The War of 1812 Dramatically Changed American People and Government

“Forget self and think of America,” wartime pundits urged.

Part one: “How the War of 1812 Eroded U.S. Liberalism”

As the War of 1812 with Great Britain approached during the Republican administration of James Madison, the War Hawks saw silver linings everywhere. “Republicans even came to see the war as a necessary regenerative act—as a means of purging Americans of their pecuniary greed and their seemingly insatiable love of commerce and money-making,” historian Gordon S. Wood writes in Empire of Liberty. “They hoped that war with England might refresh the national character, lessen the overweening selfishness of people, and revitalize republicanism.” The money cost of war was dismissed as insignificant compared to national honor and sovereignty. Indeed, the war was called the “Second War of Independence.” Wood quotes the newspaper editors of the Richmond Enquirer: “Forget self and think of America.”

Republicans, of course, had previously warned of the dangers of war, including high taxes, debt, corruption, a big military, and centralized power. Madison himself famously said that war contained the “germ” of “all the enemies to public liberty.” So now the party set out to prosecute a war while avoiding the evils they held were intrinsic to it. Republicans in Congress talked about cutting military spending even as war loomed. But it didn’t quite work out that way. In early 1812 Congress built up the army, though it—initially—decided a navy was not needed against the greatest naval power on earth. (The strengthened U.S. navy later did very well against Britain.)

The Republican Congress also raised taxes, including dreaded internal taxes, conditioned on war actually breaking out. Madison, Wood writes, “was relieved that at last the Republicans in Congress had ‘got down the dose of taxes.'” Still, the government would have to borrow money to finance the war. The proliferation of government securities and new note-issuing banks followed, of course. On the connections among the war, public debt, Madison’s Second Bank of the United States, inflation, government-sanctioned suspension of specie payments, government bankruptcy, and subsequent economic turmoil, see Murray Rothbard’s A History of Money and Banking in the United States and his earlier The Panic of 1819.

Wood notes that Americans hoped the war would deal a blow to the Indians in the Northwest, who had the support of Britain and whose land was much coveted. Indian removal (extermination) was a popular government program. Moreover, “with the development of Canada freeing the British Empire from its vulnerability to American economic restrictions, President Madison was bound to be concerned about Canada.”

Although Madison’s government always denied that it intended to annex Canada, it had no doubt, as Secretary of State [James] Monroe told the British government in June 1812, that once the United States forces occupied the British provinces, it would be “difficult to relinquish territory which had been conquered.”

Interest in Canada was not just material. A belief in “Manifest Destiny,” though the term wouldn’t be coined until 1845, was a driving force. (Acquisition of Spain’s Floridas was also on the agenda.) America was the rising “Empire of Liberty,” fated by providence to rule North America (at least) and displace the worn-out empires of the Old World.

Even though the war had no formal victor and produced no boundary adjustments (U.S. forces were repulsed in Canada after burning its capital, for which Britain retaliated by burning Washington, D.C.), Americans were generally delighted with the outcome, mistakenly thinking that Madison had dictated terms at Ghent. (Wood notes that a record 57 towns and counties bear Madison’s name.) Wood writes that a group calling itself the “republican citizens of Baltimore” expressed “a common refrain throughout much of the country” in April 1815 when it declared that the war

has revived, with added luster the renown which brightened the morning of our independence: it has called forth and organized the dormant resources of the empire: it has tried and vindicated our republican institutions: it has given us that moral strength, which consists in the well earned respect of the world, and in a just respect for ourselves. It has raised up and consolidated a national character, dear to the hearts of the people, as an object of honest pride and a pledge of future union, tranquility, and greatness.

The anti-Hamiltonian Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury from 1801 to 1814, said that because of the war, the people “are more American; they feel and act more as a nation.” Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. reports in The Decline of American Liberalism that Gallatin admitted that (Gallatin’s words) “the war has laid the foundation of permanent taxes and military establishments, which the Republicans had deemed unfavorable to the happiness and free institutions of the country.”

Madison’s restraint, however it is to be explained, ought to be acknowledged. He was an advocate of centralized government and implied powers, yet “he knew that a republican leader should not become a Napoleon or even a Hamilton,” the sympathetic Woods writes. He quotes an earlier admirer of Madison as saying, the president conducted the war “without one trial for treason, or even one prosecution for libel.” (Some Republicans viewed Federalists who were openly sympathetic to the British as traitors.) A more ambitious politician might have not have kept the “sword of war” “within its proper restraints.” However, imperial chickens eventually come home to roost, and Madison indisputably reinforced the imperial course of his predecessors. (See my “The Boomerang Effect: How Foreign Policy Changes Domestic Policy.”) Moreover, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel writes, Madison proposed conscription—only the war’s end prevented this from happening—and later a peacetime standing army to the Congress.

How the war dramatically changed America, the people, and the government is discussed at length in Dangerous Nation by Robert Kagan—the historian and prominent neoconservative thinker who advises President Barack Obama on foreign policy—and John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire by William Earl Weeks. (Unlike Weeks, Kagan approves of the war’s effects and the American empire in general; his book is marred by his wish to justify current American intervention in Europe and beyond.)

