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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 8

Chapter Seven

 p64  The War Hawks Swoop Down

The Twelfth Congress convened on November 4, 1811, one month ahead of the usual time of meeting. The voice of the people had been heard in the spring congressional elections again clamoring vociferously for Mr. Jefferson's party. The result was a Republican landslide. In the Senate were 28 Republicans and six lonely Federalists; in the House, 107 Republicans, 36 Federalists and John Randolph of Roanoke.

Randolph was an annoying fellow who could not be counted on to stay regular. He had first gained distinction in the Republican councils; but he did not like the Yazoo scandals, and liked even less the apparent willingness of Jefferson and Madison to offer a bribe to the venal French Foreign Minister Talleyrand, to negotiate the purchase of the Floridas. Eccentric was the best way to describe him. Randolph called himself a "Tertium Quid." Niles' Register, which printed the names of Republicans in italics and Federalists in Roman letters, solved the problem ingeniously by printing Randolph's half in italics and half in Roman.

Seventy new members were on the rolls of the Twelfth Congress and among them were a number of young men who were impatient with the way the elder statesmen had been running the country. The old Republicans were opposed to a large standing army, a large navy, imperialistic ambitions and the levying of internal taxes, all of which they regarded as Federalist measures. They had let Great Britain bully and browbeat them. They had neglected to keep their ears to the ground so that they had not heard the talk about "manifest destiny." Here were Florida and Canada ripe for the plucking, ready to be annexed at the drop of a hat. Why, boasted Henry Clay, the Kentucky militia alone could take Canada! Yet  p65 the old fogies wasted time in arguments and did nothing about it. The young men meant to change all that.

The ring leader was Clay, former Virginian "mill boy of the slashes," now a rising statesman of Kentucky, who at the age of 34 had already sat for a brief space in the United States Senate before being elected to the House. There were John C. Calhoun, South Carolinian aristocrat and scholar, who had been educated at Yale; and, from the same state, Langdon Cheeves, William Lowndes and David R. Williams. There was handsome young Peter B. Porter, another Yale graduate, native son of Connecticut and now of western New York. There were Felix Grundy of Tennessee and Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky. Not one of them was over 40. The elder statesmen had dillydallied too long. The younger statesmen knew what they wanted — empire and war. John Randolph, who had a knack for coining apt expressions, mocked the young gentlemen from the South and West by christening them the "War Hawks."

Randolph, older in appearance, might laugh at them. Let him laugh. The War Hawks proceeded straight to the business at hand. They elected Henry Clay, Speaker, snowing under William Bibb, the representative of the Peace party, by a vote of 75 to 38. They took command of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, making Peter B. Porter the chairman and giving him Calhoun for moral support. In the member­ship of nine men there was only one Federalist. Somehow Randolph, too, slipped in. By the evening of the 4th the Twelfth Congress had been organized and its members were ready to give ear to what the President should say in his message.

The President covered considerable ground. He recited the outrageous damage inflicted by the British orders in council; he took a dig at the French, too, for their restrictions on American trade; he touched upon the state of the national finances; he bemoaned the extent to which smuggling and trading under false papers had increased in defiance of the non‑importation laws, and he called for an increase in the nation's armed forces.

The schoolboy inevitably associates the War of 1812 with Stanley M. Arthur's immortal painting of the proud American youth on the deck of a merchantman just as he is about to be delivered up to the tender mercies of a British press gang. If there is one issue the average person links with the War of 1812 it is impressment. Yet,  p66 in his message to this momentous meeting of Congress, of impressment Madison said not a word. In fact the President and a good part of the public had of late been so occupied with the turmoil caused by the British orders and the French decrees and the American non‑importation laws and the material matter of trade that they had temporarily forgotten the poor American seaman. Between 1807 and 1811 impressment had become a dead issue and had to have the breath of life blown into it.

