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Politics in The War of 1812

The Federalist Critique of Jefferson

In January 1815, Harrison Gray Otis arrived in Washington, D.C. A Federalist statesman, he had come to the nation's capital as a representative of the Hartford Convention. In December 1814, a group of Federalist politicians had gathered in the Connecticut city to discuss the current war against England and their options as critics of the war. After three years of conflict and over a decade of Republican policies that they believed were damaging to the interests of New England, they had had enough. Otis now carried the convention's report to President Madison, surrounded by rumors that it contained a threat of secession from the United States.

New England Federalists had predicted doom since the election of Republican Thomas Jefferson as president in 1801. His agrarian values and his interests as a southern slave owner seemed to threaten New England's commercial, free-labor economy. And more subtly, Jefferson's celebration of the common man's wisdom challenged their more conservative political ideology, which emphasized the importance of educated and well-bred elite leadership.

Nor did Jefferson fail to fulfill their low expectations. Once inaugurated, he immediately set about dismantling the achievements of his Federalist predecessors. He repealed taxes, reduced the army, paid down the debt, and put ships in dry dock. And worst of all, he almost doubled the nation's territory through the Louisiana Purchase. New England Federalists feared that the new western lands would be quickly filled with farmers, and therefore Republican voters. And all New Englanders realized that this vast expansion of the national territory would inevitably reduce the relative weight of New England in national affairs.

By the time Jefferson adopted a hard line against British maritime practices in 1805, New Englanders had long been convinced of his hostility to their region's interests. And when he decided, in 1807, that the best way to apply diplomatic pressure against Britain was to impose a total embargo—a removal of all American ships from foreign commerce—they were outraged. Trade with Britain lay at the center of New England's entire economy. Jefferson's willingness to place it at risk, to use it as a tool to serve his misguided foreign policies, offered just further proof, they believed, of his ruinously anti-commercial and anti-New England philosophies.

Federalist Opposition to the War

By the time war was declared in 1812, Federalist opposition to Republican foreign policy was nothing new. But once the war began, that opposition took new forms. In the Federalist stronghold of Massachusetts, resistance was greatest. Boston's town meeting passed a resolution condemning the war; the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a resolution urging outright resistance. Governor Caleb Strong, claiming that the state's militia could only be asked to serve for defensive purposes within the state's borders, refused President Madison's order to prepare it for federal service.

Other New England states followed Massachusetts' lead, their dissent encouraged by British policies deliberately aimed at widening the gap between the region and the national government. Ships departing from New England ports were granted safe passage through the British naval blockade established at the start of the war. Consequently, while trade came to an abrupt halt in other parts of the country, British goods flowed freely into New England ports. By 1814, New England's opposition had become, in the view of many, treasonous. New England goods flowed not only eastward, but northward into Canada for export—and many of these goods were sold directly to the British army. Brazenly thumbing their nose at national policy, Massachusetts state legislators authorized the raising of a 70,000 man militia... and then refused to allow its use in the war. Governor Strong contacted the British commander at Halifax about the possibilities of negotiating a separate peace for the New England states. And in the streets and in the press, talk of secession from the United States was common.

Thus, by the end of 1814, when a group of New England Federalists suggested that a conference should be held at Hartford to discuss what direction their opposition to the war should take next, President Madison feared the worst. After three years of opposition and arguably treasonous conduct, after threatening secession and flirting with the enemy, the possibility that the Hartford Convention might draft a resolution of secession or propose a separate peace with the British seemed entirely believable. And therefore, as Harrison Gray Otis made the trip from Hartford to Washington, D.C. President Madison—and in fact, the entire nation—braced for bad news.

Terrible Timing

But then the unexpected occurred. Just weeks after Otis's arrival in Washington, news arrived from New Orleans of Andrew Jackson's huge victory there in battle over the British. For the previous month, the papers had been filled with daily reports from the southern city where American forces had dug in to resist an invading British army. Letters from the Kentucky and Tennessee volunteers manning the city's defenses, reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, captured the national imagination. And then, on 5 February 1815, word reached Washington that nearly a month earlier the battle had been fought, and Jackson's men had crushed the enemy. Two assaults by British forces against American lines had been repelled. By battle's end, more than 2000 British soldiers lay dead or wounded, while the Americans suffered only 21 casualties. Just as important, their lines had held and the British had been forced to retreat to their ships.

While Americans celebrated this nationalism-stoking victory, even greater news arrived on 14 February: a peace treaty had been negotiated at Ghent. Meeting since the previous August, the American delegation consisting of Albert Gallatin, James Bayard, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Jonathan Russell had reached an agreement with the British on Christmas Eve. The war was over.

A Stalemate Becomes a Victory

There was more than a little irony surrounding all this good news. America's great victory at New Orleans had been won after the war officially ended. And the peace treaty was really little more than a cease-fire—an agreement to end the fighting without addressing any of the issues that had prompted the conflict in the first place. But all this made little difference to the euphoric public. In fact, the all-but-simultaneous arrival of good news from New Orleans and Ghent helped to transform the cease-fire into something that felt like victory. The resounding military success at New Orleans led Americans to view the entire war as a triumph, not a sloppily fought stalemate but rather an inspiring defeat of the menacing British Empire. Even the fact that the United States had declared war first and then invaded British soil in Canada was forgotten, as Americans celebrated their success in fending off British aggression.

And what about Harrison Gray Otis and the report from the Hartford Convention? For a moment, amidst all the excitement, they were largely forgotten. But unfortunately for Otis and his Federalist colleagues, they were not forgotten for long. In fact, the presence of Otis in the capital helped remind the celebrating Republicans of the Federalists' long opposition to the war. It quite possibly made their celebrations all the sweeter, their sense of triumph all the greater—for here in their midst, in a strange sort of a way, was a stand-in for the British enemy they had just vanquished.

Nor did it matter much to the Republicans that the report from the Hartford Convention was far more moderate than anticipated. After all the rumors of secession and separate peace, the convention had decided instead on a series of recommendations designed to strengthen New England security in the short run and prevent similar conflicts in the future. The Hartford delegates asked that military appropriations be granted to the states directly so that they could design their own regional defenses. And they proposed a series of constitutional amendments designed to prevent future wars deemed hostile to their interests. For example, they suggested that a two-thirds vote of approval be required for all future declarations of war, and that legislation restricting trade, such as the embargo, should also require a two-thirds vote.

The End of the Federalists

But the relative moderation of the Federalists' demands were largely lost on triumphal Republicans. After the Federalists' three-year flirtation with the enemy, their refusal to cooperate with the war efforts, and their nagging laments that the war could never be won, Republicans were not in the mood for reconciliation or generosity. Instead, in the glow of the glorious victory at New Orleans and the cease-fire that was read as victory, the Federalists were cast as unpatriotic naysayers and poor judges of events, hopelessly out of touch with the meaning and possibilities of America. For Federalists—the party that had argued that the views of the common people had to be filtered through the superior wisdom of the better educated—the victory of the rugged Andrew Jackson and his western volunteers provided a painful lesson in the possibilities of the common man.

As Madison and his Republican colleagues celebrated, Otis returned to Boston, taking with him the shattered reputation of the Federalist Party. The party of Washington and Adams, the party that had dominated national affairs during the 1790s, and had persisted as a powerful minority during fifteen years of Republican rule, was all but dead. It would maintain some influence in New England for a few more years, but its days as a national party were now clearly over.

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