Home / Articles / The Surprising Strategic Consequences of The War of 1812
Editor’s Note: On May 24, FPRI’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter McDougall discussed the 1812 war in the fifth annual Ginsburg-Satell Lecture on American Character and Identity at the Museum of the American Revolution. The lecture is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Stanley and Arlene Ginsburg Family Foundation and the Satell Family Foundation.
We’re so grateful of course for our longstanding partnership with FPRI. We have exciting things going on in the museum. I’m happy to report that visitors are coming back. School groups are filling our galleries once again, much to the chagrin of adults like myself who like a quieter vibe in the galleries. We’re very excited as we’re moving toward 2026, we are working on an incredible exhibition called, “The Declaration’s Journey,” which will explore the history of the Declaration of Independence and its influence over the quarter millennium since 1776, not just through American history but it’s continuing influence around the world, as well.
And I know that will be a fertile ground for collaboration with you all. A warm welcome to you all. I’m looking forward—what is this, number five in this series? Rollie, take it away.
Carol “Rollie” Flynn:
Thanks, Scott. And thanks for that welcome. And thank you and welcome to all of you and thanks for joining us tonight. We’re honored and delighted to feature the Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Walter McDougall, this evening. Talking about the War of 1812 and its strategic consequences. Walter has had a long association with FPRI. He’s the Chair of our Board of Advisors. He’s also the Chair of our America and the West Program. He was also a long serving editor, head editor of Orbis for many years. Before introducing Dr. McDougall, I would like to give a special thank you to the sponsors of the Ginsburg-Satell Lecture Series on the American Character and Identity. So that’s the Stanley and Arlene Ginsburg Family Foundation and the Satell Family Foundation. So with a personal thank you to Stanley and Arlene Ginsburg. And to Ed and Cyma Satell.
We’re truly grateful for their generosity and support of FPRI over the years. They’ve made this lecture series possible, and this, its fifth year. Today, this event is co-hosted by the Museum of the American Revolution. I’d also to thank Scott Stevenson, who is the CEO and President of the museum, as well as his extraordinary staff, who’ve been really terrific help in helping us organize this event and make it possible. I’d also like to thank our board and partners, many of whom are here tonight who have generously supported us for years. And we’re so grateful to have you here.
This annual lecture series is always a special occasion. I say that every year and I mean it every year. It is just great to have Walter here. As you’ll see, these lectures are really extraordinary. Last year, he talked about Steven Gerard, someone not being a Philadelphian I had really not known much about, and it was pretty extraordinary story and had a connection to the War of 1812 that many of us, I think, did not realize. At FPRI, as I mentioned, Walter McDougall has had a long association. And a little bit on his background. He is the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His honors include a Pulitzer Prize, election to the Society of American Historians, an appointment to the Library of Congress Council of Scholars.
After service in the US army artillery during the Vietnam War, Dr. McDougall took a PhD under world historian, William H. McNeil at the University of Chicago. Following year, he was hired by the University of California, Berkeley, and taught there until 1988 when he was offered the Chair at Penn. He’s a prolific author. I won’t list everything he’s written here, but his articles and columns have appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times commentary and other national publications. His books include France’s Rhineland Diplomacy 1914-1924: The Last Bid for a Balance of Power in Europe and The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to McArthur. Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter With the World Since 1776. Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History, 1585-1828. Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877, which was chosen by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia as the best book of the year by a local author.
His latest book, The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest has merited national attention in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and Liberty and Law. Before turning the floor over to Walter McDougall, I would like to just let you know that he’s going to speak for approximately 70 minutes, and then we’ll be taking questions from the audience, including our audience at home. So please put your questions in the Q and A for those of you listening in on Zoom. So without further ado, let me turn the floor over.
Walter A. McDougall:
Thank you very much, Rollie. It’s great to be able to see some old friends that I haven’t laid eyes on in over two years. I’m delighted that FPRI is getting back into the in-person event business. Let me begin with a quote. “Britain and the United States are destined to become the dominant nations of Christendom. Each an encumbrance to the other when united, their severance seems to be the signal for unequal progress and boundless prospects for each. Not only in material dominion but also the glory of broadening the empire of rational thought throughout the whole world.” Wow. So wrote Richard Rush the American Minister to the British government in 1820. And so did a historian Bradford Perkins begin his book on the War of 1812. According to Perkins, the cause of that conflict was simple, “America chose to stay neutral while the British were struggling for their lives against Napoleon.”
Indeed, the wars of the French Revolution were an existential struggle for Britain. They lasted 23 years, claimed 300,000 British lives and cost more than one billion Pounds Sterling. At various stages in the wars Britain allied with Austria, Russia, Prussia and Spain, subsidized seven coalitions, and in the end had to defeat Napoleon twice because as you know, he escaped from exile on the Island of Elba in 1815 and tried to start all over again. But during the climactic years of that world war, the British landed in another conflict that would determine the future of North America. Yet most American historians who tend to focus myopically on their own country often fail to understand this critical war, which while today, assuming the conflict is even taught in schools anymore, it’s usually dismissed as a mistake. After all, the Congress declared the War of 1812 only after several weeks after the British had rescinded the ostensible casus belli. News hadn’t come across the ocean yet.
Then the war was fought to a draw. Then it climaxed in an anodyne treaty, which simply restored the status quo antebellum. And then an anticlimax in the battle of New Orleans, which was fought two weeks after the peace treaty had been signed over in Europe. In short, a war, so apparently meaningless, has to be named for nothing but the year in which it began.
Theodore Roosevelt, who was a serious amateur historian in his youth once wrote a history of the war of 1812. And he expressed the conventional wisdom that quote, “The battle of New Orleans was a perfectly useless shedding of blood since the piece had already been signed.”
Well, that so-called wisdom is still conventional today as demonstrated by the books recently published around the year 2012, The Wars by Centennial. But the most erroneous feature of the historiography is that so few authors have posed the simple counterfactual, what if the British had won the battle of New Orleans?
Where’s my clicker? There we are.
The last year, as Rollie mentioned, the Ginsburg-Satell Lecture addressed the remarkable career of Steven Gerard, the Philadelphia merchant, philanthropist, and patriot whose financial support enabled President James Madison’s administration to wage the War of 1812. But last year I had little to say about the war itself, which contrary to myth proved to be critical for America and Britain alike. The place to begin our story is 1789, the year George Washington was inaugurated as president and the year the French Revolution erupted. When that revolution eventuated in a European war, Washington wisely proclaimed neutrality in 1793, but the United States could hardly be unaffected for the simple reason that the new nation was anything but isolated. Britain ruled Canada, Spain ruled Florida and Mexico as you can see in the mat there in yellow.
Various European countries had island colonies in the Caribbean and the Spanish, French and British Navies contested the Atlantic ocean. America had no Navy at the beginning. Moreover, domestic politics quickly became shaped by the wars because the first political party system evolved in the 1790s and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party favored the French. While Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party favored the British. While Washington did his best to hold these rival factions together. And he did it through some prudent maneuver. In 1793 at the height of the reign of terror in France, the French Republic had sent a diplomat, the citoyen, everybody called themselves citizens in the French revolution, citoyen, Edmund Janay to America, with orders to propagandize on behalf of the revolution and to conspire against US neutrality, to try to stir up the Jeffersonians, to in effect rebel against Washington’s neutrality policy and oblige the US to enter the war on France’s side.
