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Chapter 8

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 10

Chapter Nine

 p87  As Britain Yields, We Declare War

James Madison celebrated his 61st birthday on March 16, 1812. That is an age at which most men are thinking of retirement. But not a president of the United States who has served only one term. The Henry letters might cause a tempest, trouble might be brewing in Florida, war was obviously on the way, a large and important section of the country hated his administration, the treasury was short of funds — chaos seemed to be just around the corner. None of these considerations discouraged Mr. Madison. He was a victim of that strange fascination for the job that grips all presidents and his hat with the big cockade was in the ring.

With the War Hawks spurring him on Mr. Madison's only hope lay in the possibility that Great Britain might back down. But all the information the President received was to the contrary. News came from England that the old King had now been declared by his doctors to be insane past all recovery and the Regency had been set up in the person of his son. On March 28 the British Minister, Foster, stated definitely and display that the Prince Regent would never consent to a withdrawal of the orders in council. This opinion was confirmed by Mr. Jonathan Russell, our Chargé d'Affaires in London. The matter had been debated in Parliament. Whitbread became the champion of conciliation with America, attacking the ministry for its recalcitrant attitude; Alexander Baring, the banker, who was a friend of Gallatin, added his voice to that of Whitbread. Even George Canning, who had done little enough to appease the United States when he was Foreign Minister, now changed his tune, questioned the advantages accruing from the orders and spoke for conciliation. The government's attitude, however, was stoutly defended by James Stephen and Prime Minister Perceval.

 p88  So impressed was Russell by the firmness of the government that, the day after the debate, he wrote to Secretary Monroe, "If anything was wanting to prove the inflexible determination of the present Ministry to persevere in the orders in council, without modification or relaxation, the declarations of leading members of the administration on these measures must place it beyond the possibility of a doubt. I no longer entertain a hope that we can honorably avoid war."

Had Russell been a more astute observer he would have paid less attention to the windy orations in Parliament and more to what was going on outside of London. He might have found significance in the epidemic of "frame-breaking" riots, the destruction of looms, that spread in 1811 and 1812 from Nottingham to the chief industrial centers of the North and the Midlands. The ministry interpreted them as Jacobin demonstrations. Actually they were the result of the Non‑intercourse Act which cut off trade with the United States. This, combined with bad harvests, brought misery to the agricultural and artisan classes.

Frame-breaking was added to the list of capital offenses and 16 Luddite frame-breakers were executed by special commission. The Prince Regent, Castlereagh, and Sidmouth, who were believed responsible for the Government's foreign policy, achieved widespread unpopularity. At last the merchants, who depended for a livelihood upon American trade, became articulate and outcries reached Parliament from Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Hull. If Russell was aware of these incidents he did not deem them of sufficient importance to be reported to his superiors in Washington.

Uninformed of the changing situation in England Madison proceeded upon the assumption that war was only a matter of days. But before war came, it was essential that the United States merchant marine be held in a place of safety. The merchant marine was to supply the privateers that were to harass British commerce and it would never do to have it spread over the high seas where it would fall prey to British men-of‑war the instant hostilities were commenced. The logical step, therefore, preceding a declaration, was an embargo to keep the ships at home.

This proposal was turned over to the Committee on Foreign Relations.  p89 The embargo, originally designed for 60 days, was extended to 90 and became law at midnight on April 4. It was intended to keep the proposal secret but, no sooner had it reached the committee, than Calhoun notified Josiah Quincy. Quincy, in turn, notified his fellow Federalists, Senator Lloyd of Massachusetts and Representative Amott of New York. These two gentlemen at once engaged an express service to carry the news to the Eastern ports. When the merchants learned what was in store for them, disregarding the patriotic purpose of the embargo and intent only upon escaping its restrictions, they set to work with every dray and every longshoreman they could mobilize. Day and night, from Tuesday, March 31, the labor of loading ships went on until the following Sunday morning. From New York alone 48 vessels cleared; from Baltimore, 31; from Philadelphia; Alexandria, Virginia; and Boston, still others. It was estimated that in those five days, even in the absence of labor-saving devices, there went out of the country 200,000 barrels of flour and great quantities of grain to the total value of $25,000,000. And the skippers knew that most of these foodstuffs were destined for the army of the prospective enemy at that moment under Wellington on the Spanish Peninsula! "In this hurly-burly to palsy the arm of the Government," lamented Editor Niles of the Republican Register, "all parties united."

As though this lack of cooperation were not discouragement enough to the administration, Massachusetts heaped insult upon injury by slipping back into the Federalist column, Caleb Strong defeating Elbridge Gerry for re‑election as Governor, and in the May elections it chose a general court that was strongly Federalist while New York followed suit by voting in a Federalist assembly.