That task was performed by the Committee of Foreign Affairs. The Committee's report, like the President's employing, went fully into the orders in council. It pointed out that Great Britain had refused to withdraw them; while, on the other hand, Napoleon had rescinded his decrees as regards the United States, and reminded that the United States had a promise to keep with Napoleon in the matter of resenting the behavior of Great Britain. Having dealt to its satisfaction with these high affairs of state, the report at last got down to the business of impressment.

"And while we are laying before you the just complaints of our merchants against the plunder of their ships and cargoes," said the report, "we cannot refrain from presenting to the justice and humanity of our country the unhappy case of our impressed seamen." Warming to the subject the report lamented that the "cries of their wives and children . . . have, of late, been drowned in the louder clamors at the loss of property." Then, in a sweet appeal to reason, it continued: "If it be our duty to encourage the fair and legitimate commerce of this country by protecting the property of the merchant; then, indeed, by as much as if life and liberty are more estimable than ships and goods, so much more impressive is the duty to shield the persons of our seamen."

The War Hawks were intent upon war. Could this almost apologetic mention of impressment have been the result of a search for a moral issue? Apparently the Maryland Legislature suspected it, for after the war was ended it went on record as declaring that impressment was a matter for negotiation and never had been a cause of war.

The Committee's report concluded, ". . . we must tamely submit, or resist by those means which God has placed within our reach." The Deity had been somewhat shortsighted in His provisions, for  p67 the Committee augmented the divine preparations by proposing that:

The military establishment be filled up.

An additional 10,000 regulars be raised to serve three years.

The President accept not more than 50,000 volunteers.

He be authorized to order out the militia.

The naval vessels not now in service be repaired and commissioned.

The merchant vessels be permitted to arm.

The six resolutions were the excuse for what so delighted statesmen and populace — a full-dress debate on the general subject of the war. First to take the floor was the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Porter likened the country to a young man just entered into life who, if he submitted to one cool, deliberate, intentional indignity, might safely calculate upon being kicked and cuffed for the remainder of his life.

How was the war to be waged? That this country could contend with Great Britain on the sea, continued Mr. Porter, it was folly to pretend. But within six months we could have privateers to harass her commerce and destroy her fisheries. Then he played the War Hawk's trump card. We could deprive her of Canada! Why the exports of Quebec alone were worth $6,000,000 a year. The seizure of Canada would enable us to compensate ourselves tenfold for all the spoliations committed on our commerce.

Having thus expressed himself, Porter yielded the floor to his fellow war Hawk, Mr. Grundy, of Tennessee. The speaker reminded his hearers of Britain's violation of the freedom of the seas, the iniquities practiced under her system of impressment and of the unmistakable evidence found at Tippecanoe of her base intrigue with the Indians. He recalled the sacred pledge made to France; and, like Porter, held out the pleasant prospect of the acquisition of Canada. As a representative of Tennessee and with his eye on his constituents, who were only mildly interested in Canada, he added what was nearer to their hearts, the conquest of the Floridas.

On December 10 the expected happened. John Randolph of Roanoke entered the debate. Randolph was forever on his feet, and the man never knew when to sit down. "Mr. Randolph spoke for three hours." "Mr. Randolph spoke about two hours and a half against the  p68 bill and against war." "Mr. Randolph spoke two hours and a half." The reports of the Twelfth Congress are punctuated with such weary comments. Impatient members fled the chamber. The more conscientious settled back in their seats to await the ordeal. To the comfort of his fellow members, Randolph was indifferent. He was fully aware of the superiority of his talents, and this occasion found him in his most brilliant and sarcastic mood.

"The question," began Randolph, in his shrill voice, "is one of peace or war — a war not of defense, but of conquest, of aggrandizement, of ambition." He looked accusingly at the young members as he added, "a war foreign to the interests of this country, to the interests of humanity itself."

