The United States (US) government, only 23 years old, had declared war on the British Empire, beginning Mr. Madison’s War. This article continues the series about this war, showing that the largely agrarian US engaged in an imperialist war, lasting from June 18, 1812 until February 18, 1815, with an economically and commercially superior foe, the Royal Crown.
While some say that the war was the last act of decolonization for the US or a “second war” of independence, this is not true. It was more about “nine invasions of foreign sovereign territory,” fighting over expansion of trade, with the US growing into a “great and thriving nation of commerce,” making it one of the US’s early wars of empire. Thomas Jefferson himself made this abundantly clear. He argued that the acquisition of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching,” leading to “the final expulsion of England from the American continent,” stripping the British Empire of all of “her possessions on this continent.” Apart from this, there was one more element proving that the war was an expansionist one.
One of the first moves, apart from preparing an invasion of Canada, was an attempt to take over Florida from the Spanish, engineered by Madison’s advisers. Since the previous year, General George Matthews worked with five prominent inhabitants in Spanish East Florida: affluent planters John Houston McIntosh and George Flemming, wealthy military man Don Fernando de la Mesa Afredondo, revolutionary war veteran Andrew Atkinson Humphreys and Spanish military commander Lieutenant Justin Lopez, all of whom had started a rebellion and asked for US assistance. This shows that the CIA-planned coups across the world, starting with the overthrow of an Iranian moderate named Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, replacing him with the Shah, were not unprecedented since similar events had already happened in US history.
At the beginning, the fighting of the war was focused in Upper and Lower Canada, especially near Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and in the Old Northwest, with fighting in the southern US and Chesapeake Bay region later in the war. Some were concerned about foreign trade because of a broadly successful blockade by the Royal Navy, only having to face a 16-ship US navy in 1812. Despite victories over Royal Navy early in the war because of their “overconfidence; inaccurate gunnery…[and] ships that were simply less powerful and less well prepared,” their economic superiority predominated. As a result of the blockade, the US economy’s exports dropped by about 93% from 1811 to 1814, assisted by privateers. Since it was not always easy for the Royal Navy to maintain the blockade, the war would not be a “triumph for Britain’s naval reputation.”
Albert Gallatin and James Monroe were some of those concerned about trade. Monroe, then Secretary of State, wrote to Gallatin, in June, arguing that at the present it is important to “attempt…maritime war only” and worrying about difficulty experienced in Congress. Gallatin echoed this in a letter to Madison later that month. He told Madison that weekly arrivals from foreign ports averaged at $1-1.5 million dollars each week, saying that protecting these arrivals and US commercial vessels is of “primary importance” because the “British still have an inferior force on our coasts,” implying that the blockade was not, at the time, fully in force. While this may have been a focus, Gallatin clearly was interested in acquiring resources in Canada. In a letter to Langdon Cheves, a War Hawk and chairman of the Naval Committee, later Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee (1813) and speaker of the House (1814-1815), he argued that it is “in our interest now to draw from Canada all the furs and merchandise belonging to our citizens.” He further said that if the British allow exports of such property it cannot be imported into the US, and that US citizens should “snatch their property from the enemy’s hands,” engaging in smuggling by sea! While the British were clearly imperialists, this statement by Gallatin shows his greediness and imperialistic tendencies.
With the seizure of Florida underway, the invasion of Canada was “on schedule.” In June, Brigadier General John Armstrong told William Eustis, then the Secretary of War, that the “primary military objectives” in the war would be protection of the frontier and “seizure of Montreal.” ((David Skaggs and Gerald Altoff, A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Companion (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000, First Bluejacket Books printing), 189; Hickey, The War of 1812, 3.)) This seemed possible because Britain had few troops in Canada and former Loyalists there were falsely thought to have pro-US sympathies. This militaristic sentiment was to be expected. It was echoed by the pro-Republican National Intelligencer which declared “Canada once ours shall have no enemy,” even though Canadians had little sympathy for the Americans and worked with indigenous nations to reverse every strike by the US.
The invasion was doomed from the start. Not only was the US army unprepared for a three-ponged invasion, but many of the battles in the war were small skirmishes. Additionally, US settlers were afraid that masses of indigenous peoples would attack Detroit but, in fact, a US commander would surrender the city later that year, and the US military command structure was deeply flawed, with “considerable bungling and mismanagement.” Furthermore, the British recruited enslaved and runaway Blacks for Royal Navy and worked with Tecumseh, who was tasked with defending Canada. Still, the US pressed on. By August, when the British reportedly wanted to stop hostilities, the US did not relent. Plans to continue the invasion of Canada, cut off British communications with indigenous nations, secure the Great Lakes, since it was of “greatest importance” strategically, and work to pay off military expenses continued.