Janay behaved so egregiously that President Washington demanded his recall. Then the following year when French and British warships began to interfere with neutral shipping bound for Europe, Washington dispatched to John Jay to London with orders to try to negotiate a free trade treaty with Britain. He succeeded, but the Democratic-Republicans in the Senate stalled the ratification of the treaty. Oh, you’re tilting toward great Britain until a scandal occurred. A British ship captured documents which strongly suggested that the secretary of state Edmund Randolph, who was a Jeffersonian, had been betraying American secrets to the French Republic. Then the Jay treaty barely got through the Senate to the two-thirds vote. Well, such domestic discord and foreign meddling in American politics inspired Washington’s famous farewell address in 1796. That was the speech in which he warned against the insidious wilds of foreign influence and stressed the prudence of steering clear of all foreign alliances except in emergencies. Well, following the Jay treaty, it did look like the United States was now tilting, at least in commercial matters toward the British, the French escalated their war on American commerce. And the French Quasi-War as it was called obliged to President John Adams to complete the Naval program that begun under Washington and to put the ships to sea, to defend American shipping. Well, this brusk American response paid dividends. The French themselves began to lose so many ships that the foreign minister, the mark was to Talleyrand, sought a truce. The result was the convention of Mortefontaine, a little known diplomatic agreement, but a very important one in the year 1800. It ended the quasi-war and also ended the still on the books of Franco-American Treaty, which had dated from 1778. When, the French kingdom at that point had helped the Americans win their independence.
But unbeknownst to the Americans, the duplicitous Talleyrand was laying the groundwork for a far more dangerous scheme. It seemed that Napoleon who had by then imposed a military dictatorship over the French Republic meant to reacquire the vast Louisiana territory west of the Mississippi River. Now French explorers had first claimed Louisiana for, for Louis the 14th back in the 17th century, but the French had lost Louisiana in the treaty, which ended the last French and Indian war in 1763, that treaty had awarded Louisiana to Spain. Now Napoleon was determined to rent it back. And so the very day after the convention of Mortefontaine was signed, Talleyrand made another treaty. The treaty of San Ildefonso, with Spain. In which King Carlos the fourth, retro seated Louisiana to France in exchange for the Italian province of Tuscany. I tempted to say that the King Carlos got the better of the deal.
Well, now that same fall, Thomas Jefferson was narrowly elected president and his magnificent inaugural address, assured Americans, we are still unified. “We are all Federalists.” He said, “We are all Republicans.” And he reaffirmed Washington’s great rule with his ringing phrase, no entangling alliances. But Jefferson being a Democratic Republican had a vision of America, very different from for instance, Alexander Hamilton’s or George Washington’s. Jefferson imagined the United States developing as an agricultural nation with commerce merely as its hand maiden. Jefferson spurned all concentrations of power. He favored small government, low taxes, and only a token military establishment. And yet just a few years into his term, this retrocession of Louisiana troubled him greatly. In April 1802, Jefferson wrote the US minister in Paris to the effect, “Every eye in the United States is now fixed on this affair of Louisiana. Perhaps nothing since the revolutionary war has produced more uneasy sensations through the body of the nation.”
Well not no surprise there. Imagine having Napoleon for your neighbor. That was so alarming. Jefferson even feared the United States might even have to make an Alliance with Britain to resist. Well later that year, the plot thickened. When the French and the British signed the Peace of Amiens, the only truce in their 23 years of war. Napoleon took advantage of the truce to dispatch a fleet and army to the French Caribbean colony of San Domain. The present-day country of Haiti. Napoleon’s purpose was to crush a revolt of enslaved Africans there, and then use the island as a base from which to colonize New Orleans. Jefferson wrote again, “France possessing itself of Louisiana is the embryo of a tornado, such that every eye in the United States is now fixed on this affair of Louisiana.” Well, luckily for the president, Napoleon’s campaign aborted. When a yellow fever epidemic devastated his army in Haiti, even as Napoleon’s own continued mischief in Europe provoked the British into resuming the war. And so it was in April 1803, Bonaparte, flipped the script. Rather than suffer the Royal Navy to occupy New Orleans as a spoil of war. Napoleon decided to sell Louisiana to the United States. “I know full well the value of the province.” He said, “And there have been desires of repairing the fault of those French negotiators who lost it in 1763, but now alas I must expect to lose it again. The English already have 20 ships of the line in the Gulf of Mexico. And the conquest of New Orleans would be easy for them, but they shall not have what they covet.”
The same thought had occurred to Jefferson who dispatched James Monroe and Robert Livingston to France in hopes of purchasing New Orleans. Imagine their surprise when Talleyrand offered to sell them all of Louisiana. Wow. The American Envoy eagerly exceeded their instructions, and drafted a treaty, which seated 828,000 square miles to the US in exchange for just 15 million.
The Senate approved the treaty 24-7, but the appropriation of the money in the house of representatives passed by only two votes because some Republicans and nearly all Federalists thought the purchase was unconstitutional. And yet the Louisiana purchase, as you can see doubled the size of the United States. Well, the French retreat from America might have pleased the British government, if it had not harbored its own ambitions for Louisiana. The official position taken by London was that Napoleon had coerced the Spaniards to cede Louisiana, which in turn made the United States a receiver of stolen goods.
But with the total war resuming in Europe, there was nothing the British could do about it for the time being. Indeed nine years later, well Prime Minister Pit and Napoleon carve up the world there you see on the cartoon, the United States Congress would confer statehood on the Southern portion of Louisiana early in the year of 1812. Despite the fact that its white population was still just 35,000. Meanwhile Jefferson’s luck continued to hold throughout his first term because American merchants were making windfall profits selling to both sides in the European war. The US merchant fleet doubled in size between 1793 and 1807. And in its volume of trade sextuple. The US was indeed fast becoming the principle challenger to Britain’s commercial supremacy and were still for the British United States was aiding and abetting Napoleon’s empire by trading with it. And that is why the Royal Navy began to seize American ships by the hundreds. In the year 1805, abruptly ending the Yankee profiteering. Adding insult to injury, the British would board American ships to impress sailors suspected of having deserted from the Royal Navy.
This impressment was a practice which American diplomat, John Quincy Adams denounced, as authorized kidnapping accordingly. Jefferson’s second term proved a disaster. 1805 also confirmed the Napoleonic wars as a stalemate between the whale and the elephant. In October Admiral Horacio Nelson’s British fleet, destroyed the French and Spanish Navies in the battle of Trafalgar. But in December Napoleon’s invincible army defeated the Austrian and the Russians in the battle of Austerlitz. With the war at an impasse, both of French and the British resorted to economic warfare.
