Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Advertisement - Guide continues below
If anyone had been taking bets on who'd win the War of 1812 when it began, gamblers would've made Britain a heavy favorite.
While the Americans might have had the advantage of fighting on their own soil, the Unites States military was small and poorly trained. Its army consisted of only 7,000 men. Theoretically, this force was augmented by thousands of citizen soldiers serving in their states' militias, but there were legal questions surrounding how and where these militia could be used.
The Constitution granted the president the authority to call them into service to suppress insurrections and repel invasions, but the consensus among Republicans was that state militia could only be ordered to meet these duties in their own states.
The army's officer corps was equally unimpressive. Most of its officers had never seen combat, and many of those who had, hadn't seen active service since the Revolution, over 30 years earlier. The United States Military Academy at West Point had been established in 1802, but by 1812, it could count fewer than 100 graduates ready to assume command.
So, in fleshing out the officer corps, President Madison had been forced to turn to men like Henry Dearborn, a Revolutionary War veteran, but now 61 years old and seriously overweight.
The navy was in equally bad shape. When John Adams left the presidency in 1801, he handed to Thomas Jefferson a navy capable of defending the American coast and maintaining a viable presence in the Caribbean. But Jefferson, believing that navies led countries inevitably into foreign conflicts, had allowed the navy to wither. By 1812, the U.S. Navy counted only 12 ships of any size, and only three fully dressed battleships.
In comparison, the British had 250,000 men in uniform. 6,000 of these British regulars were stationed in Canada, and these were augmented by more than 2,000 Canadian militiamen and roughly 3,000 allied Native American warriors. More intimidating, the British navy floated 500 ships of the line, with 80 of them permanently stationed in the west Atlantic between Canada and the Caribbean.
On paper, the conflict looked to be a rout. But James Madison was no fool. He had no military experience but he could do the math: the great bulk of the British military was tied down in Europe, fighting the mighty armies of Napoleon.
Of course, this meant that the British Army and its officers were battle-hardened in ways that the American army and its aging officer corps weren't. But so long as Napoleon stayed in the field—and in 1812 there were no signs he would soon retire—the United States Army would never have to face the bulk of the British fighting forces.
Madison also counted other advantages. For starters, his goals were diplomatic. In going to war, he sought only a recognition from the British of American rights on the high seas. He had no territorial ambitions. He wasn't interested in acquiring Canada, and he certainly had no interest in taking the war to the British Isles.
Madison also believed that Canadians would support any American Army invading Canada. After all, roughly two-thirds of the Canadian population had migrated there from the United States. Some Americans believed that Canadians had been awaiting liberation from the British Empire since 1776—and therefore, America's invading army would be greeted as liberators.
Madison was less committed to this vision of continental liberation than others, always defining his objectives as diplomatic rather than territorial. But he subscribed to a portion of the fantasy, believing that American troops would find plenty of support in Canada, and therefore, he planned his military strategy accordingly.
When war broke out, he would invade Canada. The United States Army, augmented by state militia, would capture British territory there and force Britain to the negotiating table. Britain wouldn't want to lose its important western colony—nor would it be able to remove many troops from the more critical European theater to bolster Canada's defense.
Britain would therefore be forced to negotiate and America would win recognition of the maritime rights it had long pursued.
The plan made sense.
But the military problems that would plague the American effort throughout the war surfaced almost immediately as Madison fine-tuned his strategy. Militarily, it made the most sense to attack the British at Montreal. Traveling up the Hudson River and over Lake Champlain, a concentrated American force could capture the critical city, shutting off western Canada from the eastern seaboard.
But while militarily logical, this course proved politically...impossible.
The New England states, dominated by Federalists, opposed the war. They'd long protested Republican policies that threatened to antagonize Britain, their primary trading partner. It was feared, therefore, that New England's militias, so necessary to a concentrated attack on Montreal, would simply refuse to turn out for battle.
As a result, Madison was forced to proceed along a different, less desirable course. Rather than a concentrated attack against Montreal, he decided to divide his forces to launch a three-pronged northern invasion. While one army attacked Montreal, a second would attack from Fort Detroit in the far west. In between, a third invading army would proceed from Fort Niagara and into Canada at the western end of Lake Ontario.
If New England's unreliability provided Madison with his first challenge, his aging officer corps provided his next.
From Fort Detroit, General William Hull led more than 2,000 soldiers across the Detroit River into Canada. There, the revolutionary veteran and Governor of the Michigan Territory prepared cautiously—his critics said timidly—for an attack on the British Fort Malden.
But after a series of skirmishes in which he was outmaneuvered, he retreated to Detroit. There, fearing a British assault, and unnerved by British cannon fire, he ran up the white flag, surrendering himself and his army to the British without firing a shot in anger.
It wasn't an auspicious start to the War of 1812. And things only grew worse.
At Fort Niagara, the American Army again outnumbered the British forces opposing them. But the American command was divided. In order to appease rival factions within Congress, General Dearborn had decided to split the army into two divisions—one commanded by a Virginian, Alexander Smyth, and the other led by a New Yorker, Stephen Van Rennsselaer.
Both were political appointees, and neither had any military experience to speak of. And in no time, they were both quarreling over tactics.
