The public philosophy of the Republicans was distinctive. Its core principle was similar to the one that America's libertarian right says it yearns for in the present day: a minimalist federal government. As most Republicans then (as now) envisioned it, that would be a government that would borrow little money, impose few taxes, and lodge the bulk of public responsibilities with the states. According to Jefferson, only a polity with so limited a central authority would inspire passionate popular allegiance.
Republicans drew a sharp contrast with the Hamiltonian tradition of the Federalists, whom they regarded as counter-revolutionaries, even crypto-monarchists, bent on restoring a regime similar to Britain's. The Republican ideal was carried to such extremes at the start of the 19th century that even the bare essentials for ensuring the collective good -- the requirements of national security, for instance -- were starved of support or left to the states. The concept of sustaining a robust regular army and navy represented to the Republicans of the time what the welfare state is to conservatives now: a budget-busting beast, insatiably devouring higher tax revenues, and potentially imperiling individual liberties. Armies and navies, intoned Senator John Taylor of Virginia, only "squander money, and extend corruption." A national military establishment, therefore, was to be all but dispensed with.
A consequence of such orthodoxies was that, even by the standards of a fledgling country, the United States perforce forfeited leverage in international relations. Simply put, along with light taxation, the Republicans "placed debt reduction above national defense," states the historian Ralph Ketcham in his leading biography of James Madison. Absent a credible military force, Republican policy repaired more or less exclusively to trade sanctions -- which, not unlike those currently deployed against North Korea or Iran, scarcely seemed to alter the behavior of the targeted miscreants. Fundamentally flawed, the Republican approach handed the Federalists a forceful political issue, enabling them to double their congressional representation and triple their presidential electoral votes in the election of 1808.
With so little to show for their weapons of choice (various attempts at economic coercion) in dealing with foreign mischief and after having spent nearly a decade fuming about that of Britain in particular, politically the Republicans -- not least, even the sober President Madison -- could not easily have backed down in the ensuing four years. The stakes that the party had played so big a part in raising were now too high.
Hence, following the mid-term balloting of 1810, the Republican president along with a restive newly-elected group of hardliners in Congress grew persuaded that a different, additional sort of force had to be brought to bear. Otherwise, many reckoned, not only would America be humiliated, so would the Republican Party. Indeed, the two amounted to one and the same from the Republican point of view, for Republicans claimed to be the sole legitimate voice of the people: "the Republicans are the nation," Jefferson had proclaimed. On the line, in short, was the party's brand. Further discredit to it loomed as a danger worse than the fog of war.
Fundamentally flawed, the Republican approach handed the Federalists a forceful political issue, enabling them to double their congressional representation and triple their presidential electoral votes in the election of 1808.
At this point, an attentive reader may wonder: But how could these partisans have fastened on a muscular posture without building up the necessary muscle? Was it not the greatest political risk of all to contemplate war without first accepting the investment and preparation required to succeed? Ideologically hidebound in their customary reluctance over the years to countenance more than a skeletal military, and to impose the internal taxes necessary to pay for a more respectable force, the Republicans, with a few exceptions, appeared hopelessly inconsistent to the Federalists. But what looked contradictory -- indeed, singularly careless -- to Federalists was not so illogical to most Republicans.