Napoleon issued the Berlin decrees, which forbid continental Europeans from importing British goods, no matter which nations ships carried them. The British retaliated with their orders in council which forbid neutral ships, like the Americans, from trading with any continental ports. And especially humiliating incident occurred in June of 1807. When His Majesty’s Ship Leopard fired on the USS Chesapeake, killing three sailors and wounding 18. The British then boarded the American frigate and impressed several American sailors, which they claimed were really British deserters. Well, Congress demanded vengeance, but Jefferson lolled the war. And in any event had mothballed the Navy and reduced the army to just a few frontier forts. So he couldn’t have waged war in any event. Instead, Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison, reckoned that a complete cessation of American trade with Britain might bring pressure to bear on the most influential members of the Parliament, the merchant lobby.
British merchants were being hurt by the British orders and council, as much as American merchants were. They wanted to resume American trade. And so Jefferson and Madison said, we’ll just cut off all trade with Great Britain. And that will pressure you people to pressure the government, to restore. Accordingly, Jefferson’s pliable majority in the Congress, passed the embargo act in December of 1807. The unbelievable both for constitutional and Prudential reasons. The unbelievable embargo act. It began what Federalists had always feared, a Democratic-Republican reign of terror against property. Now imagine yourself, a farmer, a horse breeder, a plantation owner, a fisherman, merchant, sailor, or chandler, suddenly your own government has made it illegal for you to make a living dependent in any way on foreign markets.
Even as, the resulting oversupply of commodities drove domestic prices through the floor. Yankee traders were ruined. Pennsylvania farmers saw the price of grain fall by 50 percent. Southern tobacco and rice planters saw their produce pile up on the [inaudible], even as they still had 400,000 slaved enslaved laborers that they had to feed. Well now surprising hustling Americans began to cheat. Merchants smuggled wagons into Canada, ship captains sneaked out of port by night or else they claimed to be sailing for domestic ports when they really were going to bolt for Europe. So the angry president ran through Congress, laws which granted him arbitrary powers to enforce the embargo. One irate Yankee wrote to the White House, “Thomas Jefferson, you are the God damnedest dog God ever made. God damn you.”
The late 19th century historian Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams, later judged that American liberties and property rights were more directly curtailed by Jefferson’s embargo than they were by the British blockade. While the presidential exercise of arbitrary powers probably violated the 4th Amendment’s ban on a reasonable search and seizure. But Adams also observed that no episode in American history had been, “more touching than the devotion with which Virginians drained the poison, which their own president held abstinently to their lips.” Yet so fine tuned was his party’s machine that Jefferson’s protege Madison won the presidency in 1808. He replaced the embargo as Americans called it with a non intercourse act, which banned commerce with Britain and or with France so long as they maintained their respective blockades. Well, they did by 1812, the British had seized 389 American vessels and the French 468.
Well Madison [inaudible] war, as much as Jefferson, but the American grievances multiplied until a Bella coast faction of self-described war hawks took control of the Congress in 1812, led by South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun and Kentucky’s Henry Clay. These Southern and Western representatives had ulterior motives for promoting a war against Britain. For during these years, Native American resistance to white settlement on the frontier had grown intolerable and many suspected the British of arming, the hostile tribes from their forts around the great lakes. The department of Indian affairs reported new waves of violence, especially following the organization of an Alliance of hostile tribes by the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. In November 1811, some 500 warriors had attacked Indiana’s militia at Tippa Canoe, killing or wounding 188 Americans. War hawks figured the least their government could do was to break this Indian resistance, while the most it could do was to drive the British out of Canada once and for all.
Had not Jefferson himself said, “the conquest of Canada would be just a matter of marching.” Well, by the time Congress convened in 1812, a dissident John Randolph of Roanoke declared that whereas the war hawks claimed to be defending maritime rights. “We have heard, but one word like the whippoorwill’s monotonous tone. It is Canada, Canada, Canada.” President Madison never explicitly called for a war, but his message to Congress implied that the British were already waging war against the US. “We have been so long dealing in small ways of embargoes, non-intercourse, non-importation that the British government has not believed us. The British prefer war to a repeal of their orders and council. We have nothing left therefore than to make ready for it.”
Then a strange turn of events occurred over in London. In May of 1812, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, the very author of those hated orders in council was assassinated. A month passed before the Prince Regent, the future King George The Fourth, appointed a new cabinet under Robert Jenkinson, the Second Earl of Liverpool. Who’s very first act in office was to please British merchants and manufacturers and appease the United States by repealing the orders in council. But of course it took six to eight weeks for news to travel across the Atlantic Ocean and so the members of Congress, the war hawks hadn’t heard of this British decision, didn’t hear of this decision until August the 12th, which was six weeks after the Congress had voted to declare war.
Now historians to this day debate the motives for the war of 1812, because Madison, even though he implied the war was about British restrictions on trade and impressment of sailors. Most of the congressmen representing the commercial Northeast, the New England and middle Atlantic states who were most hurt by the orders in council. Most of them plus every Federalist in the Congress voted nay, voted against the war. And so the declaration of war passed 79 to 49 in the house. And 19 to 13 in the Senate solely on the strength of democratic Republican votes, which suggested strongly that party politics was a primary motive for the war and the conquest of Canada was the ulterior motive.
Well, what happened when news of the British orders in council did reach America, did Madison ask Congress to rescind its declaration of war? He did not. Even Jefferson now declared, once the sword is drawn, full justice must be done. And for that matter, neither did the British war hawks, neither did the British cabinet seek to terminate this apparently accidental conflict because Liverpool’s cabinet, you see in there on the left with his secretary of war, foreign secretary and of course the great Duke of Wellington. Liverpool’s cabinet had war aims of its own, including the creation of a native American buffer state in the upper, in the great lakes region, under British protection, a great Indian Confederation that would effectively block future American frontier expansion.
Moreover British opinion in these latter stages of other Napoleonic Wars had turned bitterly against the Americans. And so when the American diplomat in London having received news of Congress’ declaration of war asked his British hosts, whether their governments should now restore peace, Viscount Castlereagh, the foreign minister said no, while Prime Minister Liverpool damned America for, “having betrayed Britain, the guardian power to which she was indebted, not only for her comforts and rank in the scale of civilization, but for her very existence.”
In other words, the Americans were traitors for betraying their Anglophone parents really in the British Isles who were fighting for the freedom of the world against the dictator Napoleon. And so the truth was both parties willingly accepted the war of 1812. Still, Britain’s top priority was always the war in Europe, especially during Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, Czar Alexander The First, even offered to mediate Anglo-American peace talks, [inaudible] his British allies be distracted from the European theater. President Madison was willing to sound out his options. And so he sent envoys, Albert Gallatin and James Bayard on the long voyage to St. Petersburg, only to learn upon their arrival the British had refused to Russian mediation. And in any case demanded terms, “consistent with the maritime rights of the British empire”, which included impressment. Secretary of state Monroe in turn insisted, the United States would negotiate only on the basis of reciprocity and sovereign rights.