On May 18 Madison achieved his ambition by being renominated by the Republicans, with the lame-duck Gerry as his running mate, George Clinton having died in office. If the opposition imagined that the numerous evidences of internal dissension were going to reduce the incentive to war it was greatly mistaken. On the contrary, the administration and the War Hawks took the attitude that a good, stiff dose of hostilities was just what was needed to unite and solidify the country.

As the crisis approached, even so stalwart a little man as the Commander-in‑Chief of the armed forces of the United States  p90 might have cringed at the prospect. At the head of the War Department was Secretary William Eustis, a political doctor, who owed his appointment primarily to the fact that he had been an ardent Republican in the Federalist stronghold of Boston. To assist him in the strenuous duties of administration attendant upon the organization of a new army he boasted a modest staff of seven clerks. But even these appeared sufficient to do the work immediately at hand; for, though bills enough had been passed for the raising of a regular army of 35,000, by May 1 less than 7,000 had actually "flocked to the colors," in spite of cash bonuses and promises of grants of land. In April Congress had authorized the President to call out 100,000 militia. The Governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island refused to obey the order. Nobody, said they, had a right to call out the militia of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island except the governors of those states. The disaffected militia numbered 14,500, about one‑seventh of the force called out.

If the ranks were slow in filling, Dr. Eustis could at least while away the time selecting the high command. Congress had authorized him to appoint two major generals, nine brigadiers, a quartermaster general, an inspector general, an adjutant general and four colonels. Naturally, the good Doctor wanted experienced men and it was not his fault that the army's last battles had been fought a matter of 31 years before. The gallant warriors of the Revolution to whom he turned in his extremity were, for the most part, white-haired old gentlemen. For his senior officer, Dr. Eustis selected Henry Dearborn, like himself a worthy Republican who at the moment was serving the nation as Collector of the Port of Boston. Dearborn was 62 years old. Thomas Pinckney, the South Carolinian, appointed second in command, outranked his superior officer in age by one year. His military experience was confined to guerrilla warfare in his comparative youth, under Marion and Sumter. Wilkinson, senior brigadier, and already in active service, was suspected of having accepted bribes from the Spaniards. William Hull, Governor of Michigan and James Winchester of Tennessee, also numbered among the brigadiers, might have been fittingly described as venerable.

If the United States Army was scarcely an impressive military  p91 array, the Canadians were no better served. British sources gave the regular strength in Canada at 4,500 effectives. American authorities estimated it at 7,500. This was augmented by 40,000 militia and Indian allies, the whole covering a front extending from Detroit to Quebec. Indeed, in view of Canada's limited resources, Clay's assertion that the Kentucky militia alone were needed for her conquest seemed not altogether a boast.

Paul Hamilton, a former Governor of South Carolina, headed the Navy Department. His plantation was hardly an appropriate place in which to acquire knowledge of men-of‑war. Randolph of Roanoke, in his inimitable way, paid his respects to Hamilton when, rising in the House to offer an estimate of Dr. Eustis, he declared: "I will say this much of the Secretary of War — that I do verily believe, and I have grounds to believe it to be the opinion of the House, that he is at least as competent for the exercise of his duties as is his colleague who presides over the Marine."

In the matter of commanders the Navy had an advantage over the Army. In the war with Tripoli its officers had seen active service under the most trying conditions, and those in the higher grades were in the prime of life. Commodore Rodgers, ranking officer, was but 41. Decatur, Isaac Hull, Porter, Lawrence and Perry were all young men. The Navy's weakness lay, not in the officers or the men, but in the ships. There was not a single ship of the line. Of nine frigates, several were in the docks for repairs. The rest of the fleet consisted of three sloops and five brigs, not to mention the less than 200 gunboats that were so top‑heavy they were in danger of capsizing if they ventured into rough water away from shore. As there were not enough ships to go around, the officers remedied the situation by the simple expedient of taking turns at command.

To meet this piti­ful naval force the British had on the American station alone, at Halifax, Newfoundland, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands five ships of the line, 19 frigates, 41 brigs and 16 schooners. There were as well four armed vessels on the Great Lakes. And, of course, behind this force was the full power of the British Navy numbering over 1,000 vessels and including 150 ships of the line, 164 frigates and 134 sloops. With such odds against it nothing much was expected of the United States Navy. This in the opinion of the  p92 amateur strategists, from Jefferson down, was to be a landsman's war, except for what damage the privateers could do.

On May 19 the sloop Hornet arrived from England with the announcement that Castlereagh had supplanted Lord Wellesley at the Foreign Office. But there was no suggestion of a British proposal of peace. It was, therefore, high time that the President put the war in motion by sending a war message to Congress and informing that austere body and the American people what the war was to be about.

In previous discussions of the issues statesmen had made conspicuous reference to the solemn obligations of the United States to France. But, after the burning of the American ships by the French in the spring, that argument was definitely out. The orders in council were a primary provocation, but it was hard to work up the war spirit of the people merely by citing the losses of ships and goods which were the property of the wealthy. Obviously the President's best bet was impressment.