In November, in his message to both houses of Congress, Madison noted the real motives for the war:
…a considerable force should be placed in the Michigan Territory with a general view to its security, and, in the event of war, to such operations in the uppermost Canada as would intercept the hostile influence of Great Britain over the savages, obtain the command of the lake on which that part of Canada borders, and maintain cooperating relations with such forces as might be most conveniently employed against other parts…the enemy has not scrupled to call to his aid their [the indigenous] ruthless ferocity, armed with the horrors of those instruments of carnage and torture which are known to spare neither age nor sex…The misfortune at Detroit was not…without a consoling effect…our charge’ d’affaires at London was at the same time authorized to agree to an armistice founded upon them…It remains only that, faithful to ourselves…we prosecute the war with united counsels and with the ample faculties of the nation until peace be so obtained.
Not everyone agreed with the war. Those in favor of the war put up a fuss, unsuccessfully trying to promote a Sedition Act to squash criticism, and some even engaging in riots targeting pro-Federalist individuals. One such disturbance happened when Alexander Contee Hanson, publisher of the Federal Republican, declared that the Republicans were a “mostly European rabble” to pervert the Constitution, argued that Madison’s Administration sold out to Napoleon, and said that “the last hope of civilization, law, and order was old Mother England.” Of course, this led to anger from the Baltimorean masses. On June 20 they hauled Hanson and his supporters from jail and beat them, showing the first casualties of the war were in this port city, not on the battlefield. Some Virginian legislators, balked at British impressment and waged a “racial crusade against the British, damned for allying with scalping Indians and rebelling slaves,” which outraged Black Americans, free and un-free alike.
The Federalist bourgeoisie were the strongest opposition to the war. For this reason, pro-war Republican bourgeoisie believed that such Federalists were conspiring with the British to break up the union, accused Canadian Loyalists of covertly giving aid to indigenous nations, and hoped that the invasion of Canada could “unite and save the republic from a menacing convergence of internal and external enemies.” However, the war only alienated the Federalists instead, caused cotton production and exports to markets, such as Britain, to be temporarily interrupted, angering those who profited from the lucrative trade and hurting those proletariat involved in the cotton production process with ripple effects hitting the enslaved Blacks on southern plantations.
The description so far of antiwar sentiment is only scratching the surface. The war pitted those who were loyal to the republic against those loyal to empire, with militia service in the US as mandatory, leading to increased tension in an environment when many were unsure about war. The opposition to the war was strong in New England. Not only did many want the embargo to be lifted but manufacturers, merchants, and mariners were already angry that Madison continued the economic policies of his predecessor, Jefferson. Such opposition went beyond the Federalist bourgeoisie. An antiwar movement in the region, interconnected with religious beliefs, included Quakers, and manifested itself at town meetings, public fasts, peace conventions, and in newspaper editorials.
Within New England, those who opposed the war ranged from Reverend Elijah Parish of Byfield, Massachusetts, Noah Worchester, a New Hampshire Unitarian Minister, and Senator William Hunter of Rhode Island. Their messages varied from seeing Britain as a bulwark against Napoleonic absolutism (Parish), proclaiming “honorable neutrality” (Parish), arguing that war is “the effect of delusion…one of the most horrid customs of savage men” (Worchester), saying that the war was unconstitutional (many antiwar religious clerics), and arguing that the war was “unjust,” “wicked” and a form of “robbery” (Hunter).
A small group of Republicans, led by John Randolph, had their own reasons for opposing the war. While Randolph saw the war as not protecting Virginians from “Indian hostilities” on the frontier, a man named Daniel Sheffey told the Virginia General Assembly that the war will “be for luxuries, not necessaries” and it will not “pay our debts, but it will increase the distortions and place us deeper in debt. We are to go to war for what must be destroyed by war.” Later that year an antiwar meeting held in the state saw the war as unnecessary and “little short of madness.”
It is important to recognize the British perspective in order to understand this conflict. The British were not enthusiastic for war: they were in disbelief and felt betrayed, feeling that US complaints about impressment were exaggerated in an attempt to distract from the seizure of Canada, with Canadians seeing the war as a form of aggression, and the US as hypocrites of the highest order. Once involved, the British worked with indigenous forces, which they had already helped in “roll[ing] back American expansion” and keeping “a lid on frontier tensions.” The British did not let up. Apart from support for the indigenous, on the high seas British officers treated US citizens as traitors “captured while fighting in the American service,” and committed crimes against civilians, like the US. They also engaged in a propaganda war focused on indigenous people at a time that they were divided between allying with the US or the British in the war itself.
As for the proletariat of England, they were still suffering. With the war, the uncertainty and fluctuation in textile industries continued. As markets for finished goods and supply for materials were disrupted, a few British bourgeoisie profited, and the standard of living for the proletariat declined. Marxist historian Peter Limbaugh goes further, describing how domestic merchants, who distributed raw materials, and craftspeople, working at home, were brought together in factories and by manufactures. He adds that the British Empire’s ability to control the world’s oceans for commerce, the British war economy, and its subsequent industrialization went hand-in-hand. As he artfully puts it, with “the smoke of the factory and the smoke of the cannon, the hapless soldier’s cry and the orphan’s cry, vast fortunes of war and the machine morphed politically into the military-industrial complex.” While some may grumble about the term military-industrial complex, saying that what existed in England at that time was not in the same category as what Dwight Eisenhower described in his 1961 farewell address, there is no doubt that there was a bustling war industry at the time.