And so during the first year of the Anglo-American hostilities, the Royal Navy remained heavily engaged against the French in the Baltic and the Mediterranean seas while the British army was heavily engaged in Spain’s Peninsular War against the French occupation. So the Liverpool government could dispatch only token forces to America. During those early months, the British were also dismayed by a series of Yankee Naval victories, such as that, of the USS Constitution, the famous ship that would become known as Old Ironsides over his majesty ship, Guerriere. But, and it was not until the end of 1813 that the Royal Navy began to Mount an effective blockade of American shores.
The second theater of war, you can see there on the map was around the great lakes where American militias, foolishly expected to march to Canada unconquered, defeating whatever British regular soldiers happened to be stationed in those forts. General William Hall, who coincidentally was the uncle of Captain Isaac Hall, the commander of the USS Constitution, General William Hall failed to defeat Tecumseh’s Indian Confederation. And he even had to surrender the Fort of Detroit to the red coats. Another fiasco be failed the New York militia man who tried to invade Canada via Niagara.
So the war began with the exception of a few Naval victories, very badly for the United States. And it was in November of 1812, of course, that Americans staged their first presidential election during war time. And Madison handily won re-election. So secure was the democratic Republican grip on national politics, but Madison began his second term by cleaning house. He accepted the resignations of the secretary of war and the secretary of the Navy and replaced them with John Armstrong and William Jones whose leadership enabled the United States war effort quickly to improve. Meanwhile, during that winter of 1812, 13, as you all know, Napoleon’s grand army disintegrated in the snows of Russia, battle casualties took their toll, famine, the frigid weather and a typhoid epidemic. I don’t know if you’re aware of that, but Napoleon’s army was obliterated by a typhoid epidemic. The emperor fled back to France, quickly raised a new army and managed in 1813 to fight the allied powers to withdraw in Germany.
And so the British continued to deploy nearly all of their armed forces in the European theater. And that enabled the now energized American forces under their new leadership to win a series of victories. The Americans defeated the red coats in a series of battles around Lake Erie. You see there all the battles, circling the lake of the lake, thanks to the leadership primarily of the Naval commander, Oliver Hazard Perry. Next American soldiers led by William Henry Harrison, recaptured Detroit, and defeated the British and the Indians in the Battle of the Thames. There’s a city in Ontario. I mean a river in Ontario named after the Thames of London. And it was in that battle that they famously killed Tecumseh, but the theater in which American frontiersmen and regulars won their most decisive victories was the deep south.
The British had occupied forts at Pensacola, Mobile and Biloxi from which they supplied arms, ammunition and encouragement to belligerent Indian tribes, especially the fearsome red sticks. The bloodiest predation they committed was the August, 1813 massacre at Fort Mims. Where some 400 American men, women and children were scalped. The governor of Tennessee called for 5,000 militia men under Colonel Andrew Jackson to resist. And those Tennessee volunteers managed to trap the red sticks in an Oxbow. You see it there a map on the upper right of the Tallapoosa River, Tallapoosa River and inflicted more than a thousand casualties on the Indians at a cost of just 200 of their own, that crushing victory at horseshoe bend would eventually open up nearly all of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to white settlement. But over those same months, the British armed forces were finally being freed up due to the victories achieved by their European allies over Napoleons now dwindling army, where upon Liverpool dispatched foreign secretary Castlereagh to the continent to confer with the [inaudible] Austrian and the Russians on the peace treaty they would eventually make. And when the allied armies resumed their advance early that spring, French resistance dissolved and Napoleon abdicated on April 6th. Castlereagh remained on the continent to begin the enormous task of putting the European Humpty Dumpty back together again, which meant the American war became the responsibility solely of Liverpool and his secretary of war Henry Bathhurst. The latter boasted of his intention, “to destroy and lay waste the principle towns and cities as saleable either by land or sea forces.” He specifically targeted Baltimore, Washington, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, whose future now returned to the front burner on Britain’s very hot stove.
Bathhurst shifted British Naval and military forces to the new world, including 14,000 veterans of the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular army, the army which had fought in Spain. And so the war of 1812 ceased to be a sideshow for the British, if indeed it had ever been. Liverpool prepared, public opinion for the campaign, with some ferocious rhetoric, the Americans he proclaimed “mean to annihilate the British way of life. We ought to consider the United States are the wanton and bitter enemies of our own existence and treat them accordingly.” He and Bathhurst imagined that once in possession of the great lakes, the British could fashion a formidable Indian Confederation to blunt US expansion. They imagined that once in possession of the Hudson River Valley, the British could encourage [inaudible 00:46:04] New Englanders whose Federalist leaders were threatening to succeed from the union to escape Jimmy Madison’s war. Liverpool and Bathhurst also imagined that once in possession of New Orleans, the British could, “command all the rivers of the Mississippi valley and make the Americans prisoners in their own country.”
The officer put in command of the American station, Alexander Cochrane arrived, spitting venom. The Americans, he declared are, “a whining canting race, much like spaniels and who require the same whipping.” One of Admiral Cochrane’s first acts was to recruit 2000 Indians along the Gulf Coast to augment a British invasion and to quote, “give the Americans a good drubbing before peace is made.” Finally, elite opinion was expressed by the times in London, whose editorials bemoan the fact, to quote, “Mr. Madison’s dirky, swindling maneuvers in respect to Louisiana and the Floridas remain to be punished.” Why then, why did the British choose that moment to inform the state department they were, “willing to enter into discussion with the government of America, for the conciliatory adjustment of the differences subsisting between our two states.” That peace feeler would appear to be a contradiction, except for the fact that it soon became clear, the British were in no rush to make peace.
First, the British dithered over the site for the negotiations, insisting at first that they take place in London. Eventually, they would agree on a neutral site, the Flemish city of Ghent. Second Liverpool took his own good time choosing the British delegates. And third, once they were finally chosen, those diplomats were in no hurry to show up at Ghent. And that is why the Americans were left cooling their heels for a couple of months, two of those American delegates were the ones who had been sent to Russia. They had a long way to go. And then the other three, I had to see it across the Atlantic from the US. And yet they still had to wait weeks before the British finally showed up on August the 6th. Well Madison’s commissioners were a distinguished bipartisan group. They included the Delaware Federalist Bayard, the Pennsylvania Republican Gallatin, the Massachusetts Republican Jonathan Russell, the Massachusetts Federalist John Quincy Adams, and the Kentucky Republican Henry Clay.
The men differed as to goals and tactics, but they all honored their instructions from the secretary of state. They all meant to defend the American interest and they all distrusted their interlocutors. The British delegates by contrast were non-entities, precisely because Liverpool meant to micromanage those negotiations himself, his instructions, the prime minister’s instructions explicitly asked, “are we prepared to continue the war for territorial arrangements? If not, this is probably the best time to make peace, or is it desirable to take the chance of the military campaign and then to be governed by the results?”