So, when Van Rennsselaer decided to attack the British on Queenstown Heights, just on the Canadian side of the border, Smyth refused to join him. And to make matters worse, when Van Rennsselaer crossed into Canada, most of the New York state militia refused to follow. They couldn't be ordered, they argued, to fight outside the state of New York.
As a result, Van Rennsselaer's weakened army was crushed—and 900 of the 1,300 men who stuck with him were captured.
The first year of the war wasn't an unmitigated disaster. In August 1812, the USS Constitution defeated HMS Guerriere in a ferocious battle off the coast of Nova Scotia. The durability of the American ship against British cannon fire earned it the nickname "old ironsides."
And in October, Stephen Decatur, commanding the USS United States, captured HMS Macedonian, a fully dressed 38-gun battleship. James Madison, desperate for a victory, hung the captured British flag at his Christmas ball.
In September 1813, the United States achieved further naval success on Lake Erie. Commander Oliver Perry's fleet of ten ships outmaneuvered a squadron of six British ships, despite being outgunned by the much larger enemy vessels. This victory gave the Americans control over the critical waterway for the duration of the war.
Perry also left Americans with a memorable line: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
Tecumseh, the great Shawnee warrior, is the stuff of legend. During the early-19th century, no Native American leader inspired more admiration or fear.
One version of his story goes like this:
After years of watching social and cultural deterioration, intertribal conflict, and white encroachment on Native American lands, Tecumseh, a young Shawnee warrior, developed a plan. The only way that Native Americans could restore control over their lives, he said, was to unify. They needed to overcome their tribal differences, rebuild their integrity and coherence as a people, and unite within a Pan-Indian alliance strong enough to defeat the military forces supporting white expansion.
So, beginning in 1807, Tecumseh, assisted by his younger brother Tenskwatawa—or the Prophet, as he was called—traveled throughout the interior of America building an alliance of Native American tribes. The obstacles were huge: intertribal conflicts going back decades had to be overcome. But Tecumseh was a force, a warrior with a towering reputation, and a powerful and compelling orator.
In village after village, he urged dispirited people to join his alliance and he outlined the strategy that would rebuild and protect their communities. They must reject, he said, the pollutants that had been introduced by the whites—alcohol, European dress, Christianity. They must also avoid the sorts of intertribal conflicts that wasted lives and energy. And they must be patient. Until their alliance was fully formed, until they had built a confederation large and strong enough to effectively resist the power of white armies, they must avoid all confrontations. Isolated skirmishes would only fritter away their strength: they must wait until the time was right.
When that time came, Tecumseh promised, he'd send a message. He would stamp his foot, and when he did, the earth would shake, the buffalo would stampede, the skies would become dark with birds taking flight, huge cracks would open in the earth's surface, and the great river would flow backwards.
By 1811, Tecumseh had built a confederation of Native Americans stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. A portion of that following had built a community at Prophetstown, near the Tippecanoe Creek in the Indiana Territory. The community was large enough that white settlers in the region had grown alarmed.
As a result, General William Henry Harrison, and a force of 1,000 men, had been dispatched to keep an eye on things. Tensions between the two camps were high, but the time wasn't quite right. And so, as Tecumseh left Prophetstown to visit neighboring villages, he urged his younger brother—who remained behind as the leader of Prophetstown—to remain calm.
Don't let yourself be drawn into a fight, he advised. Don't act prematurely.
But the Prophet had his own vision. Perhaps he was jealous of his brother, or perhaps he believed the spirits had spoken to him. On November 7th, 1811, he ordered the warriors at Prophetstown into battle. And they were slaughtered. By the time Tecumseh returned, his followers had fled and their village had been burned. More important, his great alliance had shattered. As word spread of the defeat, the Pan-Indian appeal and promise of Tecumseh's vision evaporated.
In recent years, historians have looked more closely at the legend of Tecumseh. Carefully sifting through the evidence, and insisting on a less romantic reconstruction of these events, these historians now tell the story somewhat differently.
Tecumseh and Lalawethicka were born into a Shawnee nation wracked by a half century of trouble. Unbalanced trade with neighboring whites, smallpox, alcohol, and the unavoidable violence of the American Revolution had left Shawnee communities socially and politically weakened.
The brothers responded differently to these crises. Tecumseh became a warrior, joining in numerous raids against white settlements and participating in most of the period's major battles against the American military, including the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Lalawethicka became a drunk. Blind in one eye, and an intolerable braggart, he was mocked in the same communities in which Tecumseh was honored.
But in 1805, Lalawethicka's life changed. Struck down by a seizure, he was first believed dead. But he awakened and relayed a message of judgment and renewal sent to him by the Master of Life. He changed his name to Tenskwatawa—meaning Open Door—and renounced his former ways, beginning the life of a holy man.
Over the ensuing months Tenskwatawa developed a theology that blended Christian cosmology and Native American primitivism. He described a future of judgment, heaven, and hell, and warned that people's fates would be determined by their behavior. They must give up alcohol, avoid tribal conflicts, and live monogamously. Practices learned from the whites, like ownership of private property, should be abandoned.
Instead, they should return to the values and ways of their ancestors: no more hunting with guns, no more domesticated animals, no more bread, no more metal pots, and no more European dress.