The funding of the costly war, at least for the US, was not an easy affair. With inflation of the currency, a bankrupt administration, “Yankee commerce” hurting from the blockade, and capital cut off from Europe, proposals for war payments were abound. They ranged from reviving internal taxes, which had been first proposed by the Federalists in 1802, and having to resort to loans. In order to do the latter, the Madison Administration felt forced to turn to the capitalist class, to those capitalists without pro-Federalist sympathies but those with pro-Republican, pro-war viewpoints. These capitalists ranged from a German fur monopolist, Astor, who had asked Jefferson, before the war, to assist his fur company, a US banker named Girard, who owned the successful Girard Bank, Barker, a Quaker merchant, Isaac Bronson, a former veteran of the revolutionary war, land speculator, and merchant, and Parish, a German-born son of a British banking dynasty, later on. Such separation of the capitalist class was because, as one publication points out, the US economy had a “thin” market in that it was “devoid of prominent merchant banking houses or any specialized firms…underwriting new securities…or [engaged in] related investment banking activities.”
These individuals did not come forward selflessly. While his apologists claim that Girard was being “selfless” for “risking his entire fortune by loaning money to the United States government,” he gave huge loans to the US government to increase his standing, influence, and make a profitable investment. As for Barker and Bronson, they took advantage of the situation to drive down government bond prices, as they bought the first $5 million of one-year Treasury notes issued by the US Congress, with $31 million more issued during the war, leading to wild speculations and market fluctuations. Astor’s interests explain the reason he funded the US government loan. Because of the war, his fur trading business was disrupted. The fur trade lapsed “into a state of demoralization for the time” and his American Fur Company traded in the Great Lakes region, upper Mississippi, and an area east of Lake Huron, where most of the fighting occurred. Hence, Astor lost money as he tried to cement his place in the US’s “empire of liberty.”
There was another group that profited: City Bank of New York. This bank, the third largest company by 1816, was chartered only days before war broke out. One of their first customers, if you will, was the US government. War veteran Osgood, the bank’s President, joined by New York merchant John Swartwout and William Irving, whose brother was Washington Irving, on the Board of Directors, used the bank to raise money and pay the government’s war expenses, specifically half-a-million of the first war loan. While this led to high stock prices for City Bank, with high yields on government bonds, the war prevented the bank from developing along “intended” lines. After Osgood died in 1813, William Few became the next President, continuing contributions to war loans. Interestingly, Few, who died in 1828, a lifelong politician and signer of the US Constitution, originally opposed the creation of the First Bank of the United States.
By 1813, the war gained a new dimension. The Revolutionary War already was, as bourgeois progressive historian Gary Nash put it, “the greatest slave rebellion in the long history of American slavery.” Mr. Madison’s War was different. While there wasn’t the same type of uprising, the war shook the foundation of southern slavery in the US. With enslaved Blacks on the Chesapeake Bay seeing sailing ships as “freedom’s swift-winged angels,” as Frederick Douglass put it, these angels appeared in 1813 as British warships. Hundreds of enslaved Blacks paddled out to the warships every night seeking protection, pressuring British admirals to become liberators. About 3,400 enslaved blacks fled from Tidewater Maryland and Virginia plantations to British ships during the war, many of whom reached Nova Scotia by the end of the war.
This transformed the British approach from only seeking a few Blacks as pilots and guides to welcoming them as a solution to their manpower shortage and “lack of local knowledge.” As a result, British agents encouraged mass escapes from plantations by 1814. The local geographic knowledge they imparted to the Royal Army assisted them with their military operations. With the help of runaway Blacks, the British could raid deeper into the countryside and hurt the Chesapeake economy, with Black marines plundering “their former masters,” as the “internal enemy” that Maryland and Virginian slavemasters had created through their exploitation and domination, coming to fruition.
With the British encouraging enslaved Blacks to join their ranks, just like they had during the Revolutionary War with Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment,” southern slave owners were worried. With their racialized nationalism, they were concerned that the Madison Administration ordered their new recruits to march to Canada, saying it was foolish because Virginia’s coasts lay undefended and slave revolts were a possibility. The US military also tried to counter Britain’ measures. After March 1813, Blacks were allowed to enlist in the US military, ultimately comprising 10-20% of naval crews, along with some in armed forces on land even as the British had their own Black regiments comprised of those from the West Indies.
In terms of military operations, the expansionist actions of the US continued. While heroines like a Canadian proletarian, named Laura Secord, engaged in acts leading to the defeat of Americans, the march of imperialists went on. The US invaded Mobile Bay in West Florida, then Spanish territory and the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific, where they built a fort on the island of Nuku Hiva to protect the three prize ships they had captured from British. Such expansionist actions were carried out by, as Madison predictably described, “a brave, a free, a virtuous, and an intelligent people…[with each to]…bear…his share of the common burden.”
