Is letting the government shut down going to get politicians in trouble?
That’s the fond hope of Democrats watching the Tea Party-powered Obamacare tantrum in Congress.
Maybe. Maybe not.
During the War of 1812, the Madison administration let the whole capital get burned down and suffered minimal political damage.
Instead, it was the hapless Federalists, who were right about the wrongness of the war, who were destroyed as a meaningful political force.
Modern historians seem to be at a bit of a loss as to what the War of 1812 was about. Nominally, the war was about British maritime affronts—seizure of American merchant ships and impressment of sailors off American ships—relating to Great Britain’s global economic and military maneuverings against France during the Napoleonic Wars.
Actually, the Madison administration had been engaged in continual negotiations with Britain over these issues and, just before the US declared war, the British withdrew the noxious “Orders in Council” that had permitted its navy to feast on neutral US merchant shipping. Even as the war continued, so did trade, with the British military machine in Europe hungry for supplies served by American merchants (largely, but not solely from New England) hungry for profit.
The actual bottom line was that there was an eager war party—the so-called “war hawks”—of the US western states, who made common cause with the pro-French and Anglophobic Virginia faction controlling the federal administration to stick it to John Bull.
Pro-British, pro-trade Federalists—concentrated in New England–vocally opposed the war, and pointed out its logical, strategic, and fiscal flaws. More significantly, they viewed the war as a Republican political charade and refused to knuckle under to the “rally around the flag” rhetoric. Federalists criticized the conduct of the war, dragged their feet in implementing measures relating to mobilizing and dispatching New England militias out of state, and convened the “Hartford Convention” in 1814 to coordinate New England’s pushback to the Madison administration and strive for a New England voice—preferably a New England minority veto—in national affairs.
The war was largely a ridiculous screw-up. The greatest victory of US arms, the Battle of New Orleans, famously occurred after the peace treaty had already been negotiated in Ghent.
Ruinously expensive bounties (cash bonuses equivalent to a workingman’s annual salary and grants of 160 acres of land) had to be offered to fill the ranks with relatively unenthusiastic soldiers. Initially, the US Army was terribly led and it was not until 1814 that US land forces gave a good account of themselves in some remarkably fierce but strategically inconclusive engagements along the US-Canada border. Notably, the successful new commanders, Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Harrison—both of whom subsequently rode their military successes into the White House—had demonstrated their leadership abilities and honed their skills during prior campaigns against the Indians. (To me this demonstrates the old truism of the US military: that over the last two centuries, the effectiveness and credibility of US military might has relied to a certain extent on the continual presence of convenient, feisty, but underpowered enemies that can be beaten up at close and regular intervals to keep the military muscle well toned and ready for The Big One.)
The Madison administration decided that escalation and mission creep were the panaceas for the military and political problems of the war, mounting “we will be welcomed as liberators” military campaigns against Canada that opened the Republicans up to extremely well-founded Federalist accusations that the war was not, as sold, a defensive war, but an opportunistic venture in partisan politics and empire building.
In the event, the Republican hope that Napoleon would kick England’s ass and drop Canada in the lap of the United States was disappointed. Instead, 1813 saw a flood of British ships and troops (freed up by Napoleon’s defeat) to North America, driving the US government to consider conscription—regarded as the hallmark of Napoleonic tyranny—to get enough troops into the field. The Madison administration was also compelled to make large investments in the US Navy to challenge British control of the seas, abandoning the Jeffersonian ideal of small coastal vessels in favor of a big, capable, and effective Hamiltonian fleet of frigates.
The Madison administration had taken on disastrous levels of debt in order to fund the war, whose duration and expense it had completely underestimated.
An excellent account by Donald Hickey, The War of 1812—A Forgotten Conflict, provides this description of the state of affairs in early 1815:
“[The Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Dallas] sent two additional reports to Congress. The first…outlined the Treasury’s problems in paying the national debt. The second…contained Dallas’s estimates for 1815. Disbursements for the year were expected to top $56,000,000 (including $15,500,000 merely to service the debt), while income—even with new taxes—would be a paltry $15,100,00. This meant that the government would have to raise $40,900,000 through loans and treasury notes.…Republicans were dumbfounded…After reading the report, [Speaker of the House John] Eppes ‘threw it upon the table with expressive violence’ and, turning to Federalist William Gaston, half in jest said: ‘Well, sir, will your party take the Government if we will give it up to them?” “No, sir,” replied Gaston, “not unless you will give it to us as we gave it to you.” [page 247]
Thomas Jefferson offered his solution, issuing paper money, and told Madison: “[O]ur experience…has proved [paper money] may be run up to 2. Or 300 M[illion] without more than doubling…prices.” Considering that at the time US treasury securities was selling—not trading, but selling, straight out of the gate—at a 20% discount, the Sage of Monticello’s optimism seems misplaced.
Of course, as a debtor of long standing, Jefferson was well attuned to the inflation-loving attitude of the debt-loving (and bank-hating) Republican base, and hostile to the hard discipline of the financial markets and sound money championed by the Federalists.
Jefferson himself was something of a feckless amateur in economic affairs, personal as well as national, as this account of his indifferent management of his personal presidential finances reveals:
As he prepared to leave office, Jefferson was shocked to learn that by trusting “rough estimates in my head,” he had exceeded his salary by three to four months, which meant he had a debt of about $10,000 that had to be covered.
After the Library of Congress got torched by the British in 1814, Jefferson’s protégé, President Madison, thoughtfully replenished the nation’s strategic supply of books by purchasing Jefferson’s library for the sum of $23,950. The Federalists, of course, were not interested in this piece of Republican self-dealing—especially since Jefferson had promised to donate his books to the nation at his demise at no charge and the nation perhaps had more pressing priorities than restocking the library. One Federalist spluttered that Jefferson’s books would help disseminate his “infidel philosophy” and were “good, bad, and indifferent…in languages which many can not read, and most ought not.” The measure passed narrowly, along partisan lines.