Kagan notes that the war boosted efforts to expand America westward. “Indian tribes north of the Ohio River, deprived of British support, gave up vast stretches of land in the years immediately following the war,” Kagan writes, “permitting a huge westward migration of the American population.… Trying to contain American continental aspirations after the war with Great Britain, John Quincy Adams observed, would be like ‘opposing a feather to a torrent.'”

Kagan notes that:

The requirements of fighting the war expanded the role of the federal government and exposed deficiencies in the operation of federal power under the old Jeffersonian Republican scheme—much as the Revolutionary War had pointed up the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. The end of the war in 1815 brought calls for augmented national powers even from Republicans.…

Madison, Jefferson’s staunch colleague in the struggle against Hamiltonian policies in the 1790s, now all but embraced the Hamiltonian system.

Attitudes toward the military also changed for reasons of national and economic security. When Monroe succeeded Madison as president, Weeks writes, a

guiding principle … in [his] effort to expand American foreign trade concerned the construction and maintenance of a formidable military force. Republicans traditionally had mistrusted large military establishments as subversive of republican institutions. Yet once again, the War of 1812 led to a reevaluation of a basic tenet of the Republican faith.

Indeed, future President John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s secretary of state and a champion of Clay’s American System, said, “The most painful, perhaps the most profitable, lesson of the war was the primary duty of the nation to place itself in a state of permanent preparation for self-defense” (emphasis added).

“Along with support for a national bank,” Weeks adds, the Republicans’ new imperial principles “stood as a dramatic break with the traditional philosophy of the Republican party. The vision of a decentralized inward looking agrarian republic had been replaced by an imperial vision which reflected many of the basic tenets of the disgraced Federalist party.”

It’s important to realize, Weeks writes, that “after the Treaty of Ghent the search for new markets became the explicit aim of American foreign policy.”

Kagan agrees: “the War of 1812 spurred the federal government to redouble efforts to open access to foreign markets.” Previously, agrarian Republicans like Jefferson hoped that commerce would not dominate America or its politics since that preoccupation would inevitably draw the country into perpetual international turmoil. But with the war, many now saw things differently. “Active promotion of commerce required further expansion of American military strength, especially the navy,” Kagan writes.

In other words, America would not promote free trade by unilaterally setting a good example, as libertarians call for today. Instead, the government would aggressively open foreign markets, particularly the colonial possessions of the European powers, threatening retaliation in the case of uncooperative regimes and displaying the military card rather prominently. But “free trade” soon gave way to mercantilism, that is, special-interest economic protectionism. Weeks writes that

changing economic conditions had inspired a new vision of American empire based not on free trade but on protection of certain sectors of the economy. The shortages caused by embargo and war had led to the growth of an extensive manufacturing sector in the United States and a sizable constituency that wanted it protected from foreign competition, once peace was restored.

Revealingly, Weeks writes, the postwar American Society of the Encouragement of American Manufacturers, a pro-tariff group, boasted as members Thomas Jefferson and James Madison along with the old Federalist John Adams.

A remnant of small-government, decentralist, free-trading “Old Republicans” objected to this embrace of centralized power, mercantilism, and militarism, but their voices were fading. Against them, the rising generation of politicians saw the need for new principles. The Old Republicans’ narrow interpretation of the Constitution, the new Republicans said, should not be treated as engraved in stone. “A new world has come into being since the Constitution was adopted,” said Henry Clay, chief promoter of the American System. “Are the narrow, limited necessities of the old thirteen states … as they existed at the formation of the present Constitution, forever to remain a rule of its interpretation? Are we to forget the wants of our country?… I trust not, sir. I hope for better and nobler things.”

Apparently the idea of a living constitution was born much earlier than the 1950s or 1930s.

The new vision pervaded Monroe’s administration, which the continental expansionist and militarist John Quincy Adams dominated as secretary of state, and then Adams’s own term as president. (Opposition to the spread of slavery would check, temporarily, the drive for southwestern expansion, an ironic turn on Madison’s principle that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.“) As for domestic policy, in 1825, Adams’s first year in power, he called for “a national university, government-sponsored scientific explorations, the creation of new government departments, the fostering of internal improvements, and even the building of a national astronomical observatory,” Kagan reports.

The “great object of the institution of government is the improvement of the condition of those who are parties to the social compact,” Adams said. The government should not only provide internal improvement, such as canals and roads, but should also see to the people’s “moral, political, intellectual improvement.”

Adams’s program, however, proved too much too fast for Americans. So he, like his father, was a one-term president. But eventually the American System, often propelled by foreign policy and war, would return—for good.

The lesson here is that even an apparently justifiable war can be counted on to produce illiberal consequences and precedents. The Republicans could not fight a war unaccompanied by what the Gallatin called “the evils inseparable from it[:] debt, perpetual taxation, military establishments, and other corrupting or anti-republican habits or institutions.” They would sooner have squared the circle.

Moreover, the War of 1812 reinforced the executive branch’s de facto monopoly over foreign policy. Within a few years the Monroe administration—and no one more staunchly than John Quincy Adams—would defend Gen. Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida and undeclared war on the Seminoles, after which dissenting members of Congress could do nothing but gripe.

Randolph Bourne was right: war is indeed the health of the state.

by Sheldon Richman|Mar. 8, 2015

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.