Of course, this was complete hogwash. The US was really engaging in indigenous genocide, death, and destruction. Madison acknowledged this by saying that Britain enlisted “the savages into war,” that the Creek Nation has become the “unfortunate victims of seduction,” that indigenous people are engaging in “bloody fanaticism,” and that the war itself is illustrating “the capacity and destiny of the United States to be a great, a flourishing, and a powerful nation.” Sound familiar? Later on that year, some British, such as Tory and merchant banker Alexander Baring, of the wealthy Baring family, pleaded for peace. Baring told Gallatin in October that “we wish for peace. The pressure of war upon our commerce and manufactures is over…the war has no object…our desire of peace…cannot be doubted.” Not every British capitalist agreed with him, but some likely held similar views and were tired of war.
In the months of April and May, there were heated debates within the high circles of the US foreign policy establishment about the seizure of Florida. Gallatin worried that taking possession of Florida was an act of war, with Russia and Britain allying with Spain against the US. Monroe, the Secretary of State, had a different idea. He said that while the actions of General George Matthews were disavowed, US military maneuvering would not end, declaring that “with respect to West Florida, possession will be taken of it,” and that East Florida will be evacuated. He said that such actions are justified because Florida had been sold to the British government.
The truth was that, as dictated by Articles V and X of a separate peace treaty between Spain and England in 1783, the British ceded and guaranteed full territorial rights to Spain for East Florida (the panhandle) and West Florida (the peninsula). This was recognized by mapmakers and part of the Treaty of Paris. While this British-Spanish peace treaty obviously doesn’t recognize the sovereignty of indigenous people, just like many other treaties between European powers, it does mean that legally the land was Spanish soil. As a result, the short-lived Republic of West Florida, in 1810, encouraged by secret scheming of the Madison Administration, with subsequent US military occupations, and US military intervention in other parts of Spanish Florida, were illegal and violations of existing international law. As for the stated differences between Gallatin or Monroe, within their respective letters, it could be said that neither fundamentally opposed the acquisition of West Florida.
Indigenous forces, specifically those fighting for indigenous independence, faced a setback. With the end possibly seeming near, Tecumseh addressed Henry Patrick Procter, a British Major General who some saw as inept, saying that defeat by the US was not imminent:
The war before this [Revolutionary War?], our British father gave us hatchet to his real children, when our old chiefs were alive…summer before last, when I came forward with my red brethren, and was ready to to take up the hatchet in favour of our British father, we were told to not be in a hurry…when war was declared, our father stood up and told us he was ready to strike the Americans…when we were last at the Rapids it is true we gave you little assistance. It is hard to fight people who live like groundhogs…we are much astonished to see our father trying up everything and prepared to run away…the Americans have not defeated us by land. Neither are we sure that they have done so by water…if they defeat us, we will retreat with our father…we now see our British father preparing to march out of his garrison…You have got arms and ammunition…if you have an idea of going away, give them to us…we are determined to defend our lands, and if it be his will, we wish to leave our bones upon them [the Americans].
Sadly this vision would not come to be. While the British, including generals like Isaac Brock, had hoped that victory in the war would have allowed an independent indigenous nation to exist under British protection in the Old Northwest, this was not to be. On October 5, in Upper Canada, a battle was fought near the present-day city of Chatham, Ontario, called the Battle of Moraviantown or the Battle of the Thames, the latter due to the fact that it was fought within the Thames First Nation which sat along the Thames River. 500-1000 indigenous warriors who were part of the indigenous Confederacy, under the command of Tecumseh, and 600-800 British regulars, under Major General Procter, were overwhelmed by over 3,700 US soldiers under the command of William Henry Harrison, along with 260 indigenous warriors. With Tecumseh dying during the fierce fighting, likely at the hand of a well-off Kentucky plantation owner named Robert Mentor Johnson, his vision of a unified indigenous homeland, of multiple nations resisting White settler expansion, would not come to pass.
Like the previous year, payments for the US to continue their murderous war of aggression were impossible to come by, throwing the government into a state of financial crisis. Madison admitted this much in May, saying that there was a “limited amount of the actual revenue and…dependence on loans,” calling for a “well-digested system of internal revenue in aid of existing sources,” to pay off the $16 million loan at a 7.5% interest rate, arguing that it is a form of “patriotism.” With Gallatin trying to “seek and win Congressional approval of new Federal excise taxes on carriages, sugar refining, and distilled spirits in 1813,” it showed that the Republicans were embracing a Federalist policy. But, that didn’t matter to them because they were able to continue their military operations.
With such funding in doubt, Gallatin made recommendations to Madison: cutting militia expenses and possessing the Great Lakes only for “offensive” reasons, while he noted that $11 million was being spent on the war that year alone. In order to fund this expensive war, the Madison Administration felt that it had to turn to wealthy capitalists once again, as they had the previous year. These capitalists took the bait, in part because of an increased interest rate. Most of the money paying for the war loan came from those in the State of New York, the District of Columbia, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, with specific firms including Biddle & Wharton (brokerage house), Minturn & Champlain (securities firm), and individuals including French-born shipping merchant Louis Clapier and President of the Bank of America, Oliver Wolcott. Parish, Astor, and Girard loaned the US government $16 million dollars to continue the war, while a merchant, Barker, bought war bonds. In addition, City Bank loaned the US government thousands upon thousands of dollars, showing that their actions were more about raking in money than being “patriotic” as defenders of their actions will claim.