The Library of Congress windfall might have assisted Jefferson in some of his temporary financial embarrassments (he immediately used the proceeds to pay off $15,000 in debts), but did not spare him the misery of dying in debt (after a dodgy scheme to maximize revenue from some property by awarding it as a prize in a state-sanctioned raffle fell through), leaving his heirs to liquidate his estate and sell off his real estate, art, chattels, and slave holdings to partially settle accounts.
Anyway, back to the War of 1812.
In the end, the Republicans were forced to resort to that despised instrument of the Federalists, chartering a national bank to make sure, at the most vulgar level, that there was some bank out there that would have no choice but to buy government securities.
The Madison administration also botched the defense of the capitol—the panic-stricken encounter at Bladensburg, Virginia, was mockingly called “The Bladensburg Races” for the dearth of US valor displayed—and in August 1814 the British marched into Washington and burned the key edifices of the city to the ground.
Good lefties will recall that it was a distant ancestor of the late and lamented Alexander Cockburn, one Sir Admiral George Cockburn, who burned Washington. Alexander Cockburn’s brother, the journalist Patrick Cockburn, provided an appreciation of his ancestor and his handiwork to the Independent in 2012.
Mr. Hickey provides a helpful guide to the proper pronunciation (“Co-burn”) and remarks: “Cockburn was a bold and able officer in the prime of a long and distinguished naval career.”
Contemporary US opinion cared to differ, especially after his forces laid waste to the Chesapeake region unopposed for 12 days in April 1813: “’Cockburn’s name was on every tongue, with various particulars of his incredibly coarse and blackguard misconduct.” At the fall of Washington, Cockburn refreshed himself at the White House with the supper that President Madison had hurriedly abandoned, and then put the building to the torch. British forces also fired the Capitol, the Treasury, and the building housing the state and war departments.
The Admiral displayed the trademark Cockburnian combativeness when dealing with his adversaries in the press.
According to Wikipedia:
The day after the destruction of the White House, Rear Admiral Cockburn entered the building of the D.C. newspaper, the National Intelligencer [a quasi-governmental newspaper that handled the British very roughly], intending to burn it down. However, several women persuaded him not to because they were afraid the fire would spread to their neighboring houses. Cockburn wanted to destroy the newspaper because its reporters had written so negatively about him, branding him as “The Ruffian.” Instead, he ordered his troops to tear the building down brick by brick, ordering all the “C” type destroyed “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name”.
Once the National Intelligencer replenished its supply of “C” type, it resumed publication and sniffed that Cockburn acted “quite the mountebank, exhibiting…a gross levity of manner, displaying sundry articles of trifling value of which he had robbed the president’s house” and berating the absent editors “with much of the peculiar slang of the Common Sewer.”
Admiral Cockburn was apparently not haunted by remorse over the burning of the American capital. The formal portrait of Cockburn painted circa 1817 by John James Hall shows him posed triumphantly before the flaming ruins of Washington. The painting resides at that shrine of British naval derring do, the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
The War of 1812 was by no stretch of the imagination an American victory. The peace settlement simply returned conditions to the antebellum status quo. The United States, while perfecting its world-class army and navy (and preparing it for non-stop exercise in the wars of expansion to come and, of course, the Civil War), was near bankruptcy and had its capital burned down.
But there was intense national pride (and, I expect, relief) that the US had fought Great Britain to a draw. Federalists ended up taking a public relations beating for their lack of war enthusiasm, the Hartford Convention was rather unfairly labeled as a treasonous convocation, and Federalism retreated from the national stage to become a sectional affectation of the New England rump.
Jeffersonians touted the War of 1812 as “America’s Second War of Independence.” This ridiculous and self-serving formulation, reflecting a desire to cut New England—Federalist vanguard of the somewhat more authentic first revolution—down to size and inflate Jeffersonian pretensions, is in some ways completely correct.
The War of 1812 declared the independence of the rest of the United States from Federalist preoccupation with international commerce, prudent fiscal policy, and careful accommodation with Great Britain. In fact, by fighting a botched war about British maritime issues markedly remote from the Republicans’ continental, agricultural, and expansionist interests but dear to the hearts, pocketbooks, and power of the Federalists, the Jeffersonians and the war hawks casually trampled upon existential Federalist priorities, counsel, and opposition, and demonstrated the utterly peripheral and disposable character of Federalist interest in the national discourse.
The war was the event that confirmed that a hell for leather dash for a continental empire (and into civil war) would drive American politics for the next decades. Federalists would be passengers on this juggernaut, not the driver.
The war also affirmed a uniquely American brand of impunity: the reality that, on top of democracy and economic freedom, a miraculous combination of geographic distance, vast resource wealth, military capability, virulent nationalism, a youthful and rapidly increasing population, growing commercial and financial heft, and lucky accidents in Europe (such as the global supremacy of America’s primary trading partner, Great Britain) made it possible for the United States to start and then survive a totally screwed up war.
In other words, the War of 1812 can be seen as the birth of American exceptionalism, especially if one defines “exceptionalism” as “exceptional national resilience that not even exceptional stupidity can overcome”.
In fact, the greater the stupidity, the more awesome the resilience, and the greater the victory!I see the same defiance—defiance of expert opinion, defiance of consequences, the fundamental defiance of the idea that genuine limits exist–in Republican Tea Party flirting with government shutdown and default over Obamacare. It will be interesting to see who reaps the political benefits—and who reaps the whirlwind—in this confrontation.