Tenskwatawa's message spread throughout surrounding villages, especially those most influenced by white society. Native Americans who'd adopted Christianity became symbols of white corruption and were labeled witches, and were often tortured and killed.
It was at this point that General Harrison first became aware of Tenskwatawa and his movement. He labeled Tenskwatawa a false prophet, and he condemned the movement's cruelty. And to expose him, he demanded a sign of his powers. Tenskwatawa responded that his authority would be confirmed by the appearance of a "black sun" on June 16th, 1806. And he summoned believers and skeptics to Greenville, a village he and his followers had established in western Ohio, to witness the event.
On June 16th, while Tenskwatawa waited in his tent, a full eclipse darkened the sky. Harrison tried to point out that the event had already been predicted by astronomers, many of whom had established observation centers in the region. But Tenskwatawa's followers—old and new—were convinced only of the Prophet's religious power.
After this demonstration, the village of Greenville grew rapidly. But as the movement grew, it developed a somewhat dual composition and character—older villagers who craved a return to a lost way of life mixed with young warriors who found in Tenskwatawa's message a recipe for political and national renewal.
It was therefore a somewhat problematic coalition from the start, and, as the movement grew, Tenskwatawa's ability to hold these elements together was tested.
His first challenge was simply to meet the basic needs of his growing following. Provisions had to be found; providing for the community was a traditional responsibility of a chief or village leader. But Tenskwatawa met this need skillfully. Over the next few years, he proved remarkably good at playing British and American observers against one another. Presenting himself as a holy man, but standing in front of a community filled with young warriors, he represented both a danger and a potential ally to agents of the governments competing for influence in the Northwest.
Supplies from both governments were in this way procured, strengthening Tenskwatawa's power and attracting even more followers.
But his situation was difficult and increasingly complex. Neighboring chiefs, jealous of Tenskwatawa's power, challenged his authority. Black Hoof, also a Shawnee, tried to draw off Tenskwatawa's followers with a message that emphasized accommodation with whites and the adoption of farming—a message that was effective in winning food and supplies from American government agents.
And Tenskwatawa seems to have been challenged from within his own family. His brother, Tecumseh, began to take a larger role within the community around 1807, interested less in Tenskwatawa's religious primitivism than in the ideology of Native American autonomy that was contained within Tenskwatawa's religious vision.
Tecumseh didn't openly challenge his younger brother, but he provided a focal point, a leader for the other young warriors who'd been attracted to Tenskwatawa for the same political reasons.
So, it was a highly unstable community that followed Tenskwatawa to Prophetstown in 1808. This new village was a bit further removed from hostile white settlements, and closer to the western tribes in which Tenskwatawa found his greatest support. But the competing elements within his message, and within his community, were increasingly difficult to contain. It was perhaps with an eye toward appeasing the young militants within the community that Tenskwatawa's message grew more narrowly political during these months. Or perhaps it reflected the growing influence of Tecumseh.
Whatever the case, at Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa's speeches were filled with more direct calls to resist white encroachments on Native American lands, and a more explicit emphasis on the importance of maintaining a united front against white aggression.
As Tenskwatawa's message grew more political and militant, his numbers were strengthened by tribes pushed west by white expansion. The Treaty of Fort Wayne, signed in 1809 between the United States and cooperative "government" chiefs, sent a new wave of displaced and embittered young warriors toward Prophetstown. These increased the town's numbers, and strengthened Tenskwatawa's hand in negotiating with British and American agents. But they also upset the delicate balance between the religious and political elements within the community.
Tecumseh's power was strengthened, Tenskwatawa's was diminished, and white settlers living in the region were terrified.
In 1811, the increasing size and militancy of Tenskwatawa's following, combined with increasing fear among settlers in the Indiana Territory, brought William Henry Harrison and his soldiers to the banks of the Tippecanoe. And on November 7th, the fateful battle was fought.
The version of the history of this Pan-Indian movement that emphasizes Tenskwatawa—the version more popular with historians—converges briefly with the legend of Tecumseh here at Tippecanoe.
Tenskwatawa's call to arms proved disastrous, as his warriors fell before Harrison's soldiers and Prophetstown was burned to the ground. But the defeat wasn't entirely fatal to the movement. Even though the Prophet was discredited, Tecumseh managed to rebuild at least part of the alliance.
And in the rapidly deteriorating relations between the United States and Britain, he saw an opportunity. As war between the two countries approached, Tecumseh played both sides against each other, just as his brother had done before. Tecumseh dangled the possibility of an alliance with his band of warriors in exchange for food and weapons before both British and American military agents. But after the British victory at Detroit in August 1812, the course of the War of 1812 seemed clear.
And so, Tecumseh led his followers into the British ranks.
For a while, this seemed to have been the right move. In a battle near Fort Meigs, Tecumseh's warriors routed a band of Kentucky militia.
But the next year, Tecumseh ran into his old nemesis. William Henry Harrison led an American army across Lake Erie in pursuit of the British and Native American forces driven from Fort Detroit. At Moravian Town, on the banks of the Thames River, Harrison caught up with his enemy. In this pivotal battle, Harrison defeated the British, securing America's northwest frontier.
And...Tecumseh himself was killed. His followers abandoned the British alliance and the Pan-Indian confederation was history.