With studied malice he recalled the earlier repugnance of the Republican party to acts of aggression and chided them for forsaking their principles. "I know not how gentlemen calling themselves Republicans could advocate such a war!" He paused to let the shaft sink in. "To whom will you confide the charge of leading the flower of our youth to the Heights of Abraham? Will you find him in the person of an acquitted felon?" There was not a member of the House who did not know that this remark was aimed at Brigadier General James Wilkinson, commanding the New Orleans district, who had been charged with accepting bribes from the Spaniards but who, in spite of the suspicions, continued to hold high position in the army. So they criticized Randolph for withdrawing from the Republican party; it was the party, not he, which had changed. "Those who oppose are upheld as the advocates of England, those firm and undeviating Republicans who now dare to cling to the ark of the Constitution!" He next referred to the preceding speaker's mention of Tippecanoe. "Has Mr. Grundy any proof that the massacre of the Wabash was instigated by the British? It is mere surmise and suspicion. It is our own thirst for territory that has driven these sons of nature to desperation!" Randolph, at any rate, refused to be impressed by the British arms found in the Indian village.

Then, in a flight of sarcasm and fancy: "I could not but smile at the liberality of the gentlemen in giving Canada to New York, while at the same time he warned her that the western scale must preponderate. I could almost fancy I saw the capital in motion towards  p69 the falls of the Ohio; after a short sojourn taking flight to the Mississippi, and finally alighting in Darien."

There was the suggestion of a sneer as he continued. "But, it seems, this is to be a holiday campaign. There is to be no expense of blood or treasure on our part. Canada is to conquer herself. She is to be subdued by the principles of fraternity. The people of the country are first to be seduced from their allegiance and converted into traitors, preparatory to making them good citizens. We are to succeed in the French mode. How dreadfully it might be retorted on the western and slave-holding States." The sneer gave way to scorn as he exclaimed. "No! If we must have them, let them fall by the valor of their arms."

It was now the turn of his Southern colleagues to receive a verbal lashing. "I am not surprised at the war spirit of the gentlemen from the South. By impolitic and ruinous measures they have knocked down the price of cotton to seven cents and tobacco to nothing, ruining the price of blankets and every other necessity 300 to 400 percent.

"But is war the remedy? Who will profit? Speculators, a few lucky merchants, commissioners and contractors. Who must suffer? The people! It is their blood, their taxes that must flow to support it." Cold and relentless, Randolph pursued his quarry. "I am gratified to hear acknowledgment that the non‑importation law is destructive. Are you ashamed to repeal it? The French Emperor stands in the way." At this the Federalist members pricked up their ears and smiled maliciously at their Republican opponents. Randolph, of course, was a long-winded bore, but he did occasionally hit the nail on the head. Too bad he was so erratic. There was the making of a good Federalist in him.

Then the tall, gaunt orator, the large dark eyes accentuated by the pallor of his face, stood before his colleagues and, like a Cassandra, warned them of what was to come. "We have so increased the trade and wealth of Montreal and Quebec that at last we cast a wistful eye at Canada. Go! March to Canada! Leave the broad bosom of the Chesapeake and her hundred tributary rivers; the whole line of seacoast, from Machias to St. Mary's, unprotected. You have taken Quebec. Have you conquered England? Will you seek for the deep foundations of her power in the frozen deserts of Labrador?

 p70  "Our people will not submit to be taxed for the war of conquest and dominion. I am unwilling to embark on a common cause with France and be dragged at the wheels of the car of some Burr or Bonaparte. Consider the defenseless state of our seaports. And what of the situation of our slave-holding states and the danger of insurrection?"

The speaker paused to draw breath and mop his brow, then continued: "The heart of the English people is with us. It is a selfish and corrupt ministry and their servile tools to whom we are not more opposed than they are. And shall Republicans become the instrument of him who has effaced the title of Attila to the Scourge of God?"

His argument was at an end. And no one knew better than Randolph of Roanoke himself that he had delivered a capital speech. Yet with becoming modesty he apologized for his "very desultory manner of speaking." He regretted that his bodily indisposition — he was a confirmed hypochondriac — had obliged him to take perhaps somewhat wildly, yet he trusted some method might be found in his madness.