Each capitalist had their self-interested reasons for giving money to the US government. Parish, a German capitalist, caused the most annoyance for the Madison administration. Gallatin complained that his “reliance on Parish is not great…[because] he…refused to join with LeRoy…Bayard…[and] Mr Astor in making proposals for ten millions of the loan.” Interestingly, Astor had suggested to financiers in New York that Parish be recruited for payment of a war loan! As Parish gained influence in the “weak and diffuse” US government, he procured the understanding from them that the St. Lawrence River would not be disrupted since any disturbance there would hurt his property and further stifle development of his land in the postwar environment. He also played a double game. He worked with the British to protect his ironworks along the St. Lawrence and to curry favor with them by giving them intelligence on US troop movements. Some argue that Parish convinced the US government to stop its invasion of Canada in certain areas so that his interests could be protected.
Like Parish, Astor had his own pet interests. In July of 1813, Astor told Madison that for many years fur trade and trade with indigenous people had been corrupted by the “British traders from Canada,” and that the influence and trade should “be in American hands,” saying that he had a plan for “wresting from the Briti[s]h the trade with Indians” within US territories, with a possible post established near or at the Columbia River’s mouth. It just happens that the mouth of that river was near a city he founded named Astoria, so this would directly benefit his American Fur Company. In other letters Astor lobbied his case. He told Jefferson the same year that the war had already confined “British traders to British Dominions” but that peace in a speedy manner would allow “some millions of dollars” to be made, with less of a “loss [of] our Property & the Labour” gone into developing a “plan.” This was nothing new. In earlier years, Astor had urged Jefferson to allow the US to “embrace the greater part of the fur trade on this Continent,” saying that it “will in time be made productive and leave advantages to the country.” Such actions, among his other attempts, fit with his uneasiness: his assets on the frontier, including his Pacific Coast enterprise and US colony in the area was sold by his partner to his competitor, the North West Company, run by Scottish-born fur trader William McGillivray.
Last but not least was Girard. As one of the richest men in America, a multi-millionaire with his fortune later stretching into the hundreds of millions, his boosters claim he “risked his entire fortune without asking concessions” to “heroically” “save” the US government, for the reasons of “public service.” ((Sandy Hingston, “12 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen Girard,” Philadelphia magazine, March 3, 2016; John Keats, “Legacy Of Stephen Girard,” American Heritage, June/July 1978, Vol. 29, issue 4; Joseph N. DiStefano, “David L. Cohen on Stephen Girard,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6, 2011; Steve Hargreaves, “The richest Americans in history,” CNN, June 2, 2014; The American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812: People, Politics and Power, p. 222.)) As they grudgingly admit, he, through his Girard Bank, made a “rousing profit” of $4 million from the war loan. Hence, he was like other capitalists who helped the US government continue its imperialist war to subjugate indigenous people, greedily snatch Canada, parts of Florida and elsewhere, giving the US government money to benefit his bottom line, not out of some higher “civic duty.”
In 1814, enslaved Blacks were still helping the British and asserting their freedom from the brutal slave masters in the southern US. The British were terrifying Chesapeake Whites by invading their plantations, farms, towns, and villages, freeing thousands of enslaved Blacks, living at plantations such Corotoman, in Lancaster County, Virginia co-owned by St. George Tucker and Joseph C. Cabell, and another in Southern Maryland, called Sotterley. ((Taylor, The Internal Enemy, 6, 14, 31, 107, 215, 217, 288, 381, 477; James Oakes, “THE INTERNAL ENEMY: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832,” Washington Post, November 1, 2013.)) This meant that the thousands of dollars spent by the state of Virginia to defend their state were utterly worthless. Apart from this, and seizure of Pensacola Bay from the Spanish in September 1814 by forces under the command of Andrew Jackson, the US military strategy was in crisis. Major general James Wilkinson, who had suspicious dealings in previous years and had raided towns of the Miami nation in 1791, did not fare well in this war: he encountered British regulars in Canada, and retreated, allowing the British to continue burning US cities, such as Washington, D.C., for which he was exonerated.
While he was not the only one engaged in incompetent actions, there were other reasons for worries among Madison’s senior advisers. For example, Gallatin was concerned that continuation of the war would led to more military forces employed by Britain against the US, and that the British would engage in more aggressive measures. Without any form of self-reflection, Jefferson declared that the British made the conflict “a war of conquest” to take “our fisheries, the province of Maine, the lakes, States and territories north of the Ohio, and the navigation of the Mississippi,” until the US is pushed into servitude. This is hypocritical considering he was a brutal slave owner but also because the US had started the imperialist war, a war that the British Empire did not want. Jefferson complained further, saying that “too many enterprises are open, offering high profits, to permit them to lend their capitals on a regular and moderate interest.” Hence, he supported imperialistic expansion but also wanted more “regulated capitalism.” Madison was on the same wavelength, noting in a September speech, that “our enemy is powerful in men and in money, on the land and on the water” condemning the “plunder and wanton destruction of private property” within the US, by which he undoubtedly was talking about raids in the Chesapeake on Tidewater plantations without saying that explicitly.
