America’s first declared war was fought almost entirely in James Madison’s second term. Would the Republicans look like heroes? Or would they be remembered as the idiots who got us into the country’s most boring war?
The Last Four Years
A lot of people expected the War of 1812 to be literal – a war that lasted only a year. But it wasn’t as easy as they expected. Several issues weighed down the war effort. For one, there was a lot less enthusiasm for the war in the north, where patriotism was needed the most. New England was the last stronghold of Federalist support, and they didn’t care for “Madison’s war.” Despite their closeness to British Canada, the northern states weren’t eager to send troops or money. Second, the Canadians didn’t actually want to become part of America. This was our first instance of finding out that the nation we were liberating didn’t want us to be there! (lesson not learned) Lastly, in accordance with their small-government principles, Presidents Jefferson and Madison had done their best to reduce government income, meaning a reduction in the size of the military. America had a lot less military resources than Britain, and we hadn’t done ourselves any favors.
The war got off to a rough start, but we had one huge advantage, Britain was also fighting Napoleon in Europe. They couldn’t devote enough time and effort needed to crush the Americans. After struggling in the Northwest Territories (near what is now Detroit and Chicago), the US caught a break with the successful defense of Lake Erie. A month later, we won again with the defeat of Tecumseh, whose Native American confederacy had been supplied weapons by the British. The lowest point for the US, however, was the infamous burning of Washington, DC. British ships made their way through the Chesapeake Bay and into the city. As you may know, First Lady Dolley Madison, along with staff and slaves, saved this portrait of George Washington from the flames.
But as the Napoleonic Wars neared their end, the British public’s support for the war in America was fading. Both sides were feeling the economic costs of war. Looking for a way out, America and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent at the end of 1814, which… really didn’t change anything at all. The original causes for the war were essentially ignored. The practice of impressment ended naturally with the end of the European wars, and no territory changed hands. No one really got what they wanted. But hey, a tie isn’t a loss!
With the war over, Madison went after the last enemy, the Federalists. Surprisingly, he adopted many of their large-government positions in order to win over the last of their supporters. The most notable of these were the founding the Second National Bank and the passing of tariffs that helped American merchants. It was one of the most productive congressional years of all time.
Famous Things Pause!
Even though the War of 1812 was pretty boring, overall, here are a few things/people that earned their fame because of it!
USS Constitution was built to fight pirates in the 1790s and is the oldest commissioned navy vessel still afloat! It won the nickname “Old Ironsides” after an intense battle with the HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812. It’s hull was so strong that the crew claimed it was made of iron. The Guerriere left the battle so damaged, it was determined to not be worth saving, while the Constitution made a ceremonious return to Boston.
The Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key during the Battle of Baltimore, which followed after the burning of Washington, DC. Key was part of a mission to exchange prisoners with the British ships. Because he had heard part of the British military strategy for the battle, he was kept hostage overnight until the bombardment of Fort McHenry was over (notably, one of the ships involved was the HMS Terror). He didn’t know the outcome of the battle until he saw the American flag flying over the fort the next morning. The sight inspired him to write the poem, “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” which was put to music soon after by his brother-in-law. It became a popular military song by the end of the Nineteenth Century, but wasn’t made the official national anthem until 1931.
Future (short-serving) President William Henry Harrison earned his nickname, “Old Tippecanoe,” through his military victory against the Native American resistance near the Tippecanoe River in 1811. He played a pivotal role in the Northwest Territories during the war and defeated the Native American leader, Tecumseh, at the Battle of the Thames.
Another future president, Andrew Jackson, was in charge of defending New Orleans at the end of the war. He also earned a nickname, “Old Hickory,” due to his famous toughness. Jackson’s army of only 5,000 men held off a British force double its size. It was the final major battle of the war, (technically taking place AFTER the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, but they didn’t have the internet back then so they didn’t know that yet) and was a huuuge victory for America. It was a major factor in the post-war patriotism that swept the nation.
Even though the War of 1812 didn’t yield any real changes, the American public felt like they had won a second war of independence. Which wasn’t entirely wrong. In a way, the end of the war meant that Britain recognized America as a legitimate and equal player on the world stage. As we know now, the US has avoided war with them since. Patriotism was high and anyone who didn’t support the war now looked like an idiot.
Madison’s embrace of the Federalist agenda meant that all viewpoints were covered under the umbrella of the Democratic-Republicans. To make matters worse, the Federalists held the Hartford Convention towards the end of the war. The convention was an anti-war group that aimed to limit the south’s power. While it wasn’t an official position, some of the attendees called for New England to secede from the Union. Because of this, the Federalists were pigeon-holed into being the unpatriotic, anti-war party. When the war was over and “won,” they just looked like assholes.
The obvious choice for next in line to Madison was Secretary of State James Monroe. But he wasn’t without competition in the Republican party. Many also supported Secretary of War William Crawford, hoping (again) that it was time to end the Virginian presidential dynasty. But Crawford never formally announced his candidacy, as Monroe had earned the endorsement of Presidents Jefferson and Madison, cementing his nomination for the Republicans.
James Monroe was another founding father with a long resume that seemed destined for the job. He served in the Revolutionary War and was active in Virginia politics, eventually becoming their governor. Like Madison, he had helped secure the Louisiana Purchase. As Jefferson’s Ambassador to Britain, however, he became an intra-party critic of the administration when his treaty (that could have prevented the War of 1812) went unapproved. The rough patch was mended when Madison appointed him as Secretary of State. Monroe’s running mate was Daniel D. Tompkins, the governor of New York, who had played a pivotal role in building a militia during the war.
[Spoiler] The Federalists were already in defeatist mode. They did not hold a nominating caucus and simply defaulted to Rufus King, who had been a write-in candidate for Federalists that couldn’t stomach DeWitt Clinton’s split ticket four years earlier. King was one of the last prominent Federalists. Originally from Maine (then part of Massachusetts), he had served as a senator for New York and as a diplomat with Britain. The Federalist VP pick was John Eager Howard, a former senator from Maryland that wasn’t actually that interested in political life anymore. They knew what was coming.
The path to victory was clear for Monroe. Only a few Federalist strongholds in the north were preventing him from a shutout. To make the point clear, though, Congress agreed to let the newly admitted state of Indiana cast presidential elector votes in February, even though it earned its statehood a week after the actual election occurred two months earlier!
James Monroe won! It was another landslide for the Republicans. The final score was 183 electors to 34. Monroe became the fifth president, the fourth from Virginia, and the third Republican in a row.
What Did It Say About America?
It was time for the Era of Good Feelings! America “won” the War of 1812, and it was going to keep on winning! No need for the bummer of a two-party system! With this fifth and final defeat, Rufus King became the last Federalist to run for president.
Was It The Right Decision?
Not really a choice here, so gonna go with yes, with the eternal caveat that King was tougher against slavery than Monroe. But the Federalists didn’t really have a chance, at this point. It’s really difficult to imagine that there ever was a time of such unity in American history (post-George Washington). It’s also kind of crazy to learn exactly how much the Federalists fell apart nationally after Hamilton’s death. This was the final blow, and the beginning of the end for the first chapter in political party history.
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