The War Hawks were not lacking in gifted orators. Doubtless they had foreseen Randolph's outburst for, to guard against any effect it might have, they had saved their champions, Calhoun and Clay for the rebuttal. Calhoun pooh-poohed the likelihood of an insurrection of the slaves, and declined to treat the other arguments in detail. "The question," he insisted, "even in the opinion and admission of our opponents, is reduced to this single point. Which shall we do, abandon or defend our commercial and maritime rights, and the personal liberties of our citizens in exercising them? These rights are essentially attacked, and war is the only means of redress. . . . He [Randolph] dared not deny his country's wrongs, or vindicate the conduct of her enemy."

Calhoun yielded the floor to Clay, the little fellow with the big mouth who met eloquence with eloquence. Clay began with a rhetorical question. "What would be gained by war? Sir, I ask in return what will you not lose by a mongrel state of peace with Great Britain? Look at the treasury reports — $6,000,000 of revenue as against $16,000,000 before the orders in council. Some people suggest repeal of the non‑importation law. That would be an act of  p71 perfidy. You would present the strange phenomenon of an import without an export trade. By a continuance of this peace, then, we should lose our commerce, our character and a nation's best attribute, our honor!"

Laying responsibility for the orders not upon fear of French subjugation, as the British asserted, but upon British fear of commercial rivalry, he declared: "She sickens at your prosperity; she is jealous of you, she dreads your rival­ship on the ocean. She saw in your numberless ships, whose sails spread on every sea; she perceived in your hundred and twenty thousand gallant tars the seeds of a naval force which, in thirty years, would rival her on her own element. She therefore commenced the odious system of impressment."

After Randolph, Calhoun and Clay had been heard, the debate gradually wasted itself away among the remarks of the rank and file. It is doubtful if many votes were altered by the arguments presented on the floor. The resolution asking an increase in the military establishment was passed by a handsome majority. The action of the House was amended by the Senate under the leader­ship of William B. Giles of Virginia. Eventually it was the Senate's bill which President Madison signed on January 11. It increased the regular army to 35,000. Supplementary bills appropriated $1,000,000 for arms and ammunition, camp equipment and quartermasters' stores, $400,000 for ordnance, powder and small arms for the navy. Even the acid Federalist leader, Josiah Quincy, voted for the bills, defending his action on the ground that it would have been unpatriotic to oppose the administration in its efforts to provide national defense. Next came the question of the 50,000 volunteers who must necessarily be recruited from the organized State militia, ordinarily under orders of the governors. Should the President be granted the right to call the organized militia into service? If so, to what extent could it be used? Would the President have the right to command it to operate outside the country; in other words, in Canada? Congress had discussed the conquest of Canada as the major operation of the proposed war. But when it came to a question of sending militia there, Congress hemmed and hawed. Members were not so sure as to how such an infringement of States' rights would be received in their bailiwicks. They voted the President the authority to call to arms a force of volunteers not exceeding 50,000 men, but  p72 on the matter of foreign service they dodged, leaving that highly important but delicate issue to the President's discretion.

Voting to raise the regular army to 35,000 men was one thing, recruiting it was quite another. Under the law every able-bodied man was a member of the State militia. Consequently before a man could enlist in the regular army he had to be released from the militia. And how many, pray, would elect to sign up for a term of five years as Giles' bill directed, when they could serve their country gallantly on a two months' enlistment? At the moment only a few thousand were with the colors. As for the use of the military for foreign service at the President's discretion, that meant going over the heads of the governors, promised certain protests from those opposed to the war and the administration and provoked a serious constitutional question. There was grave danger of the war being fought out in the courts rather than on the battlefields.

The absurdity of the situation was manifested when, a few days after the passage of the bill, Representative Porter proposed the raising of a provisional force of 20,000; for, said he, "We have made a parade in passing laws to raise 25,000 troops and 50,000 volunteers, but in truth and in fact we have not given him [the President] a single man."