On August 24, the US faced a major setback. The British came into the city of Washington, D.C., burning, in response to “wanton destruction” by the US in Upper Canada, the “public edifices…costly monuments of taste and of the arts, and other depositories of the public archives,” including the capital and the President’s House (later called the White House) on the direct order of British commander George Cockburn, as Madison described in a speech on September 1st. This action, under which one man related to George Washington, John Lewis, was killed, could be said to be the result of an “intelligence failure.” The marching of about 4,500 British soldiers on Blandensberg could have been stopped by a larger group of “American soldiers, sailors, and militiamen.” This did not happen because even though the Madison Administration knew of the threat they were divided on what to do, unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, meaning they were “unprepared and poorly organized.”
Madison’s advisers did not meet to discuss the pressing situation until July, as the British tried to mask their intentions, leading to debates among cabinet members about the British military’s next moves. The US suffered from, as some would say, “barriers to perception,” with deceptive tactics by Cockburn to distract from his real objective: an attack on Washington, D.C., which some, like Secretary of War George Armstrong and others, including Madison, dismissed as an impossibility. The three-hour battle at Bladensberg ended quickly with a new form of advanced military technology, rockets, also used in the Battle of Baltimore, fired into the crowd of the US forces by the British. This led to their panic and flight, allowing the British to arrive at Washington unencumbered, burning “prominent public buildings,” which only stopped because of a torrential rainstorm the following day. It is possible that even a warning about the coming events wouldn’t have changed anything because it may have been ignored. While a hearing was held about the administration’s handling of the burning of Washington, the conduct of William Henry Winder in the Battle of Bladensberg was exonerated, and no commission was convened to find what went wrong, to examine the “intelligence failures” that led to the short-lived British capture of Washington, as the war was quickly coming to a close. In terms of finances, banks suspended payment on bank notes, as some citizens feared the loss of the war and “prolonged economic crisis,” even as stopping payments violated many of their bank charters.
The payment for the war, like in previous years, had allowed capitalists to consolidate their control over the government. The actions by capitalists over the past few years showed that the state was becoming, as Marx and Engels have argued, an effective manager of the affairs of the bourgeoisie, while it is independent because the capitalist class and state are different institutions, which allows capital to thrive. In terms of the US government, this manifested itself in demands for the creation of a new Bank of the United States, the Second Bank of the United States as it would later be called, by Astor, Parish, Girard, and Barker. They had institutional support from soon-to-be Secretary of the Treasury and War Hawk John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Barker lobbied for it directly to Madison, saying that its creation would allow for more money to be borrowed by the US government and connect with “bankers in London, Paris, Amsterdam & Hamburg.” While such letters, as the one by Barker, led Madison to support the creation of the bank, he withdrew his support when he heard that the end of the war was near, feeling that such a bank was only necessary to finance the imperialistic expansionism of the US during the war. As Vladimir Lenin explained in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, monopoly comes from banks, which collect money revenues and put them at the “disposal of the capitalist class.” Hence, monopolistic expansion of these banks during the war, in terms of new influence and power, would help them in the postwar environment.
The opposition to the war continued in 1814. Connecticut Presbyterian ministers like David Low Dodge, also a New York merchant, took a strong pacifist stand, saying that people must “ardently desire that wars…cease to be the ends of earth and that mankind should embrace each other as brethren…renounce everything that leads to wars and fighting,” and Reverend Francis Brown said that the amount of property wasted on the war was “immense and altogether incalculable.” With such views, it is no surprise that antiwar sentiment was so strong that when British raided the coast in the summer of 1814, the “union appeared to be in danger.”
The strongest expression of antiwar sentiment during the war was the New England Hartford Convention. This secret convention, called by the Massachusetts legislature, was attended by 26 Federalist delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont. It has been called “separationist,” “unpatriotic,” “successionist” and “disloyal” (anti-government) over the years, but it was actually more protectionist, asking for Federal government aid to protect the economy in New England while it proposed numerous constitutional amendments. With the final report of the Convention later read into the Congressional Record, the convention, lampooned by editorial cartoonist William Charles at the time, seemed to be organized too late in the war. In order to recognize whether the delegates from the bourgeois Federalist Party had anything substantive to say, it is best to look at the documents they produced. The final report of the convention struck at the heart of the war while also engaging in “state’s rights” sentiments and endorsing “American exceptionalism” in the case of making the traditional founders (“Founding Fathers”) seem like “wise men”:
… when abuses, reduced to system and accumulated through a course of years, have pervaded every department of Government, and spread corruption through every region of the State; when these are clothed with the forms of law, and enforced by an Executive whose will is their source, no summary means of relief can be applied without recourse to direct and open resistance…The fierce passions which have convulsed the nations of Europe, have passed the Ocean, and finding their way to the bosoms of our citizens, have afforded to Administration the means of perverting publick opinion…In…specified cases only, has the National Government any power over the militia…Congress, and of consequence the President as their organ, has no more power over the militia than over the armies of a foreign nation…The arrangement of the United States into military districts…is not warranted by the Constitution or any law of the United States…An iron despotism can impose no harder servitude upon the citizen, than to force him from this home and his occupation, to wage offensive wars, undertaken to gratify the pride or passions of his master…No war, not held in just abhorrence by a people, can require the aid of such stratagems to recruit an army…When emergencies occur which are either beyond the reach of the judicial tribunals…States…must be their own judges, and execute their own decisions…Commerce, the vital spring of New-England’s prosperity, was annihilated…A free Constitution, administered by great and incorruptible statesmen, realized the fondest hopes of liberty and independence…While Europe reposes from the convulsions that had shaken down her ancient institutions, she beholds with amazement this remote country, once so happy and so envied, involved in a ruinous war, and excluded from intercourse with the rest of the world.