There were other young warriors who might have seized the mantle left by Tecumseh. There were other religious figures who might have followed in Tenskwatawa's footsteps. But the conditions that had allowed the two brothers to build a mass movement among the Native American nations of the Northwest were no longer present.
With the end of the War of 1812, the British finally abandoned their lingering fantasies of reclaiming some sort of control over the region. They'd no longer respond to overtures from Native American tribes for support, and they'd no longer be able to back the ambitions of a Native American leader skillfully exploiting Anglo-American rivalries within the region.
Once again, the legend and the history of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa converge on this point: all hopes for a Pan-Indian alliance ended with the failure of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa.
But beyond this point, there's far more disagreement than agreement. The history of Tenskwatawa reminds us of the complex array of forces that converge to make history—from the social conditions in which a primitivist religious movement could take root to the geopolitical rivalries in which such a movement could gather strength.
The legend of Tecumseh suggests a very different understanding of history, one in which charismatic leaders shape events and individual blunders affect the course of history. While the story of Tenskwatawa suggests that the path of history is determined by multiple forces perhaps too difficult to control, in the legend of Tecumseh, we're teased by the possibility that history might have been different.
If only Tenskwatawa hadn't jumped the gun, if only Tecumseh's followers had been just a bit more patient, and if only they'd waited for the sign.
Legend can be attractive, and even inspiring. But as historians, we must respect the facts, even if the story they tell is more complex and less inspiring. So, on that note, there's one final fact that must be mentioned.
On December 16th, 1811, just over a month after the disaster at Tippecanoe, a giant earthquake shook the Northwest. Labeled the New Madrid earthquake, geologists estimate it would have registered 8.1 on the Richter Scale. It was centered in northeastern Arkansas, but could be felt throughout the Mississippi Valley, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
According to eyewitnesses, buffalo stampeded, the skies became dark with birds taking flight, huge cracks opened in the earth's surface, and the great Mississippi River flowed backward.
More than 4,000 British soldiers were less than a day's march from Washington when President James Madison learned that the city was about to be attacked.
The president had raised concerns about just such an attack months earlier. But Secretary of War John Armstrong had convinced Madison and his cabinet that the capital was an unlikely target for British invasion. America's coastal cities held far more strategic importance, and the hard march through difficult terrain to Washington, D.C. would deter any British schemes on the city.
Even when top American officials learned that British troops had sailed into the Chesapeake, it was widely assumed that their target was Baltimore, not the nation's capital.
As the British approached Washington, American leaders continued to misread the situation. Even though the Americans had greater numbers—almost 6,000 militiamen were called out to defend the city—poor intelligence led to their being deployed along the wrong road. And many of those that did see action fled almost as soon as the fighting began.
After just a three-hour battle, the British marched into the city, where they quickly burned the Capitol, the White House, and a handful of other public buildings. It wasn't America's finest hour.
Amid this tragedy of errors, however, one person performed admirably. As the British approached her city, First Lady Dolley Madison quickly packed up critical White House documents and the great Gilbert Stuart portrait of former President George Washington, and carried them away to safety.
Hers were acts of courage and importance—and they have settled into our folklore as reminders that not all of our early national heroes were men.
But our focus on this single episode of heroism largely obscures the greater importance of Dolley Madison to our early history. She contributed far more to American national development than this one dramatic act. Some historians have argued that her efforts as First Lady paralleled and completed her husband's work decades earlier at the Constitutional Convention; while he laid out the fundamental blueprint for our federal government, she helped make it a functioning political machine.
This argument needs to be explored, but first, we must make a digression. Before discussing the contributions of Dolley Madison, we must address a broader question about the impact of the American Revolution and its political ideology on women. More simply, we must ask: what impact did the Revolution have on the condition or status of women in America?
Since the 1970s, historians like Linda Kerber and Catherine Allgor have aggressively set about uncovering the contributions of women to America's Revolutionary and early national past.
They've explored, for example, the growing importance of women within early American religions and the subtle but insistent pressure for more educational opportunities. Historians have traced the increasing contributions of women to early American literature, and the niches they filled within America's expanding market economy.
This research has added a rich layer to our understanding of America's early history. But ascertaining the place of women within the nation's political story has proven more difficult.
In fact, what has jumped out of the historical record is a surprising lack of historical record. While other disempowered groups—free Blacks, religious dissenters, or propertyless citizens—applied the Revolution's philosophy of equality and human rights to their own situations and demanded that America live up more fully to its ideals, there was comparatively little acknowledgment that the Revolution's political principles called for a deeper examination of the rights of women.
New Jersey briefly allowed women to vote in state elections from 1776 to 1807. But no other state followed suit.
What makes all this even more surprising is that the Revolution had depended on—and actively encouraged—the participation of women. The pre-war boycotts that proved the most effective tool in forcing British concessions depended on the participation of all colonists, male and female alike. Nor were women just quiet observers. To protest the tea tax, women held rallies in which they burned tea and pledged not to consume it—or to allow others in their households to consume it—until the hated tax was lifted.
To provide an alternative to the British textiles that were so popular in America, women produced yards and yards of homespun cloth, often at public spinning parties. When the war began, they melted pewter into bullets and collected urine to make saltpeter. And thousands trailed the Continental Army as camp followers, serving as cooks and nurses.