The raising of the army having been thus doubtfully disposed of, the next question that presented itself was how the men were to be paid, fed, equipped and armed. Money obviously was needed. Equally obvious was the fact that it had to come from the people. This was a matter which Congressmen would have liked to ignore, but the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, was constantly reminding them of it. Gallatin, a bald-headed little foreigner with an accent, a merchant who could only think in terms of dollars and cents! What if he had been the only man in the Republican party able to meet the gifted Hamilton in debate over fiscal matters? A member of the upper class, he ought to have been a Federalist. But for some strange reason he preferred to consider himself a liberal. If he couldn't put up with the American way of doing things, why didn't he go back to the Switzerland from which he had come? When his colleagues had blocked his aspirations to be Secretary of State they thought they were done with him, and here he was turning up in the worst of all positions as holder of the purse strings,  p73 interfering with the preparations for a war by insisting that it would cost money! The truth of the matter was, according to the war party, that Gallatin didn't want war any more than did the other merchants to whose class he belonged. Wright, Republican from Maryland, openly charged him with as much.

As early as November 22 Gallatin called attention to the condition of the Treasury, suffering from declining revenue as a result of the non‑importation laws. In the event of war he suggested that the customs duties be raised 50 per cent. If this did not prove sufficient he proposed increasing the duties still more and restoring the import on salt and moderate internal taxes to defray the cost of a loan. The loan, he thought, should be $40,000,000 at eight per cent. Again in January Gallatin raised the grim specter of expense. This time his plan called for a loan of $10,000,000, the doubling of existing duties, a stamp tax, a salt tax, taxes on distilled spirits, refined sugar, licenses to retailers, on auctions and carriages. Internal taxes, the invention of the devil and the Federalists, and now brought forward by a member of the Republican party! A whole month passed before Congress could get up its courage to tackle the problem. At last it authorized a loan of $11,000,000 at six per cent. It did not get up its courage to pass the other tax measures until after war had been declared.

Quite as difficult as raising an army was raising money to pay for it. Thanks to the Embargo and other restrictive trade measures, most of the specie in the country had taken flight from the South and West to the manufacturing centers of New England. It lay in the coffers of New England banks to the credit of New England capitalists, Federalists almost to a man, violently inimical to the war and the administration. And now, by this odd turn of affairs, New England Federalists were invited to finance a policy that was not of their choosing.

New England editors fairly foamed at the mouth at the mere suggestion. The Boston Gazette, Federalist organ, thundered a denunciation. "Nothing," exclaimed its editor, "is now wanting to the perpetuation of the system of commercial restriction but that the Federalists should lend government the money which they are obliged to withdraw from commerce. Mr. Gallatin calculates that they will come fluttering round his books like pidgeons round a handful  p74 of corn. The opinion entertained by the statesmen of backwoods of our merchants is the same once expressed by the Dutch — 'that they would make a voyage to h–––––l, if they were sure of not burning their sails!' Burnt they will find themselves mistaken. Our merchants constitute an honorable, high-minded, intelligent and independent class of citizens. They feel the oppression, injury and mockery with which they are treated by their government. They will lend them money to retrace their steps, but none to persevere in their present course. Let every highwayman find his own pistols."

Inexorable, too, were the Federalists of New York. There the editor of the Evening Post thus greeted the government's appeal: "We have only room this evening to say that we trust no true friend to his country will be found among the subscribers to the Gallatin loan. Some observations on this subject will be submitted to the public in a day or two, proving that it is not even for the interest of monied men to subscribe on the terms proposed."

The press and the bankers prevailed. Up to May 14, within a month of the declaration of war, New England, the wealthiest section of the country, had subscribed less than $1,000,000; New York a little over $1,000,000, Philadelphia a like amount; Baltimore, where Editor Niles of The Register beat the drums for the administration, as much as all of New England, and the country as a whole $6,102,900, or barely more than half the amount authorized. The despised foreigner, Gallatin, had to fall back upon the issuance of Treasury notes. The heroic little man was unruffled, as usual treating his adopted fellow countrymen with a patience bordering upon the sublime.

