Mr. Madison’s Weird War

Allyn Cox: British Burn the Capitol, 1814, a 1974 mural on the ceiling of the Hall of Capitols in the US Capitol, Washington, D.C.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is now upon us and most Americans don’t know what to do with the occasion, whether to celebrate it or simply disregard it. The war that began two hundred years ago was such a strange and partisan war and one that was waged so ineptly that the country may want to forget that it was ever fought. But historians are not going to allow us to ignore it completely. They are turning out a spate of studies of the war and of James Madison, the president who led the country into it.

Like so many of America’s wars, it was a “war of choice.” We initiated it. It was in fact the first time under the new federal Constitution that Congress formally issued a declaration of war. Unfortunately, since World War II we have fought five significant wars without any of them being formally declared.

From the outset the War of 1812 was peculiar. First of all, it was a small war within a larger one, a sideshow for the British, who were engaged in a titanic two-decade-long struggle with France for supremacy in the Atlantic world. When the US Congress declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, the British were dismayed and bewildered, for at that moment they were desperately trying to head off a war they did not want.

In retrospect many historians have been equally bewildered. The country’s professed reasons for going to war seemed to bear little relation to the interests of the states and the parts of the country that most eagerly wanted it. In his war message of June 1, 1812, President Madison declared that war was necessary because Great Britain was seizing American ships in violation of the right of a neutral nation to trade noncontraband goods with belligerents and more important, was stopping American ships and impressing American seamen, claiming they were deserters from the Royal Navy.

But if these were indeed the major reasons for going to war, why was it that the majority in Congress that voted for the war (79–49 in the House of Representatives and 19–13 in the Senate, the closest vote for a declaration of war in American history) came almost entirely from the sections of the country—the South and West—that owned few ships and were supposedly least affected by British impressment and the violations of America’s maritime rights? And why too did most of the congressional opponents of the war come from the section of the country, New England, that was most involved in overseas shipping and thus presumably most hurt by the British naval oppression? Representatives from Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee cast more votes for the war than those from the New…

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