Well, Liverpool certainly hoped for favorable territorial arrangements, given that those big British offenses were already underway and it soon became obvious that the British at Ghent meant to obfuscate and otherwise delay the negotiations. For instance, they drove the Americans nuts by repeatedly raising new points of contention, such as, oh, the rights of Indian tribes around the great lakes or fishing rights off the Canadian coast or title to the trivial Pasam Aquatic Islands in the bay of funding or Britain’s own claims for territorial adjustments, favoring Canada, such delaying tactics obliged the American delegates to request new instructions from the state department causing further delays.
And all the while, British armed forces were waging war [00:51:23], beginning with the amphibious assaults in the Chesapeake Bay. The red coats marched inland defeated a larger American force in the battle of Bladensburg, Maryland, and then occupied the capital at Washington City. They were amused to find President Madison and his entire household had been prepared to sit down to a banquet. When they heard the British were coming, they had to flee and so the British officers sat down to enjoy the feast of cells. They toasted themselves with Jimmy Madison’s wine after which they ordered their soldiers to burn the white house and the capital to the ground.
Well, the following month, the British famously failed to capture Baltimore’s Fort McHenry where the star-spangled banner still waved, but it mattered little because those attacks were really diversions. They were meant to draw American forces away from the real targets of British ambition on the great lakes in the north and the Gulf Coast ports in the south. Well, to their surprise the British were denied the decisive victories they expected. In September of 1814, the British attacked on lake Champlain intending to descend the Hudson River, but American soldiers and sailors on the lake routed the British at the Battle of Plattsburgh, New York. Yet setbacks in the north did not discourage Bathhurst and his field commanders from planning a far more ambitious southern campaign in hopes of seizing the Gulf Coast, whose greatest prize was the port of New Orleans. Now, the idea of a southern offensive had first been suggested back in November 1812 by Admiral Sir John Warren.
He had boasted that once in possession of the Mississippi River, once the British were in possession of the Mississippi, the westward growth of the United States would simply cease. The United States could never expand further west than in Mississippi. Moreover, the existing US states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio would be economically orphaned.
Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio would be economically orphaned if they were cut off from the river and the port. Now in 1814, Admiral Cochrane revived the plan and deployed 10,000 soldiers and sailors in hopes of pulling off a strategic coup.
Well, meanwhile, what was happening at Ghent? More palaver and more delays. For weeks, the British delegates pretended that the fate of those Northern Indians was their primary concern before abruptly dropping their demand for a Great Lakes Indian confederacy. Then on October the 8th, they introduced a new issue: the future of the Louisiana Purchase.
Recall that the British had never recognized Spain’s cession [00:55:00] of the province, and so considered the subsequent American purchase to be null and void. And two weeks after they introduced that issue, they fed the Americans another poison pill: offering to make peace on the basis of the legal principle, uti possidetis, which means essentially, as you possess, thus, may you possess. In short, the British were suggesting a ceasefire in place, at some point in the future, with each side, retaining possession of whatever territories their army had occupied. Well, given that those American victories in September had denied the British any significant American territory in the north, clearly it was obvious the British intended to conquer new territories in the south in the very near future.
Liverpool and Bathurst just then completed their plans for the Gulf coast invasion, an operation so important, they intended for the Duke of Wellington himself to take command. As it happened, Wellington preferred to accompany Castlereagh to the Congress of Vienna, where the great powers would hammer out the European peace. So instead, War Secretary Bathurst chose Wellington’s brother-in-law, General Sir Edward Pakenham, another hero of the Peninsular War in Spain, to lead the Gulf Coast exhibition.
Well on October the 24th, Bathurst drafted four orders for Pakenham. The first simply named him commander of all the soldiers on the Gulf Coast. The second instructed him to respect the lives and property of all peaceable residents in Louisiana and not to incite the black population to rise against their masters. Clearly, he hoped the inhabitants might peaceably acquiesce in our possession of the country. The fourth instruction told him how to distribute booty and prizes, but the third instruction, the third was a smoking gun.
Quote: “You may possibly hear whilst engaged in active operations that Preliminaries of Peace between His Majesty and the US have been signed in Europe and that they have been sent to America. Hostilities should not be suspended until you receive official information that The President has ratified the Treaty; and a British Person will be duly authorized to apprise you of this Event. Until then, the termination of the war must be considered as doubtful.” Unquote.
The War Secretary’s concluding sentence repeated that loaded instruction: “You will take special care not so to act under the expectation of hearing that the Treaty of Peace has been ratified,” unquote.
The evidence is circumstantial, but it is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that the British meant to occupy New Orleans, even if peace terms had already been agreed to at Ghent. Whether Liverpool had made any further plans for Louisiana is unknown, but it’s very telling that he appointed a team of British civil servants and their families to accompany the army to New Orleans, presumably to administer the province.
A final clue to British intentions is the fact that their delegates at Ghent abruptly dropped the principle of uti possidetis on October the 31st, substituting, instead the cryptic phrase “possessions belonging to either party and taken by the other.” They pretended this change had to do with those insignificant Passamaquoddy islands. But the change really had to do with Louisiana. Wellington himself confided to Liverpool a few weeks later, quote: “If you had territory, as I hope you soon will have in New Orleans, I should prefer to insist upon the cession of that province as a separate article, rather than upon the uti possidetis principle,” unquote.
John Quincy Adams smelled a rat. “I cannot but deeply distrust their intentions,” he wrote, “they cling to atoms, involving principles.”
Well, Andrew Jackson had spent the fall of 1814 marshaling militias and regular troops for the defense of Mobile, Alabama. But when he arrived there on November 11th, a letter awaited him from Governor William Claiborne of Louisiana. Rumors had reached the governor that New Orleans was to be the principal British target. And he was desperate to fortify his town, lest its motley population of Americans, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Indians, and enslaved Africans, either panicked or defected to the enemy. Claiborne had already written the governors of Tennessee and Kentucky begging for volunteers. Jackson also learned from his own intelligence agents that yes, New Orleans was to be the main British target. And so he led his soldiers on a forced march, which covered 230 miles, from Mobile to New Orleans, in just nine and a half days. The British fleet numbering 50 warships and transports was already at sea.
“Jackson has come! Jackson has come!” cried the jubilant residents of New Orleans on December the 4th.
He had indeed arrived in the nick of time and spent the next six days working from sunup to sundown, mustering men, mustering muskets, scrounging shells, and shot, and powder for his batteries, reconnoitering the ground and putting his men to work digging earthworks. The militias were a piebald mix, such that they even included some cutthroats from Caribbean pirate Jean Lafitte’s gang. The 5,700 mostly irregular soldiers on the US side would be outnumbered by 8,000 British regulars, British veterans, but Jackson had two advantages: his own charismatic leadership and some very favorable terrain.
The southern approaches to New Orleans were so pocked, are so pocked, by lakes and swamps that Jackson needed only defend a few narrow marches. In other words, the British attacks would be channeled, canceling out their manpower advantage. That diagram there displays this, but it’s not really large enough to show you the channeling. That’s the Mississippi River to the left, and that’s this terrible cypress swamp to the right. That means the British would have to march up this narrow corridor.