Next something had to be done about the navy, a matter particularly obnoxious to the old‑line Jeffersonian Republicans who regarded a big navy as a badge of imperialism. There was not a single capital ship in the establishment and, for lack of attention, several of the frigates were out of commission. Jefferson had put his faith in gunboats as being the only craft that could not possibly act offensively, disregarding the possibility that they might prove to be almost as useless on the defense.

The South Carolinian, Langdon Cheeves, as chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee, shocked fellow Republicans of the House by proposing the laying down of 25 ships of the line and 40 frigates at  p75 a cost of several millions of dollars. He argued that, in view of the distance from the home base, Britain would have to meet every American ship with three of her own; one for active service, one to hold in reserve and one to ply back and forth across the Atlantic with supplies and men. Construct a navy of 65 ships and Great Britain would have to find 195 to oppose them, a considerable burden considering the vast expanse of water her squadrons had to patrol and her troubles nearer home.

To such a proposal Congress was cold. Where were the millions to be had to pay the cost? Besides, it had been generally agreed that Canada was the chief objective, and no navy was needed for that. This was to be a land war. The Republicans turned down Cheeves' ambitious program, made an appropriation to recondition the ships already in existence and, in a final fling at their old bête noire, the Navy, cut the appropriation in half.

At this point a suspicion took form among the War Hawks that the gallant little Madison was not displaying the enthusiasm for the struggle becoming to a commander-in‑chief. The President's first administration was in its last years and party nominations were imminent. It was rumored that a delegation of Republicans had taken it upon themselves to call upon him and arouse his military ardor by stating that if war were not declared before the election he would certainly be defeated by the Federalists; indeed if he did not act quickly, he could not rely even upon his renomination. The incident in later years was attested to by one James Fisk, Republican from Vermont, who claimed to have been a member of the committee.

Yet another event occurred to add to the perplexities of the administration. We have noted how the report of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Henry Clay in his war debate speech alluded to the solemn pledge made to France in return for Napoleon's withdrawal of the Decrees of Berlin and Milan, and how the fulfillment of that pledge was used as an argument for going to war. Imagine, then, the pained surprise of the administration when there arrived in port the American brig Thames, whose master, Samuel Chew, brought with him a heart-rending tale of French double-dealing. In mid‑Atlantic, reported Chew, he had come upon a French squadron which had just burned two American ships, the  p76 Asia and the Gershorn. Upon inquiry the French commodore had informed Chew that he had orders to destroy all American ships going to or from enemy ports. So, whatever Napoleon may have promised, the decrees were in actual fact still in operation! Other American ships returning from overseas confirmed Chew's report.

Secretary of State Monroe rushed to the French Minister Serurier, laid the facts before him, reminded him how the United States had cooperated with France against Great Britain until the country was on the very threshold of war and, in a burst of justified passion, exclaimed, "It is at such a moment that your frigates come and burn our ships, destroy all our work, and put the Administration in the falsest and most terrible position in which a government can find itself."

What was there for the representative of a man like Napoleon to do? Serurier could merely shrug his shoulders, assume an expression of sympathy and report Monroe's complaints in his dispatches to his imperial master in the Tuileries. As the news spread through the country, friends of the administration cursed the perfidy of Napoleon, declared that France and Britain were tarred with the same brush. Hotheads even proposed going to war against both, while Federalists rejoiced. Hadn't they said all along that this was what would come of having traffic with the Corsican blackguard? The rascal was now revealed in his true colors. The administration was convinced of only one thing. It refused to take on two adversaries at once. France was several thousand miles out of reach, and the administration was now too far committed to turn back. The party nomination and the election were staring it in the face, and this was no time to procrastinate. It stuck to the war with Great Britain.

Page updated: 25 Jun 13