The American Revolution was a popular war, dependent on the efforts of common citizens. Women were necessary for it to be prosecuted, and they were urged by male leaders to participate in dozens of ways. It was also a civil war, pitting patriots not just against British troops, but also against American loyalists. Consequently, everyone had to make a choice. Everyone, including women, had to adopt a political identity and assume the risks inherent in that identity. When the shifting tides of war led to the transfer of territory from one side to the other, women, just like men, faced retaliation and exile.
And therefore, to find so little application of the Revolution's political ideals to the condition of women after the Revolutionary War's end is shocking.
Of course, eventually women would draw upon the ideals and the rhetoric of the American Revolution to advance a platform of political and social rights. But this would occur for more than 50 years after the Revolution.
Dolley Madison's place in American history must be set against this backdrop. Her contributions can only be appreciated when we look more creatively for the roles played by women in fleshing out America's political experiment.
Women weren't allowed to hold office or vote; nor were they able to participate directly in the great public debates over domestic and foreign policy.
But some, like Dolley Madison, were able to use their position to make a lasting contribution to America's political order.
When the Madisons moved into the White House in 1809, the building itself was in some disrepair. Thomas Jefferson had shied away from pouring resources into the presidential mansion; to do so would violate his Republican emphasis on a simple and frugal government.
He similarly shunned elaborate social gatherings. In Jefferson's mind, state dinners and large parties stank of the aristocratic courts of Europe.
But the Madisons, and Dolley in particular, brought a different philosophy to their new home and Washington society. She believed that the White House should be decorated in a manner appropriate to the dignity of the office it represented. She knew that any excessive adornment would be rejected as un-republican. But she also recognized that America's egalitarian culture retained more than a little fascination with rank and refinement.
So, she completely refurnished the White House and transformed it into a compelling symbol for the new nation—a public space that spoke both to the republican and the genteel strains within American political ideology.
But Dolley Madison made the White House more than just a symbol. She also made it an arena for governance.
Dolley hosted a series of social events aimed at placing the White House at the center of Washington society, and her husband, the president, at the center of the policy discussions and deal-making that lie beneath the more formal processes of lawmaking in a republic.
The Madisons' predecessors had struggled to construct an appropriate social style for the nation's capital.
George Washington, anxious to lend the presidential office a certain majesty and authority, but also aware that as the leader of a republic he must be accessible to the people in some fashion, held very formal weekly gatherings for a handful of guests. When the doors to his parlor were opened promptly at 3:00PM on Tuesday afternoons, his guests would gather about him in a circle while he stood ceremoniously by the fireplace in formal attire.
He'd then work his way around the circle, exchanging a few words with each guest, always clinging to his sword and cocked hat—perhaps to avoid the undignified new custom of shaking hands.
Washington's wife, Martha, had her own weekly parties. On Friday afternoons, women as well as men would gather for a few hours of conversation and entertainment. The atmosphere was informal, but in order to ensure a certain dignified—her critics said aristocratic—air, First Lady Martha Washington sat at one end of the room on an elevated stage, surrounded by the wives of Cabinet officers and public officials.
The Washingtons' social gatherings drew considerable criticism. Republicans saw monarchical pretensions lurking within these events.
And later, when Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, he resolved to construct a truly republican social world. He refused to hold large social events, arguing that they were too aristocratic in nature—too reminiscent of the European court. And instead, he reduced the White House social calendar to a series of small intimate dinners with members of Congress.
In order to fully purge the new capital of aristocratic customs, Jefferson announced that traditional diplomatic protocol would also be abandoned in this republican city. When the British ambassador, wearing the full regalia of the European court, first called on Jefferson in 1803, Jefferson greeted him in casual clothes and house slippers.
In the end, Jefferson's social innovations were almost as heavily criticized as Washington's. Some suggested that his indecorous treatment of the British ambassador contributed to the frosty relations between the United States and Great Britain.
Therefore, Dolley Madison's decision to schedule a more expansive social calendar was filled with significance. She would now try her hand at constructing a social style and social calendar better suited to the values and needs of the new nation.
Dolley Madison began by hosting the presidency's first inaugural ball in 1809. In doing so, she signaled that she'd break from the austere social style of Thomas Jefferson.
She next announced a series of regular state dinners. In contrast with Jefferson's small, all-male gatherings, the Madisons' larger, more formal dinners became a weekly event while Congress was in session. Moreover, Dolley designed them to best serve her husband's temperament and political needs. The president had a powerful intellect, and was extremely influential in small groups, but within larger crowds, he grew shy. So, Dolley seated herself at the head of the table, took charge of the conversation, and steered talk gracefully but persistently toward her husband's political objectives.
To complete her social calendar, Dolley also held weekly "drawing rooms." Open to anyone who had ever been introduced to the president or First Lady, these events were much larger than the state dinners. On average, 300 people crowded into the White House for "Mrs. Madison's Crush." Public officials, Cabinet officers, members of Congress from both parties—and their wives—all attended these events. Anyone new to the city quickly learned that attending these parties was the best way to make connections in the capital.