Meanwhile, 5,000 miles away, the commissioners at Ghent began to finalize a treaty. The British still tinkered with words, insisting, for instance, on deleting “taken by either party from the other” and inserting “belonging to either party and taken by the other,” all the while cloaking that what was really at issue was New Orleans. Otherwise the treaty merely restored the status quo antebellum and the commissioners signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814, and within a few days, the British Prince Regent ratified it. The Treaty then took ship for the United States where it would be beyond anybody’s knowledge for about six or seven weeks.
Well, why? Why did the British choose that moment to conclude peace? Why didn’t they just delay for a few more weeks until the battle of New Orleans was either fought or else called off? That is another mystery historians have been unable to solve, even if they ever asked themselves that question at all. But circumstantial evidence again suggests strongly that by December 1814, Liverpool really did want and perhaps even need to end the American war quickly. One reason, which probably did not force his hand was sheer war-weariness in Britain. A second reason which might have forced his hand was the terrible financial plight of the British Treasury after 23 years of total war. Liverpool even feared that public riots might break out if the parliament proposed new taxes. But a third reason, which definitely forced his hand, was the appalling breakdown of allied unity at the Congress of Vienna, for a serious territorial dispute had arisen, which brought the powers to the brink of war.
That issue, which came to a head during the very weeks when the treaty of Ghent was finalized, involved the distribution of power in east-central Europe. Czar Alexander, whose victory, after all, had triggered the final European revolt against Napoleon, insisted on making himself King of Poland and annexing the entire country to Russia. Likewise, the King of Prussia, the north German state of Prussia, who was the first to join the Czar in that last coalition, insisted on annexing the entire German kingdom of Saxony, but Austria’s Prince Metternich, you see him there in the middle, and Britain’s Lord Castlereagh, to his left, objected to those dispositions because they feared Russia would become too strong in Europe and Prussia too strong in Germany.
Finally, that conflict among the victorious powers gave Talleyrand, the wily survivor now representing the restored Bourbon king of France, the chance to restore France to equal status among the powers because he boldly offered to align his country France with Austria and Britain, just in case the Polish-Saxon dispute should burst into war. That explains why Talleyrand cheered news of the Treaty of Ghent, because he called it a “sterling peace,” which presumably would permit the British to refocus their forces on the European theater. Castlereagh likewise wrote to Liverpool, the Treaty of Ghent “has produced the greatest possible sensation here in Vienna and will, I have no doubt, enter into the calculations of our opponents,” unquote.
Sure enough, it did. Just two weeks later, the Russians and Prussians withdrew their immoderate demands and the Congress of Vienna turned copacetic again.
But of course the war in America had not really ended because the Battle of New Orleans remained to be fought. On December the 23rd, the British began to land troops south of the city, really a town in those days. Jackson upset their deployments by launching a surprise nighttime attack, which inflicted nearly 300 casualties on the surprised Redcoats. Then Jackson withdrew all his men to a series of defensive lines on a narrow neck of land situated between the Mississippi River and the impassable cypress swamp. There, the Americans waited. We hit behind our cotton bales and didn’t say a thing, until January 8th, 1815, when Lord Pakenham ordered his troops to charge.
He expected a frontal assault would suffice to overwhelm the outnumbered defenders. But the Redcoats, hemmed in by river and swamp, couldn’t outflank the enemy, and instead had to march across open terrain while Jackson’s artillery raped them with grapeshot, chains and cannonballs. One British survivor recorded, his regiments were so blinded by the billowing clouds of smoke, they couldn’t even see the [inaudible] and were so deafened by the cannonades, they couldn’t even hear each other. Another British officer likened it to an earthquake. Quote, “Little more than 1000 soldiers were left unscathed out of the 3,000, which attacked the American lines. They fell like blades of grass beneath the scythe of a mower,” unquote.
The battle lasted just half an hour, but the British suffered over 2000 casualties to just 62 for Colonel Jackson’s men. Now some of you old timers like me may recall the humorous ballad by Johnny Horton, The Battle of New Orleans, which reached number one on the American pop charts in the year 1959.
“In 1814, took a little trip along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississippi. We took a little bacon and we took a little beans and we met the bloody British in the town of New Orleans. Fired our guns and the British kept a-coming,” et cetera, et cetera. Well, the lyrics and I’ll quote them all at length in the Q and A if anybody wants to hear them, the lyrics are a hilarious example of American frontier hyperbole, but the route they describe was real. The British army retreated, licking its wounds, and then boarded their ships and sailed away on January 27th.
When news of Jackson’s victory reached the east coast, it was in the words of one overwrought historian, quote, “like a clap of thunder in the clear azure vault of the firmament.” Why don’t you just say sky? “And traveled with electromagnetic velocity through the confines of the land,” unquote. The battle persuaded many Americans, their country had really won the war of 1812, and perhaps even dictated the terms of the treaty of Ghent, which finally arrived in February and was unanimously approved by the Senate. But Secretary of State Monroe was not alone in suspecting the British government would have repudiated the treaty or otherwise claimed that it did not apply to Louisiana if Pakenham had prevailed in New Orleans.
Well, as it happened, the British were soon relieved to have extricated themselves from the American war because Napoleon escaped from his exile on March 20th, 1815, mustered his veterans and launched another military campaign: the Hundred Days, which would ultimately culminate in the Duke of Wellington’s famous victory at Waterloo. And the victory at Waterloo was so much larger and so much more profound than the battle of New Orleans that it quickly helped the British people to forget the inglorious American war they had fought. But the consequences for the United States of this allegedly unnecessary conflict cannot be overstated.
First, it ushered in two decades of one-party government known as the Era of Good Feelings. That was because the Federalist Party simply dissolved in the wake of its seemingly treasonous opposition to Jimmy Madison’s war and New England’s flirtation with secession at the Hartford Convention. Monroe, elected president almost unanimously in 1816, boasted at his inauguration, “Discord does not belong in our system.” Would that were true today. And Monroe found the occasion to use the word happy 12 times. And indeed discord did disappear partly because the war had persuaded the Democratic-Republicans of the need for such Federalist institutions as a central bank and a standing army and navy.
Second, Americans were happy because every sector of the US economy and every section of the nation, just boomed in the decades, following the war. And with the frontier secure, with the Indians, having been pushed out of the way, westward expansion continued so rapidly that Indiana, Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri, in addition to Louisiana, would all achieve statehood by 1821. Third, the war made Andrew Jackson a national hero. He was destined in the year 1828 to become the first westerner to be elected president. And by the end of his second term, a transportation revolution had begun, which spread canals, turnpikes and railroads throughout the United States.
Finally, thanks to the war’s outcome, British and American diplomats negotiated ancillary agreements in 1817-1818, which demilitarized the Great Lakes and made the US-Canadian boundary the longest unfortified frontier anywhere in the world, anywhere in history. We take that for granted. We never should.
But those agreements, including peace between the US and Canada did not mean that the British ceased to think of the United States as a rival. On the contrary, Lord Liverpool, who continued in office throughout most of the 1820s, explicitly warned, “Sooner or later, Britain will have to confront the meteoric rise of her American offspring.” As a result, subsequent British containment policies would emerge in the 1820s, the 1830s, the 1840s, and especially the 1860s, when the United States would fall into civil war. God willing, I shall describe those efforts in future Ginsburg-Satell lectures, but the first and the best chance Britain had to frustrate the rise of the United States was that almost forgotten, allegedly mistaken war with no name declared by the Congress in 1812. Thank you very much.
