggression. Professor Knott chose his words wisely when he noted that “France was guilty of many (emphasis added) of the same affronts to American honor as the British”—many indeed, but not all. Madison lists the impressment of U.S. sailors into the Royal Navy as the first American grievance. For years the State Department had gathered consular reports and first-hand testimonies in an effort to document the magnitude of this crime against humanity. The resulting publication, complete with names, dates and locations of impressments, shows that thousands of American citizens fell victim to this insidious practice, unique to the British because of language, appearance, etc. British warships hovered along the American coastline and occasionally, as in the infamous Chesapeake-Leopard Affair of 1807, took American lives. President Jefferson rejected the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty of 1806-07 because it did not include an article on impressment. The sniveling Federalist Timothy Pickering dismissed the British practice of impressment because, he said, the number of American sailors pressed into service was relatively “small,” and they were always delivered up on “duly authenticated proof,” an argument that John Quincy Adams, who left the Federalist Party over this issue, found “disgusting.” The French, meanwhile, were incapable of such crimes. No doubt Napoleon Bonaparte would have crushed the fledgling American republic with the heel of his boot if he could have, but following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the French navy posed little threat to anyone outside European harbors. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, gave maritime law to the world, as the Danes learned quite tragically at Copenhagen in 1807. So even when Napoleon responded to British aggression by adopting similar restrictions against neutral trade, with an effrontery that masked his own weakness, the fact remains that the United States had infinitely more to fear from the British, who were hostile and capable, than from Napoleon, a roaring mouse on the high seas.
The Federalist charge of hypocrisy, therefore, rings hollow. If anything, Republican policy had shown statesmanlike forbearance—even magnanimity—by allowing that the British, by far the worst transgressors against American rights and interests, were not the only such transgressors—that Napoleon, too, impotent though he was, had shown persistent hostility toward the U.S. Jefferson and Madison, of course, showed such forbearance and magnanimity because they hoped above all to avoid war with anyone. Still, who that reads the “diplomatic” correspondence and pronouncements of Anthony Merry, George Canning, Francis James Jackson and other haughty British officials could fail to marvel at Jeffersonian and Madisonian forbearance in the face of such arrogance? That Federalist leaders would describe this state of affairs as an example of Republican hypocrisy shows how deeply invested they were in the British cause.
Finally, Knott contends that the War of 1812 didn’t really settle anything. But the war’s main causes—British impressments and violations of neutral rights—had no relevance outside the context of war. Once the war in Europe was over, those issues ceased to exist.
Of course, with respect to the War of 1812, one needn’t look very far for legitimate criticisms. The invasion of Canada, Knott rightly notes, was a disaster. In his war message, Madison foolishly listed British intrigues with hostile Indians as a casus belli and thereby helped transform a just and defensive war to vindicate maritime rights and protect maritime interests into a war of frontier imperialism. Knott also rightly notes that while U.S. naval forces covered themselves in glory, inept U.S. ground forces covered little more than their own shameful retreats. Madison and Jefferson bear some responsibility for these things. The fact remains, however, that when we evaluate the War of 1812 in the full context of U.S. relations with Great Britain during the first two Republican administrations, it is Jefferson and Madison who appear as statesmen, not ideologues, and the Federalists who reveal themselves as fanatics.
Michael Schwarz is an Assistant Professor of History at Ashland University. He teaches undergraduate Ashbrook Scholars as well as teachers enrolled in Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government.