More important, all members of the government soon learned that this was where the nitty-gritty of government deal-making took place. Here, within the less structured, and less partisan, atmosphere of Dolley's "squeeze," members of both parties could meet and talk, wheel, and deal.
And all this took place on the president's turf. Dolley's social engineering ensured that the key business of government took place in the White House—and that her husband, the president, remained at the center of this process.
Dolley Madison wasn't James Madison. (Duh.) Her contributions can't be easily compared to his achievements as the principal architect of the Constitution. But her efforts were far from insignificant. If her husband drafted the blueprint of American politics, she added some informal details that helped make the plan work.
Or to employ a different analogy, if he built the rough machinery of government, she greased it up and helped make it run.
It's important not to overstate the contribution, or to lose sight of the greater political challenges and achievements awaiting women later in the century when they more directly applied the ideals of the Revolution to their political and social lives. But it reminds us that historical processes have their own pace and rhythm, and that within a culture that wasn't ready to imagine all of the possibilities implicit within its democratic political ideology, women exercised the powers that they could.
Dolley Madison's Wednesday night cocktail parties weren't Seneca Falls—the 1848 women's convention that demanded increased political and social rights—but they were a step in that direction.
In January 1815, Harrison Gray Otis arrived in Washington, D.C. A Federalist statesman, he'd 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 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.
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.
So, 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.
But then the unexpected occurred. Just weeks after Otis' 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 February 5th, 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 2,000 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 February 14th: 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.
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 weren't 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, and 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.
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 weren't 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 15 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 clearly over.
President James Madison signed Macon's Bill No. 2, passed by Congress in April 1810, only reluctantly.
The bill opened trade with France and Britain—suspended since 1809 by the soon-to-expire Non-Intercourse Act—and authorized him to impose trade restrictions against one offending country if the other lifted its trade restrictions against the United States. At war with each other since 1793, France and Britain had, for the past five years, rejected American claims that, as a neutral nation, the United States should be able to trade with both sides.
Instead, British and French naval ships intercepted American commercial vessels and auctioned off their cargoes. Macon's Bill sought to encourage Britain and France to revise their policies. By promising, in effect, that the United States would commercially punish Country A if Country B agreed to allow America to trade freely, the bill offered an incentive to the two belligerents to end their maritime harassment.
Madison signed the new law, but he thought the bill was weak—just another half measure aimed at winning international respect for the United States.
He would've preferred a more aggressive and punitive approach to French and British harassment. He wanted Congress to impose high tariffs against the offending countries, or even to close American ports to their goods altogether until they acknowledged American maritime rights.
But Congress preferred a softer approach—and as he reviewed the bill, Madison concluded that perhaps even this half measure might serve his more aggressive purposes. He recognized that there was a trap, and perhaps an opportunity, lying within the bill's conditions.
Britain, the far stronger naval power, really had no reason to lift its restrictions. But France had everything to gain.
Its Berlin and Milan Decrees of 1806 and 1807 imposed complex trade restrictions against any country trading with Britain. But France didn't have the navy to enforce these decrees on the high sea. They were, for the most part, empty threats.
By lifting them, however, in compliance with Macon's Bill, France could force the United States to restrict itself—that is, if France repealed its restrictions against the United States, the United States would be obligated to suspend its trade with Great Britain.
So, Napoleon immediately saw the opportunity lying within Macon's Bill. On August 5th, 1810, he instructed his foreign minister, the Duc de Cadore, to draft a letter to the American minister in Paris informing him that the Berlin and Milan Decrees would be lifted. It was expected, the letter continued, that America would impose restrictions against Great Britain in turn, as promised by Macon's Bill No. 2.
And indeed, when Madison received the letter, he issued an ultimatum to Great Britain—unless British trade restrictions against the United States were lifted by February 2nd, 1811, all American trade with Britain would end.
Madison's Federalist critics—many of whom lived in New England communities dependent upon trade with Britain for their economic sustenance—immediately attacked the announcement. Napoleon couldn't be trusted, they argued, and Madison's rash acceptance of the suspiciously conciliatory Cadore letter would lead America into war.
They were right on both counts.
Napoleon couldn't be trusted. He refused to release American ships already held in French ports and fabricated excuse after excuse to justify the continued harassment of American shipping. And Madison's ultimatum did lead the United States almost irrevocably toward war with Great Britain.
Why, then, did Madison follow the course that he did? Why wasn't he more cautious in responding to French promises and more restrained in his threats toward Britain?
In order to answer these questions, we must sort through three decades of American diplomacy—and look closely at two crucial years in particular, 1783 and 1801.
In 1783, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, British officials debated the commercial policy they'd apply toward the newly independent United States.
Americans rather naively assumed that the British would allow access to British ports just as they had in the past. After all, English consumers needed our wheat, the British Navy needed our timber, hemp, and tar, and British planters in the West Indies needed our fish, wheat, and salt to feed their slaves.
But the British concluded differently.
Eventually, Canada and Ireland would be able to deliver most of the same goods currently obtained from the United States. And Britain's short-term needs were more than offset by America's dependency on British manufacturing goods. Therefore, there was no need to offer any permanent trade concessions to the United States.