Even in the matter of impressment there was no unanimity of opinion. Ever since the opening of the Twelfth Congress Republican and Federalist editors had debated the question with great heat, but without either side achieving a decisive victory. The Philadelphia Aurora, the Boston Patriot and the Baltimore Whig had thundered back that such sentiments merely proved the Republican editors to be the tools of France, dismissing Duane of the Aurora and Irvine of the Whig as "a pair of cut‑throat French hirelings." The New York Morning Post, owing allegiance to neither party and purely on humanitarian grounds, came out against impressment, but all the editor got for his pains was denunciation by Federalist editors as a "damned Democrat."

In his message to Congress in November Madison, as we have seen, had over­looked impressment. In his war message delivered on June 1 he made amends by giving it a leading position. He included in his bill of complaints the orders and added a suggestion of British responsibility for the Indian troubles. As to France, the President concluded, he had no recommendations to make at this time. As to Great Britain, he proposed war!

 p93  Meanwhile a series of events had materially altered the attitude of the British Government. Parliament had been deluged with petitions from merchants pointing to their distress and urging a resumption of trade with the United States. Then on May 11 Prime Minister Perceval, as he entered the House, was shot dead by a lunatic. This temporarily threw the ministry into confusion while at the same time it removed one of the most stalwart champions of the orders.

The ministry's potent argument against rescinding the orders had been its unwillingness to believe, as the United States claimed, that Napoleon had actually rescinded his decrees. Thus far, while assuring the United States that the decrees had been withdrawn, the Emperor had refused to verify the fact by proclamation. He was determined, first, to see what the United States was going to do. Now at last Serurier convinced him of the obvious determination of the United States to go to war, and at the same time Minister Barlow in Paris was pressing the Duke of Bassano to make a public announcement. Finally, in May, Napoleon yielded and caused Bassano to issue the proclamation. It was dated April, 1811, to give it the appearance of having been promulgated the year previous, though the fraud was perfectly apparent to everybody. Thus at last was removed the chief obstacle to Britain's withdrawal of the orders.

The President's war message was delivered to Congress in secret session and, after being read, was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Relations. On June 3 Chairman Calhoun brought in a report recommending an immediate appeal to arms. Josiah Quincy, as leader of the anti‑war forces, arose and moved that the discussion be made public. He was promptly voted down. Randolph then, in the hope that delay would reduce the temperature of the members of the House, suggested adjournment until November. He fared no better than had Quincy. The War Hawks were in the saddle and riding hard.

The following day the war bill was put to a vote. It was carried by 79 to 49. Of the 79 members voting for war, 48 were from the South and West, 14 from Pennsylvania and only 17 from the states north of Pennsylvania. Of the 49 members voting against war, 34 were from the North, only two from Pennsylvania and 13 from the South.  p94 Obviously, it was to be both a party war and a sectional war. Impressment had now become the chief issue and of the men impressed the majority came from New England. As one commentator aptly phrased it, "the war was one insisted upon by the South and West in defense of the North which didn't want to be defended." But than the War of 1812 was full of anomalies.

On June 18, after several days' debate, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 19 to 13, the division again following sectional lines. The same day President Madison signed it and the momentous news was announced to the nation in a proclamation composed by William Pinkney, late Ambassador to Great Britain, who now held the office of Attorney General.

The public rejoicing was not of an impressive nature. Quincy and the other opponents, having been refused a public debate, presented their side of the case in an open letter in which they enlarged upon the unpreparedness of the country and the folly of the action taken. In New England a day was set aside for humiliation, fasting and prayer, the church bells tolled, flags were flown at half mast, and William Ellery Channing and other distinguished orators of the pulpit joined in the general lament. Willie Cullen Bryant, now grown to 17 years, seized upon the occasion for another ode:

Lo! Where our ardent rulers

For fierce assault prepare,

While eager "Ate" awaits their beck

To "slip the dogs of war."

In vain against the dire design

Exclaims the indignant land.

The unbidden blade they haste to bare,

And light the unhallowed brand.

Proceed! another year shall wrest

The sceptre from your hand.

The same ennobling spirit

That kindles valor's flame

That nerves us to a war of right,

Forbids a war of shame.

For not in Conquest's impious train

 p95  Shall Freedom's children stand,

Nor shall in guilty fray be raised

The high-souled warrior's hand;

Nor shall the Patriot draw his sword

At Gallia's proud command.

Perceval had been assassinated on May 11. It was not until June 8 that Lord Liverpool succeeded in forming a new ministry. Then the action of the government was swift. On June 16 Castlereagh announced to Parliament that the orders had been withdrawn. Thus, two days before President Madison issued his declaration, one of the two major causes of the war had ceased to exist.

The dogs of war, to borrow Bryant's poetic terminology, had been "unslipt." But they stood, as it were, with their tails between their legs.

Page updated: 25 Jun 13