You’re a great audience. Thank you so much.
My question has nothing to do with anything. The first talk was excellent.
Walter A. McDougall:
Oh, thank you.
My question is, what role did the Barbary pirate war play [inaudible]
Walter A. McDougall:
The Barbary pirates did not play any role in the War of 1812, but those wars were important for the maturation of the US Navy. In fact, Jefferson himself, who ultimately would mothball the Navy and opposed military appropriations of any kind during the first couple of years of the Jefferson administration, he actually deployed the Navy in the Mediterranean to deal with the Barbary pirates and the American ships and ship captains especially got some very, very valuable experience fighting against the Barbary pirates and ultimately defeating them. Yes, the skirmishes would go on for some years, but so far as I know, they did not play any role in the war of 1812. The Barbary pirates incident is very interesting. The wars of the Barbary pirates were not the first foreign war the United States fought. Technically the first foreign war was that quasi-war under president John Adams, but then the Barbary pirate wars under Jefferson followed quickly thereafter, and they were the very first American encounter with what we today call Islamic terrorism. Very interesting. The first encounter within Muslim world.
First of all, Walter, thank you for the brilliant and wildly entertaining presentation. I wanted to ask you what I think is relatively simple, but if anyone would know, you would know, can you give us a little sense of the population-
Can you give us a little sense of the population of Britain and the United States, and the available manpower that would be engaged in the war? And also, as a second issue, can you talk about control? Was there really central Federal Washington control? Or were the states active? Did Jackson go because he was told to go by the Federal Secretary of Defense?
Walter A. McDougall:
Those are both excellent questions. The question of demographics, I can’t quote you the exact numbers, but I looked them up. I looked up the census of 1820, and then compared the US population, the free White population, with the populations of Britain and France in 1820. I’m beginning to do research, you see, for my next Ginsberg-Satel election. And the United States was dwarfed, the British population was at least four to six, I’ve forgotten the numbers, but four to six times the population of the US and the French population at that stage was even larger than the British. So the US did not have the manpower to draw on if they had been obliged to fight a full-scale war against the British Empire without the British having been distracted by Napoleon.
The War of 1812, as I said at the very beginning, never would’ve happened except for the war against Napoleon. All of the, almost, well, I shouldn’t say that, I shouldn’t say that. Many, many of the disputes between the United States and Great Britain, like the commercial blockades and all the rest, emerged in the context of the British War against the French. The Indian troubles, that was a different issue. The British up there were playing footsie with the hostile Indians out there on the Great Lakes, and that could have led to a war between the US and the British, independent of the Napoleonic wars, I don’t know.
But anyway, on the question of command and control, I guess, is really what it amounts to, the British had pretty effective centralized control of their militaries. Their officers went out under clear orders, they had clear goals in mind, the campaigns were planned over in London, in the office of the Secretary of War. And so the British chain of command and unity of command was sound.
That was not true at all in the American case. The Secretary of War could try to keep in touch with what the Army was doing up in New England or down in the South, but of course, news took forever to travel in those days. And the military and the US army was, of course, only a minority of the soldiers in the American Army in 1812 were regular army soldiers. Most of the soldiers were militia men, and the militia men were under the command of their governors, and the states essentially had their own policies.
It’s said that the United States tried to invade Canada during the War of 1812. Technically, that’s not true. The state of Ohio and the Indiana territory tried to invade Ontario, and the state of New York tried to invade Niagara, and of course, the results in both cases were disastrous. And Andrew Jackson, I mean, he commanded under the authority of the governor of Tennessee, but he was essentially a loose cannon. Jackson just fought, “Show me an enemy and I’ll go get him,” and as will here next year, he would continue to do so after the War of 1812. And so once he was anointed with, “Okay, Colonel Jackson, you’re the commander out here in the Southwest,” he just basically ran the war himself, and of course their ultimate results were victorious.
Carol “Rollie” Flynn:
We have a question from our Zoom audience. The British managed to burn the White House. About two centuries later, an enemy destroyed the World Trade Center, and damaged the Pentagon, but missed the White House. The US never invaded Great Britain, but fought for decades against the latter adversary. As a historian, what does this tell you about the enemies the US chooses to fight?
Walter A. McDougall:
That’s a good question, can I see that? That’s a good question, but the wording… Well, in the first case, the United States did not try to invade Great Britain in retaliation, for instance, for the burning of Washington, simply because the United States was utterly incapable of launching a transatlantic expeditionary force against the Royal Navy, by far the greatest Navy in the world. Whereas, after 2001, after 9/11, the United States was the sole superpower in the world. And frankly, in my opinion, suffered hubris as a result of that, as the Bush Administration bit off far more than they could chew in Afghanistan and Iraq. And so the American lust for vengeance turned out to be the nation’s undoing.
But, I would say the principle, speaking again, speaking as an historian, the principle determinant of international politics, ultimately, is always the power relationships. Your nation may be more or less idealistic, it may be more or less democratic, it may have certain traditions and institutions, but ultimately, international politics are about power.
Carol “Rollie” Flynn:
In the 1960s, Nikita Khrushchev came to address the UN, and I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but apparently he liked the Johnny Horton song, The Battle of New Orleans, and asked, his request was to have a personal performance of the singing. Do you think it was political? Or does this reflect Khrushchev’s taste in music?
Walter A. McDougall:
I have never heard that, I’ve never heard that story before. I will try to remember to Google around and see if I can find out anything about that. It certainly sounds apocryphal, but it also sounds so crazy that it might just be true. I can’t resist, I’ve got to read you some of the lyrics here. Where is it? Here it is.
In 1814, we took a little trip, along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip’. We took a little bacon and we took a little beans and we met the bloody British in the town of New Orleans. We looked down the river, we could see the British come, and must have been a hundred of them beaten on the drum. They stepped so high and they made their bugles ring. We hid behind our cotton bales and didn’t say a thing. Old Hickory said we could take them by surprise, if we didn’t fire our muskets till we looked them in the eye. So we held our fire till we seen their faces well, and we opened up our squirrel guns and really gave them hell. Well, we fired our guns and the British kept coming, wasn’t now as many as it was a while ago. Fired once more and they began a running, went down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
Let’s see, oh, we fired our cannons till the barrels melted down, so we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round. We stuffed his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind. And then we touched the powder off, the Gator lost his mind. Fired our guns, et cetera, et cetera.
The song, as I say, the song is a wonderful example of kind of American frontier humor, but it’s inaccurate, in a few respects. It says, we took a little trip along with Colonel Jackson down to mighty Mississip. But as you heard in the lecture, Jackson didn’t come down the Mississippi River, he marched westward from Mobile, Alabama, and he was marching with his own Army. And the volunteers did come from Kentucky and Tennessee, presumably down the river, but they didn’t march, and they didn’t come with Colonel Jackson.
