Gearing up for the War of 1812

Depiction of the Battle of Lake Erie.

In large part, the War of 1812 was brought about by necessity but also by politics.

In terms of necessity, the British were executing a policy of impressment where the British would inspect American ships for contraband or material support for the French. America’s foreign policy adopted in reaction to these events was to create commercial warfare through trading, bringing the conflict to a head. In terms of politics, however, the Republicans saw the likely potential of war as a second war for independence and a defense of republicanism. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 669. On the other side of the aisle, the Federalists, such as Alexander Hanson of Maryland, welcomed the war believing that the Republicans would mismanage the war “so to discredit their party and bring the Federalists back into power.” Id.

Despite the oncoming war, the Republicans were aware that the country’s military was not prepared for a war, much less with one of the world’s supreme powers: Great Britain. In 1807, the Republicans strengthened the army and navy, but in 1810, the Republicans questioned themselves and did not further strengthen the military. Id. at 671. John Taylor, a Republican senator, stated that armies and navies “only serve to excite wars, squander money, and extend corruptions.” Id.

Ultimately, the army was expanded prior to the war but the navy was not, for fear that its permanent establishment was unnecessary and would only endanger the longevity of the Republic. There was a large group of Republicans “who in the early months of 1812 voted against all attempts to arm and prepare the navy, who opposed all efforts to beef up the War Department, who rejected all tax increases, and yet who in June 1812 voted for the war.” Id. at 672.

These years prior to the War of 1812 reflect the early Americans’ desire to not just proclaim independence but prove that independence and not take the risk of being viewed as a client state of England. The war was not inevitable, but it became so when the Republicans so strongly opposed impressment by the British and created a foreign policy of disrupting the commerce of England. The war was not necessary for the short term health of the United States, as England and France were embroiled in a long war that left America to be a secondary concern.

But for the long term health of the United States, the War of 1812 was absolutely necessary. America needed to become a country unto itself, capable of asserting its presence and becoming a leader in the world. If it had not taken a strong stance against England, there was a serious danger that one of two things would happen: England, after its war with France, would invade the United States to take back “the colonies” or America would always be seen as England’s brash client state.

The Republicans, although disorganized in executing their policies, effectively preserved the long term wellbeing of the United States in bringing on the War of 1812. But that would only become clear after significant casualties, damage, and perseverance.

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