In fact, given Britain's commercial advantages, ministers in London felt they could dictate trade policy to the United States. They could close West Indian ports to American goods. They could admit American raw materials to England on an item-by-item basis. They could exclude American manufactured goods from British markets altogether.
And if the Americans objected? Too bad. The United States had no real navy to back up its complaints.
In 1801, Thomas Jefferson was elected president and James Madison was named his Secretary of State.
The new Republican administration quickly reversed the foreign policies of its Federalist predecessors. When George Washington's Federalist administration negotiated the Jay Treaty in 1795, it accepted a subordinate commercial relationship to Britain as a short-term necessity. In return for limited American access to British markets in the West Indies and a qualified recognition of American commercial rights as a neutral nation, the United States granted Britain almost unlimited access to American markets and established a commission to assist British creditors trying to recover debts owed by Americans.
By most accounts, Britain—negotiating from a position of strength—got the better end of that deal.
But Jefferson and Madison reversed this course. They always saw the Jay Treaty as a fawning acquiescence to British commercial bullying at the expense of the more sympathetic French. James Madison, in particular, believed that America should take a harder line against British policies. As early as 1790, as a Virginia representative to the United States Congress, he'd argued that the United States should counter British trade restrictions with a series of discriminatory tariffs—import taxes that curtailed British access to America markets until Britain opened up more of its markets to American goods.
Under the Federalist Presidents George Washington and John Adams, however, this approach had been rejected. But now, in 1801, as Secretary of State, Madison finally hoped to implement the more aggressive trade policy against Britain that he believed was long overdue.
The Republican administration elected in 1801 also reversed the naval-building policies of John Adams. As president, Adams had made strengthening the United States Navy a high priority.
And he succeeded. At the time of his election in 1796, the navy had only three battleships. By the time he left office in 1801, the navy had 50: enough to defend America's long coastline and maintain a viable presence in the Caribbean.
But Jefferson and his successor James Madison, undid all this. The navy was expensive, and as Republicans, they believed in frugal, tax-cutting government. They also believed that large militaries posed a domestic threat—their officer corps nursed aristocratic ambitions, and they provided a ready tool to serve would-be tyrants.
Moreover, navies extended borders—they led countries into foreign affairs and costly wars. Jefferson was willing to invest in the small gunboats adequate for coastal patrols, but he allowed the larger warships to atrophy. By 1812, the United States had only a dozen seaworthy battleships of any size.
Other years brought new controversies and new wrinkles to the British-American conflict, but everything largely boiled down to variants on the two opposing positions staked out in 1783 and 1801. Britain continued to operate under the premise that it had the commercial and naval power to dictate trade and maritime policy to the United States, and that the development of its other colonies would soon eliminate any commercial dependence on the United States.
Jefferson and Madison continued their refusal to accept a subordinate position to British power, even in the short term. But without a navy, they could apply only commercial and diplomatic pressure against the much stronger country.
When Britain and France went to war in 1793, Britain immediately declared that it would seize any cargoes sailing from enemy ports. American shippers challenged this policy. They argued that as neutrals, American merchants had the right to trade with both sides and so, American ships had the right to carry the goods of both France and Britain without fear of interference.
But Britain, knowing it possessed far greater commercial and naval power, rejected this argument. It invoked the "rule of '56," which declared that ports closed to a country in peacetime couldn't be opened during times of war.
In other words, France couldn't open its colonial ports, previously closed to American commerce, during the current conflict. Therefore, any American ships sailing from French ports should expect to be intercepted by the Royal Navy, their cargoes subject to seizure and auction.
In 1798, Britain formally revised this position and invoked the less stringent rule of the "broken voyage." This allowed American ships to carry cargoes unmolested between French ports so long as they made an intermediate stop at an American port. An American ship, for example, would be allowed to carry goods from French Martinique to France itself as long as it stopped in Boston along the way.
In 1805, however, Britain revoked this rule, bringing French-American trade to an abrupt halt. Basically, in 1805, Britain all but reversed the maritime policy it had pursued since 1798. But beneath this reversal lay a more fundamental consistency, traceable to the position staked out in 1783: Britain possessed the commercial and naval power to dictate policy to the weaker Americans.
Similarly, in the years leading up to the War of 1812, Britain claimed a right of impressment—the right to board the ships of any nation that might be harboring fugitives from the British Navy, whether they be deserters or British citizens dodging naval service—and press them into service.
Americans vehemently protested this practice. Occasionally, innocent American citizens were apprehended in these raids and forced to serve in the Royal Navy. More fundamentally, Britain's interception and searching of American ships represented a flagrant disrespect for American sovereignty, an outrageous act of international bullying on the high seas. But the British repeatedly refused to budge on the practice. They claimed that impressment was essential to national security—rooted in their right to national preservation.
And here again, whatever the merits of the particular claims may have been, they underscored a simpler reality: Great Britain had the power to enforce its will, regardless of all questions of equity and justice.
The policies of Jefferson and Madison also passed through a number of variations after 1801.
In 1807, hoping to pressure both Britain and France to revise their hostile policies toward American shipping, Jefferson secured from Congress a radical embargo against all foreign trade. Under the embargo, American ships were allowed to engage in the coastal trade, but they weren't allowed to trade overseas.