Beyond this, the Convention proposed seven amendments to be recommended to the states. The first said that representatives and direct taxes should be apportioned by including the “respective numbers of free persons” but excluding the indigenous and “all other persons” (i.e. enslaved Blacks) while the second said that two-thirds vote in both Houses of Congress should be needed to admit states into the US. Other amendments could limit, by a slim chance, present-day US imperialistic measures. These include the proposals that Congress cannot lay an embargo on any state for “more than sixty days,” “interdict the commercial intercourse between the United States and any foreign nation” without a two-thirds vote of both Houses, or “make or declare war, or authorize acts of hostility against any foreign nation” without a two-thirds vote of both houses, apart from an actual invasion. The latter is similar in some ways to the Ludlow Amendment. The last two amendments they proposed should not be celebrated. One is anti-immigrant, saying that naturalized persons cannot be members of the Senate, House of Representatives, or “any civil office.” The other is even harsher than the 22nd Amendment, enacted in 1951, saying that the “same person shall not be elected President of the United States a second time…[or] two terms in succession.” All in all, while Hartford Convention was dominated by bourgeois Federalist ideas, a weaker Federal government (reversing from past endorsements of a strong federal government), and pro-English sentiments, good ideas from convention’s reports and documents relating to war can be used in the present to oppose the murderous empire.
In 1815, the war entered its final stage. Since the news of the war’s end had not crossed the Atlantic, the pitched Battle in New Orleans commenced. While it was mythologized into a great battle, there is no doubt that enslaved Blacks and other US soldiers led by Andrew Jackson defeated a superior British force, making Jackson, the merchant, slave trader, land speculator, and killer of the indigenous, a “hero of the war.” At the time, Jackson was praised for the British loss, with possible insurrection of enslaved Blacks in the nearby region avoided, with a “brilliant victory…over the very superior force of the veteran troops of Great Britain” as then-Secretary of State Monroe called it. He added that “history recalls no example, of so glorious a victory, obtained, with so little bloodshed, on the part of the victorious.” While similar opinions are widely held to this day, at the time this victory meant that the British withdrew from Louisiana and agreed to abide by the terms of the treaty that ended the war.
The treaty which ended the war on February 18, was the Treaty of Ghent. It was negotiated by none other than Gallatin, among many others, as relayed in his personal papers and elsewhere. While the Treaty of Ghent undoubtedly reduced mutual suspicion by Britain and the US of each other, it also didn’t mention anything about impressment, even as the British practice seemed to abate quickly, said nothing suggesting that the US achieved its war aims, and pledged the US and Britain to abolishing the slave trade even though the US Congress had declared such in 1808. The binding treaty had a number of other provisions: a universal peace between Britain and the US, with a commitment to restore “territory, places, and possessions” which include “artillery and public property…slaves or other private property” (Article I), end of naval hostilities (Article II), return of prisoners of war (Article III), deciding US and UK claims, especially in the “West” and Great Lakes regions, by commissioners from both countries (Articles IV-VIII), and a commitment to end wars with indigenous nations provided that they desist in hostilities (Article IX). Not surprisingly, the US refused to abide by Article IX of the treaty, instead engaging in punitive treaties to try and extort indigenous people and lands, leaving many such peoples feeling that they could no longer challenge the US military, leading them to develop new strategies to preserve their sovereignty and political power.
The end of the war would be celebrated by great fanfare on the streets of New York City. The city’s artisans, masters, journeymen, and apprentices, among many others, were some of the most happy, filling their shops with their finest wares and engaging in “patriotic toasting.” One artisan rhymester, Werckmeister, followed this mood, writing that “Work is over, Peace is master / Friendship ties her knot now faster.” Even with such celebration, the war had a negative effect on the populace as a whole. John Adams, the bourgeois traditional founder and former President, at age 84, noted this in 1819, saying it was part of a long-standing trend:
I am old enough to remember the war of 1745 and its end; the war of 1755 and its close; the war of 1775 and its termination; the war of 1812 and its pacification. Everyone of those wars has been followed by a general distress, embarrassments of commerce, destruction of manufactures, fall of produce and lands.
