What the War of 1812 Can Teach Us About the Fiscal-Cliff Debate

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There are uncanny similarities between partisan politics in the run-up to that crisis and the present strife over tax policy, budgetary priorities, and the national debt.

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The bombardment of Fort McHenry (Wikimedia Commons)

With no consensus between the political parties, the government of the United States decides to go to war. The war of choice is launched on the assumption that it will be very brief and decisive. There is little advance planning for how to pay for -- and prevail in -- a more protracted and complicated military operation. The war aims are not stable. They become ambitious. When the main casus belli recedes, others move to the fore. An invasion of a foreign country is attempted, and it is presumed that American soldiers will be greeted as liberators. Nasty surprises abound. Not only does discord grow in Congress, the executive suffers from mismanagement and infighting.

The war drags on longer than expected. The upshot is a stalemate -- or at least an anticlimax -- even though the president declares the mission accomplished. Historians will continue to wonder whether it was necessary and exactly what it accomplished.

Sound familiar? Iraq comes to mind. But the general description is also a serviceable characterization of an earlier armed conflict -- one that took place a couple of centuries ago and that most Americans now recall dimly, if it all: the War of 1812.

What Was It About?

From the American side, the stated reason for that war was to defend U.S. maritime rights, which had been continually violated by antagonists during the Napoleonic Wars. For years, the United States had complained in particular about Britain's harassment of neutral merchant shipping, the intrusive search and seizure of suspected contraband on American vessels that might make their way to the European continent, and above all the practice of "impressing," or conscripting, members of their crews as means of meeting manpower shortages in the Royal Navy.

Historians, however, have debated various complexities in the story line. For one thing, France was in the habit of violating U.S. sovereignty at least as often as Britain. Yet, perhaps in part because of their Francophile leanings, the "Republicans" (same old name, different party) in power at the White House and in Congress at the time, insisted that the British were the far greater culprits -- bearing "the original sin," as Thomas Jefferson put it. Meanwhile the last thing the British, engaged in a titanic struggle with Napoleon in Europe, wanted was to pick a fight with America and contend with a two-front war.

The Americans naturally regarded the commandeering of seamen to serve on British warships as a grave provocation, but the British viewed the practice quite differently; they claimed primarily to be recapturing deserters, of which there were indeed many, and to be calling up His Majesty's subjects obligated to serve the king in time of war. (Under British law, an Englishman or Irishman remained a "native-born subject" regardless of whether he had become a naturalized American citizen.) Locked in an epic battle to rid mankind of Bonaparte the despot, the British authorities concluded that they could ill afford to lose mariners to the pesky navy and merchant marine of an upstart former colony. As Lord Castlereagh explained, since "England was fighting the battle of the world, as well as for her own existence as an independent Nation, she required the service of all her subjects."

In any event, in a last-ditch attempt to avert hostilities with the United States, the British admiralty suspended most of the naval orders the Americans considered so egregious. With no transatlantic hotline between London and Washington, the news of this conciliatory gesture did not arrive in time to stop Congress from declaring war. What remains puzzling, though, was why Congress and the president persisted with their war policy after the news of Britain's important concession did reach these shores.

Notwithstanding periodic pleas from President Madison, congressional Republicans fundamentally had no plan for how to organize and finance a build-up. That did not dissuade them.

In June 1812, the votes for war in Congress (79 to 49 in the House; 19 to 13 in the Senate) were the narrowest of any declaration of war in U.S. history. They reflected the country's deep divisions over the course of action. Examined by region, the congressional roll calls suggest that there was implicitly more on the agenda than just the matter of "free trade and sailors' rights," the simplified slogan behind a call to arms. Interestingly, the pro-war votes came most solidly from the South and West, including inland sections of the country that were not involved in seafaring commerce and were least affected by the maritime issues that were supposed to be the crux of the dispute. Congressmen from New England, a region heavily dependent on open navigation, mostly objected vehemently to the war. Its proponents, moreover, were all Republicans, whereas the objectors were uniformly members of the opposition party, the Federalists.

As Gordon S. Wood has emphasized, the voting patterns raise intriguing questions. Did some of the war's enthusiasts regard it as, among other projects, a chance to annex Canadian territory or at least to weaken British support of the Indians who threatened American settlements and migration in the Northwest? Did some eye an opportunity to dislodge other Indian tribes in the Southwest and also expand into Florida? Why was it that a majority of Republicans persistently spoiled for a fight, while their partisan rivals unanimously kept shouting "nay"? Historians have mused at length over such puzzles.

Whatever else can be said about the root causes of the War of 1812, this much seems safe to infer: First, the motives were mixed and mobile. The Americans protested various British maritime abuses, but they also contested the Anglo-Shawnee alliance in the West and the nettlesome Creek Indians in the South. American troops crossed the Canadian border, hoping to liberate some areas and, more importantly, gain a bargaining chip with which favorably to settle accounts with Britain. (They failed abjectly.) Particularly in the later stages, when the coast was blockaded and threatened with invasion and the country had to draw back into a defensive crouch, salvaging national honor seemed to become the war's bottom line. It is not too much of a stretch to call this affair, in modern parlance, a case of mission creep and eventual contraction.

Second, inasmuch as the clash had multiple causes, the principles and interests of political parties were very much in the mix. The Republican "war hawks" were undeterred by the absence of national unity. Nor were they daunted by the fact that at the time the Royal Navy counted nearly 1,000 ships and the British army numbered about a quarter-million men while the U.S. army consisted of fewer than 7,000 men and the navy could claim a mere 16 ships. Notwithstanding periodic pleas of the president, James Madison, and some of his Cabinet secretaries, congressional Republicans fundamentally had no plan for how to organize and finance a build-up. That consideration, too, did not dissuade them.

Lucking Out

That the United States, so early in its infancy and so vastly outgunned, ultimately emerged intact from the War of 1812 was something of a miracle. Folklore has it that America's armed forces had managed to fight Britain, the 19th century's superpower, to a standstill. True, David did hurl some effective stones at Goliath. The tiny U.S. Navy performed storied feats in several single-ship duels on the high seas, scored heroic victories in engagements on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, and conducted with considerable success a form of asymmetric warfare raiding merchant ships on Britain's trade routes. On land, the Americans successfully defended Baltimore and then New Orleans (though, owing to the era's long communication lags, the latter triumph actually occurred after a peace treaty had already been signed, at the Dutch city of Ghent).

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Presented by

Pietro S. Nivola

Pietro Nivola is a senior fellow with the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution and co-editor of What We So Proudly Hailed: Essays on the Contemporary Meaning of the War of 1812.

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