When the embargo proved more damaging to the American economy than either the British or French, it was replaced with the Non-Intercourse Act. This new measure allowed Americans to trade with all countries except Britain and France, and it authorized the president to restore trade with either belligerent if it ended its maritime harassment.
But while the two restrictive trade measures were different in their details, they both followed the course set in 1801—the decision made by Jefferson and Madison that British infringements on American commerce should be resisted, and given the undesirability of building and maintaining a large navy, that resistance should come from commercial and diplomatic means.
By 1810, therefore, James Madison had lived through almost 30 years of British commercial manipulation and maritime disrespect for American rights. And he'd struggled for just as long to find a workable policy of commercial pressure that the United States could apply to bring about a change in British policy.
He was growing impatient.
He was also increasingly concerned about the premises underlying British bullying. When the British restricted access to their ports in 1783, arguing that Canada and Ireland would soon displace America as a provider of wheat, fish and timber, Madison scoffed. These territories could never fill the markets Americans now served.
And for a while, he seemed to be correct. Far from providing the foodstuffs needed on West Indian plantations, Canada was forced to import food, on occasion, from the United States.
But by 1808, the trade stats were telling a different story. Assisted by British tariffs on foreign lumber, the Canadian timber industry exploded between 1808 and 1812. Canadian agricultural production increased as well. And the growth in both industries encouraged migration from Britain—and America—into southern Canada. The number of ships sailing out of Quebec carrying Canadian goods increased 500% during these years.
And West Indian planters, who'd earlier complained that Canada's snow-filled plains could never meet their needs, found themselves eating Canadian wheat, beef, and...crow.
In other words, the British Empire's prediction of economic self-sufficiency was looking far more reasonable by 1810 than it had looked a decade earlier. If Madison didn't act soon, and apply more rigorous measures against the British now, the window of opportunity for gaining concessions through commercial pressure would close forever.
And if Madison's ultimatum to the British led to war? Well, perhaps it wasn't the worst time to challenge the mother country.
At the moment, the great bulk of the British army and navy was tied down in Europe, fighting a brutal war against Napoleon's France. Napoleon's army controlled most of the European continent and he'd assembled a 700,000-man army for an invasion of Russia.
French aggression threatened the entire European balance of power. All Madison wanted was the right to trade freely and the respect owed to the United States as an independent nation. He sought neither territory nor conquest but only recognition from Britain that America wasn't some sort of dependent vassal state.
Wouldn't it be in Britain's best interest to make this comparatively minor concession to the United States rather than risk a prolonged war? Wouldn't Britain be willing to negotiate rather than have to deploy valuable ships and troops thousands of miles away from the European theater?
So, was James Madison right in his strategic thinking? Yes and no.
Madison was wrong to believe that the British would rush to negotiate with him. Britain's Orders in Council ruling American trade subject to seizure were withdrawn on June 23rd, 1812, just days after the United States declared war on June 18th (and before news of the declaration reached London).
But this British concession didn't represent a real change in Britain's long-term policy. Madison learned this when he rushed off a delegation to London upon hearing of the repeal. While the orders had been "suspended," British officials told the American diplomats, they retained the right to restore them if necessary.
And perhaps most telling, the British refused to budge on the issue of impressment. They would continue to intercept and search American ships for fugitives from the British Navy, ignoring American claims of sovereignty.
Nor was Britain all that willing to negotiate once the actual fighting began. Reinforced in their confidence by early military success, the British refused Tsar Alexander I's invitation to mediate in 1813.
Madison was right, though, to calculate that Britain would be unwilling to divert a significant portion of its army from the European war. But American military incompetence made major British troop redeployments unnecessary. And consequently, Britain's commitment to a hard diplomatic line only strengthened over the first two years of the war.
Ironically, and fortunately, Madison was also wrong about the impact of the European war on the American contest. When Napoleon was forced to abdicate and France accepted a peace treaty on British terms in 1814, the British didn't rush their newly available forces to America. The end of the European conflict actually strengthened the desire within Britain for a more complete end to more than two decades of war.
And so British diplomats, for the first time, softened their demands, allowing for the negotiation of a cease-fire late in 1814.
Finally, Madison was wrong to think that war might be more successful than commercial pressure in bringing about a change in British policy. The negotiations that ended the War of 1812 said nothing about the substantive issues that had caused it. The Treaty of Ghent didn't address British commercial policies, impressment, or the rights of neutral nations.
And in fact, within a year, the United States and Great Britain were back to arguing about trade restrictions and access to markets. These arguments would continue for over a decade, not really being resolved until many of the particular issues faded from significance. By 1830, the West Indies were far less important to American exporters than new markets in Latin America.
Also by 1830, Britain's commitment to mercantilism had been replaced by support for free trade as Britain's old belief that national strength depended on the maintenance of a self-contained empire yielded to new ideas emphasizing the benefits offered all nations through participation in unrestricted international commerce.
And so, the Anglo-American conflicts that sparked the War of 1812 died of old age, not in battle.
In order to understand the origins of the War of 1812, and the reasons why many historians have labeled the war both unnecessary and inconsequential, this diplomatic history is essential.
But the war's importance went far beyond this diplomatic story, obvi. Inconclusive as it may have been diplomatically, the war had a tremendous impact on American political development, territorial expansion, and national identity.