And then the song also says, we didn’t fire our muskets till we looked him in the eye, then we opened up our squirrel guns and really gave them hell. Squirrel guns and muskets didn’t win the battle of New Orleans, the artillery did. I’m an artillery veteran, by golly, and I’m loyal to the red legs. Jackson didn’t have many cannons, but he did have a couple of batteries, and those few guns, maybe a dozen, were enough to rake this narrow corridor filled with British soldiers. And so the squirrel guns, the American sharp shooters might have picked off a few red coats from behind their cotton bales, but the artillery won the battle.
You just mentioned that, by the way, I join Murray Levitt in saying, thank you so much for the magnificent lecture. You said that there’s an understanding that power is the currency of international politics, so that’s really the major factor at play. The founding fathers, for the most part, they came here from elsewhere, or they had an understanding of European history and the constant wars, one after the next. Did they not understand what you just said, at that point in time? Because what I have in mind is the reluctance to expand the Navy and to have a standing Army, wouldn’t they have thought that would be necessary for a new country?
Walter A. McDougall:
That’s a very large question. You’re essentially inquiring about the origins of American strategic culture. Now, I mentioned that power relationships were kind of the fundamental fact of international politics. But I would say that a second factor, which political scientists can argue about relative importance, but another factor, which is of supreme importance, is geography. And oftentimes, a nation’s ideals, or pretensions, idealistic pretensions, are simply a function of the country’s geography. I mean, Switzerland is peaceful and neutral because it sits in the Alps, and the only enemy over the past thousand years that has ever invaded Switzerland was Napoleon. He got away with it. But the Germans never attacked Switzerland during the world wars.
Sweden. Now, we hear about Sweden wanting to join NATO now. This is a tremendous, remarkable reversal of Swedish strategic culture. Sweden was involved, heavily, again, in the Napoleonic wars, but since 1815, Sweden has been strictly neutral, even during the wars against Germany, partly because Germany didn’t attack Sweden, Sweden was worth more to Nazi Germany as a source of iron. But nevertheless, the Swedes have always been very smug about their neutrality and their pacifism. Only Vladi Putin was crazy enough to create conditions under which the Swedes reconsidered.
Well, anyways, here’s my point, in the years after 1783, the United States was by no means isolated. The United States has never, ever been an isolationist country. You will hear historians and journalists say that over and over again, politicians over and over again, every time a President meets the resistance to some foreign policy intervention he wants to make, he cries about, “Oh, Americans are going isolationist.” That is crap. This country has always been heavily engaged in all parts of the world.
There have been periods when American leaders followed Washington’s advice and tried to pursue a unilateral foreign policy with no entangling alliances, but that doesn’t mean that the United States wasn’t engaged with the world. Americans have been deeply engaged with all parts of the world, commercially, above all, but also culturally. And just think of the incredible American missionary movement, which began in 1819, and which ultimately was spread, mostly Protestant missionaries, all over Africa, Asia and the Pacific. So anyway, getting back to my template here, power relationships matter tremendously, but so does geography, and what countries consider to be their strategic or political culture often is a function of their geography. So the United States, the geographical fact of the United States was that it was on the other side of the ocean. It had an empty continent except for the Native Americans to the west, and to the east it had the Atlantic Ocean. Well, the Atlantic Ocean could be a source of grave danger, as it certainly turned out to be during the War of 1812, but it wasn’t apparent to all Americans that the Atlantic Ocean could be a source of danger, even though Canada was occupied by the British, Mexico was occupied by the Spaniards, and the French and British and Spanish Navys controlled the Atlantic Ocean.
Well, you could say that should have been obvious, the United States was still threatened. And to Alexander Hamilton, it was obvious. And to John Quincy Adams, and John Adams, and George Washington, it was obvious. The United States was obviously removed from the core of European great power politics, but it wasn’t immune from European great power politics. But Jefferson, and all of his progeny, his intellectual progeny, this is the idealistic streak in American foreign policy, which gets revived by Woodrow Wilson and continues to be a very powerful cultural impulse on our foreign policy to this very day, that Jeffersonian tradition wanted to believe that we could be somehow exceptional, that the United States of America somehow was immune from the laws which governed politics for the rest of mankind.
And even though we get knocked over the head, over and over and over again, oftentimes as a result of our own actions, Americans have a very hard time believing that, well, that was just an aberration, that war. We’re going to go back to peace and brotherhood and freedom, and end of history and all the rest. And right now, in 2022, we’re living through a very dangerous phase. We have a former Jeffersonian in the White House, he seems to have changed his spots recently. And we also, of course, have a resurgent Russia, and an emergent China, and of course, a perennial enemy in Iran, and the danger of a major war breaking out in any of the three regions, Eastern Europe, Middle East, and the Pacific, is very real. And I worry, we have two children, and I worry mostly about how the world is going to play out, for their sakes. I won’t be around for very many more years, but I fret about our kids.
Carol “Rollie” Flynn:
Do we have one final question?
You told us about one military hero who became the president, Andrew Jackson. How about William Henry Harrison? Can you say a little bit about him and tell us a little about the battle of Tippecanoe and so forth?
Walter A. McDougall:
Yeah, William Henry Harrison was, I’ve never made a study of him. I’ve never made a study of Harrison myself, but my impression from the histories that I have read is that he was a bit of a fraud. He lost the initial battle of Tippecanoe, and he eventually was victorious, but by the latter stages of the war, he had a superior force, outnumbering various Indian tribes, and basically just beat up on the Indians. And so he wasn’t really the military hero that the Whig party claimed he was in the election of 1840. And of course, he died within weeks after being inaugurated president, so his presidential term was a complete bust.
But, you’re right, he is an interesting example, in so far as the United States has, the American people have, for the most part, loved their military heroes. George Washington, of course, being the first, Andrew Jackson being the second one. Ulysses S. Grant being the third one, well, William Henry Harrison being the third, and then Ulysses S. Grant, and then of course, Dwight Eisenhower.
There were a couple of presidential candidates who were great generals who did not win. The most prominent being Winfield Scott, who was really the Commander, the Supreme Commander of the American Armed Forces from the War of 1812, all the way on down to the beginning of the Civil War. And the Whigs put him up for president, I think somewhere, 1852, I believe it was. And by then, the slavery issue was dividing the nation and he lost out.
Then I’ve forgotten to mention the Mexican War general, Zachary Taylor, that’s right. Zachary Taylor, who is the hero of the Battle of Monterey. He wasn’t the Supreme Commander in the war, in Mexican War, Winfield Scott was, but for some reason, Zachary Taylor emerged as the first general that the Whigs chose, and he also fell short. And then of course, most famously, in recent history, Douglas MacArthur, but then he was beaten out by an even more prominent military hero.
Carol “Rollie” Flynn:
Thank you, Walter.
Walter A. McDougall:
You’re very welcome. Wonderful crowd. Wonderful crowd.
Carol “Rollie” Flynn:
We’re looking forward to next year. Thank you.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.