The results of the war were disastrous for indigenous people. The war broke their power, reinforced the “powerful undercurrent of Anglophobia,” as the British stopped backing independent indigenous alliances, while national self-confidence within the US and “peaceable trade” between Britain and the US returned, with the British recognizing the US “right” to westward and southern expansion. While the war arguably guaranteed Canada’s existence as a separate nation, indigenous peoples suffered a horrible blow to controlling their fate through methods of armed resistance. As the US and Britain became collaborators in decolonization in the Americas, reinforced later by their enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine until the US was stronger militarily, many of the enslaved Blacks from the Chesapeake Bay region had settled in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Trinidad where they encountered discrimination but had “far more autonomy and material success than they had known as slaves in the Chesapeake.”
The war also had a number of other effects. The international status of the US became stronger as the “Jeffersonian dream of an agrarian commonwealth” faded way, and thousands of soldiers on both sides died from combat and disease with thousands more wounded. Expansionism continued unabated. In 1819, Spain was forced to sell Florida to the United States, Astor’s American Fur Company gained a virtual monopoly on the fur trade, making him even richer, despite some saying that the importance of trade declined. The need for “international improvements” within the US increased, investment bank firms expanded, and feelings of intense nationalism flourished even as the suffering of the US proletariat would increase tremendously with capitalists gaining more political and economic control over the structure of US society.
The war had a number of other effects. For one, the amount of total US government debt had risen to $119.6 million in 1815, compared with $45.2 million before the war. This translates, roughly, to about $1.8 billion US Dollars, based on 2015 values, a little more than the amount that ExxonMobil raked in during the first quarter of 2016.
As the war had ended, British sources accounted for half of the US federal debt, with the British share of such debt rising to 74% by the 1820s, with much of the foreign investment in the US from Britain, and even hovering at 59% by 1913. This begs the question of how independent the United States was financially from the British Empire after the war. Talk of financial interdependence brings us back to the British proletariat. After the war, they continued to suffer. Textile workers and the proletariat in general were negatively effected by repression from the anti-worker British Parliament, a huge rise in prices, beaten down wages, and the end of a peace movement among the proletariat, which had developed during the war. Such repression occurred even as “British industry, capital, and empire” became paramount in the new “capital-intensive world of shipping.”
1816 was a banner year for the US capitalist class. While Madison had vetoed a bill to establish a National Bank in January of the previous year, this didn’t stop the Second Bank of the United States from coming to existence. In April, he signed the bill creating the bank. While Astor profited from the war in terms of investments in war bonds and control of the fur industry, Parish benefited from open development of the St. Lawrence River, and Girard with his bank. Hence, it is no surprise that the fortunes of Parish and Astor comprised much of the subscriptions of the Second Bank of the United States, 20% which was held by the US government and 80% by private investors.
With the Second Bank of the United States opening its doors for business in January 1817, it was clear that, in many regards, the US and its capitalist class had won Mr. Madison’s War. Indigenous nations were struggling to hold back expansion of White settlers, new markets for furs and other products were established, and fortunes blossomed, part of what some call the “Era of Good Feelings.”
In the years of the 1820s and 1830s, textile manufacturers became the wealthiest in the US, and the US war of aggression from 1812 to 1815 seemed to “pay off.” In later years, Girard was honored with a statue and many Canadians remarked that the war was important in the “formation of Canadian identity.” It would be many years until capitalist concentration of production in the US was fully completed, with the US becoming an “advanced country of modern capitalism,” having a powerful capitalist economy replete with “monopolist combines of the big capitalists.”
The “patriotic echoes” from Mr. Madison’s War would allow the Republicans to maintain their hold on power and push for more “economic growth” which benefited the different levels of the bourgeoisie, but especially the big capitalist firms. At the same time, the seeds for the bourgeois Whig Party were beginning to sprout, the proletariat began to form their own parties opposed to the ideas of those across the political spectrum, and there was “popular pressure for reform” as the war seemed to provide an “industrializing impulse” for the US.
Mr. Madison’s War was not what many historians characterize it as: the second war for US independence from the British Empire. Instead, it was more about territorial acquisition and genocide of indigenous people, which all fits under the banner of imperialism, showing that the war was fundamentally one about empire. Not everyone completely agreed with that agenda, as noted earlier, with opposition from bourgeois Federalists, concentrated in New England, and some bourgeois Republicans who were not War Hawks, based in Virginia. It is hard to know if the war was popular or unpopular due to the fact that public opinion polls did not exist at the time and there was no one newspaper which carried the “conscience” of the nation. The war is important to recognize as it was the first time, apart from the Barbary Wars and military actions against indigenous peoples, that the US engaged in a war for empire. It undoubtedly should have never been fought. The war led to the acceleration of capitalism’s development within the US as agricultural tendencies remained in the South and West, while industrialization boomed in the North. Hence, Mr. Madison’s War, as it should be properly called, rather than the horrible moniker of the “War of 1812,” is important to recognize in order to see the origins of a number of imperialistic tendencies, which still play out today, and formation of the US capitalist class, expanding tremendously after the US Civil War.
• Read Part One here