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

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.

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.

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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).

But probably more fundamental to the outcome was the fact that Great Britain had not sought a war with the United States in the first place, and exhausted from nearly a decade of Armageddon in Europe, cooler heads in London proved eager to settle the unwanted long-distance brawl in North America. By 1815, having defeated Napoleon, Britain no longer needed to seize American ships and sailors.

In these fortunate circumstances, America lucked out. Quickly forgotten was the fact that six months before the war finally wound down, the republic had been on the ropes. Early in the war, the prediction by hawks such as John C. Calhoun of South Carolina that the conquest of Canada would be accomplished in a mere "four weeks" had proved delusional. All attempted American incursions across the Canadian borders were repulsed. Several defeats had been embarrassing, even scandalous. As the war progressed, Britain had tightened the noose. British troops occupied eastern Maine. Then, effectively blockading the main ports further south, the Royal Navy penned in America's few sizeable warships, which in any case were never a match for the collective firepower of the multiple enemy squadrons that now were steadily patrolling inside territorial waters. By 1814 British ships and landing parties were mostly at liberty to maraud towns up and down the Eastern seaboard, even torching the public buildings of Washington, D.C.

The U.S. economy was dealt a severe setback. Exports and imports plunged. The collapse of trade emptied what was left of the government's meager coffers. As revenue from duties shrank and expenses mounted, the public debt soared and soon became unsustainable. Forced to suspend interest payments on its bonds, the U.S. Treasury technically defaulted on November 9, 1814.

So controversial became the war for a time that in some parts of the country local militias refused to cooperate and some states flirted with secession. In others, murderous mobs raged against suspected enemy sympathizers. The title of historian Alan Taylor's magisterial book, The Civil War of 1812, captures the mayhem that had been unleashed. The union's future hung in the balance.

By the autumn of 1814 -- with key New England states wanting out, the army gravely shorthanded, the navy's largest ships disabled, Congress incapable of securing essential financial instruments (and the government hence basically bankrupt), and, for good measure, the heart of the nation's capital a smoldering wreck -- the only rational course was to try to call a halt and to do so without great delay. Fortunately, our adversary was amenable.

Partisanship, Then and Now

Library of Congress

What lessons, if any, can be drawn for the present from this bizarre close call in the nation's distant past?

Perhaps the main one concerns the existential perils posed by polarized partisanship -- or, more precisely, the dangers of maximalist party dogmas. Not the least of the explanations for the high-risk altercation of 1812 was the seemingly irrepressible need of the Republican Party to affirm its ideology.

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.

In Republican eyes, the idea of a national mobilization to mount and maintain a European-style standing army or navy would come at too great a price. It implied centralizing power and forsaking the dearest of republican virtues, and such profoundly insidious means could not be justified to pursue even keenly desired ends. In any case, they were considered unnecessary. In Jefferson's view, the republic's loose union and limited ruling institutions had actually created the "strongest Government on earth" -- a government that common men in state militias would spontaneously rush to defend precisely because it demanded so little of them.

That, after all, was thought to be why the American revolutionaries, loosely led and not highly organized, nonetheless had won in 1776-83. To the majority of Republicans, history could repeat itself. The War of 1812 would become a kind of encore to the Revolution, a second war of independence. So it was that they sought to have things both ways: choosing renewed warfare but without mustering the resources to conduct it decisively.

Glancing back, one cannot help but be struck by certain similarities between the role of party politics in the run-up to the crisis of 1812-14 and the present partisan strife over government tax policy, budgetary priorities, and the national debt.

In the arc of history, the contemporary discord about the proper balance of government spending, borrowing and taxation has an air of déjà vu. The 112th Congress put in jeopardy, at one point, the financial full faith and credit of the United States. The debacle was narrowly averted by a crude statutory contrivance, cobbled together at the eleventh hour. "Our country is not going to default for the first time in history," the Senate minority leader was able to declare. But America came dangerously close, and if it had happened, it actually would have been the second time -- the first having occurred in 1814, at the hands of the 13th Congress, which had been comparably conflicted about raising the requisite revenue to cover the nation's unsustainable bills.

And once again, the footing of national security is very much at stake in the current debate. The impending "fiscal cliff" -- the awkward deficit-reducing deal that was finally improvised in August 2011 -- threatens an automatic phased reduction of $1.2 trillion in overall spending, beginning in fiscal 2013, with roughly half of that stripped from defense. To be sure, today's Republican Party does not welcome that prospect, whereas yesterday's was inclined to cut military spending to the bone. Yet, both back then and more recently, a group of politicians calling themselves Republicans seem to have had this much in common: an apparent mismatch between their willingness to consider waging wars, and their unwillingness to pay the piper by levying new taxes.