1812: The War Party’s First ‘Success’

A long-forgotten war with lessons for today

by , June 20, 2012

The two-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812 is upon us, and I’m shocked and surprised the War Party hasn’t planned a celebration: after all, as Jefferson Morley points out in Salon, this was the first neocon war, i.e. an unnecessary war of choice. Perhaps the reason for this shameful lack of hosannas is that it wasn’t particularly successful: the Brits burned Washington and routed our militias, while the glorious conquest of Canada – where, Americans were told, the inhabitants would shower us with rose petals at the moment of their “liberation” – was rudely repulsed by the ungrateful Canadians.

The stated reason for the war – the forcible impressments of British deserters and American citizens on the high seas – had little to do with reality. After all, the Brits had been doing this since the Revolution, and their actions, while hardly conducive to Anglo-American relations, in no way threatened the survival of the Republic. Much more important, as a factor in starting the war, was the agitation of the “warhawks,” a group of younger members of the Jeffersonian (or Democratic-Republican) party in Congress, who charged that His Majesty’s Government was encouraging attacks on American settlers by the Indians, and who dreamed of conquering Canada. Indeed, the latter motivation was underscored by the libertarian congressman John Randolph, who declared:

Sir, if you go to war it will not be for the protection of, or defense of your maritime rights. Gentlemen from the North have been taken up to some high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the earth; and Canada seems tempting to their sight. That rich vein of Gennesee land, which is said to be even better on the other side of the lake than on this. Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war. Ever since the report of the Committee on Foreign Relations came into the House, we have heard but one word- like the whip-poor-will, but one eternal monotonous tone- Canada! Canada! Canada!”

The warhawks, led by John Calhoun, were motivated less by outrage over British harassment of American persons and commerce than by the emerging delusion of Manifest Destiny that energized the earliest advocates of an international American empire. The Appalachian and southern states were the epicenter of this ultra-nationalistic agitation, and the editors of the Nashville Clarion gave voice to the imperialist impulse when they asked:

“Where is it written in the book of fate that the American Republic shall not stretch her limits from the Capes of the Chesapeake to Noorka Sound, from the isthmus of Panama to Hudson Bay?”

Before the neocons there were the warhawks of 1812. On the eve of war, their leader, the protectionist Senator John Calhoun, smugly declared:

I believe that in four weeks from the time a declaration of war is heard on our frontier, the whole of Upper Canada and a part of Lower Canada will be in our power.”

Secretary of War William Eustis enthused:

“We can take the Canadas without soldiers, we have only to send officers into the province and the people . . . will rally round our standard.”

We’ll be greeted as liberators – don’t worry, it’ll be a cakewalk. Does any of this sound familiar?

Aside from their complaint that the US government hadn’t killed enough native Americans, the warhawks longed for war with the British, who were aiding the desperate guerrilla defense mounted by the “Indians.” The frontiersmen resented competition from British-Canadian fur traders, who had good relations with the tribes.

In any case, the war was a disaster for the militarily weak fledgling republic, which might easily have been soundly defeated, and reabsorbed back into the empire. Think of it: If London hadn’t been busy fighting another war in Europe, we might all be speaking British.

American forces were surprisingly successful on the sea, handing the Brits several stinging defeats, but on land it was a different story. The British army struck at the very heart of the young republic, burning Washington to the ground.

The Nashville Clarion’s consultations with the Book of Fate turned out to be a serious misreading of the text: the projected conquest of Canada turned into a rout. American militiamen, called up for duty, were organized around the understanding that they would be defending their own country, not invading somebody else’s. One big reason for the failure to take Canada was the militias’ frequent mutinies. After the American defeat at Detroit, another march on Canada was launched, this time under the command of Gen. Stephan Van Rensselaer. This adventure came to an inglorious end, however, when the militiamen refused to cross the US/Canadian border. As one commentator notes:

Another invasion attempt, on 19 November 1812, collapsed when American troops refused to leave New York State and forced their leader, Gen. Henry Dearborn, to march them back to Pittsburgh. Less than two weeks later, Gen. ‘Apocalypse’ Smythe twice ordered his troops to cross the Niagara, both times failing in his courage and calling off the attacks. On returning from the second attempt, the soldiers turned their weapons on Smythe, forcing him to flee to Virginia.”

The war was unpopular, both here and in Britain. The New England states, where the Anglophilic Federalists held sway, were hot-beds of antiwar sentiment – and outright sedition. Led by Massachusetts governor Caleb Strong, a cabal of Federalists held secret negotiations with the British government, proposing the secession of the New England states from the Union.

The most famous American victory, the battle of New Orleans, took place after the peace treaty was signed – a treaty in which the Americans received virtually nothing. While the British agreed to stop harassing Americans citizens on the high seas, the territorial gains envisioned by the expansionists failed to materialize. Canada remained a British possession, and the American claim to Florida – a state that, from the beginning, has given us nothing but trouble – went unrecognized by the British, or anyone else.

The war of 1812 could fairly be characterized as America’s first defeat: militarily the result was, at best, a stalemate, but the political and economic aftershocks were the real disaster. As Murray Rothbard put it:

Even the war of 1812 – seemingly a harmless little escapade – was evil, and also in the domestic sense, in that it ruined the Jeffersonian Party for a long time to come, it established Federalism which means monopoly State-capitalism in essence, it imposed a central bank, it imposed high tariffs, it imposed domestic federal taxation, which never existed before, internal taxation, and it took a long time to get rid of it, and we never really did get back to the pre-War of 1812 level of minimal State power.”

The young republic was infected with the virus of imperialism at an early age, and it ate away at the central organs of the body politic. The carriers were the intelligentsia, the social climbers, the politicians-on-the-make – those who, ironically, wished to emulate the British by building an American version of the Empire.

In the interests of good taste and diplomatic decorum, our Canadian allies are loyally ignoring the anniversary of our ignominious defeat at their hands: Detroit, the supposed launching pad for the conquest of Canada, was surrendered to British troops and Canadian militia without firing a shot.

The conquest of Canada was torpedoed by the stubborn refusal of American state and county militias to countenance the invasion. The defense of the country was one thing, but the conquest of a foreign land – why, it was un-American! They simply refused the order to invade.

Oh, but that we had such a militia today! A standing army is a curse: a military priesthood with more than a few would-be Caesars in its higher ranks. Exactly what the Founders feared.

Impossible, say you: we have too many enemies, it’s a dangerous world! Any gangster can say the same: he, too, has many enemies. His world is rife with danger, and with good reason. If you go around killing people, their relatives and friends tend to hate you, and are often impelled to seek revenge.

Naturally, any resemblance between US foreign policy and the activities of a criminal gang are purely coincidental….

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