As news arrived in America on February 13, 1815 that the Treaty of Ghent was finalized and that peace between America and Britain was complete, Americans had a complete change of mind. Rather than dwell on the burning of Washington, D.C. or the humiliation of Britain’s invasion, Americans relished the victory of General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans and the peace. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 71.
By the end of the War of 1812, President James Madison had weathered what is likely one of the tumultuous years that any president has had to endure. The British had landed a force, marched on Washington, D.C., and burned the White House. President Madison had trusted his Secretary of War John Armstrong when he doubted the possibility of a British invasion, only to be caught off guard when a scouting party, led by Secretary of State James Monroe, located just how close the British were to Washington. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 63-64.
As the 1800s progressed, the era of the Founding Fathers was coming to an end. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams would outlast most of the Founding Fathers, only to die on the same date: July 4, 1826. The Founding Fathers would leave a profoundly different country than the one they created.
Common Americans had created the sense that the United States was “a land of enterprising, optimistic, innovative, and equality-loving” people. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 733. The entrepreneurial, ambitious American spirit was born and permeating the entire country.
Particularly after the resolution of the War of 1812, manifested in the Treaty of Ghent, Americans began to feel a permanent independence from Europe and a separation from European ideals. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 735. Americans began to look at themselves as worthy of analysis, introspection, and recognition.
Thomas Jefferson believed that, as of 1823, America would serve “as a light to the world showing that mankind was capable of self-government.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 737 citing Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 4 Nov. 1823, in Ford, ed., Writings of Jefferson, 10: 280. Jefferson confessed that his ideals for America “may be an Utopian dream, but being innocent, I have thought I might indulge in it till I go to the land of dreams, and sleep there with the dreams of all past and future times.” Id. at 738 citing Thomas Jefferson to J. Correa de Serra, 25 Nov. 1817, in L and B, eds. Writings of Jefferson, 15: 157.
Jefferson’s dream of America may not have been achieved in exactly the way he imagined, but the country was becoming a player on the global stage. Americans had shown that they would not be a British colony, twice, and that Americans would create their own spirit which was loosely based on Europe and the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome.
With the success of America increasing, the specter of slavery began to loom over the country. It presented an ideological divide for the North and South, but it also economically divided the country. In retrospect, the Civil War seemed inevitable, but as the sun was setting on the Founding Fathers’ America, there was hope that a major conflict could be avoided.
In March 1816, Congress passed a Compensation Act, “which raised the pay of congressmen from six dollars per diem to a salary of fifteen hundred dollars a year.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 718-19. This was the first raise in the pay for congressmen since 1789. Id. at 719.
Robert Wright, a Congressman in 1816, and previously a United States Senator, said that in the old days, congressmen “lived like gentlemen, and enjoyed a glass of generous wine, which cannot be afforded at this time for the present compensation.” Id. quoting C. Edward Skeen, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei: The Compensation Act of 1816 and the Rise of Popular Politics,” JER, 6 (1986), 259-60.
Rather quickly, analysts and the public realized that Congress had effectively doubled its pay. Kentucky congressman Richard M. Johnson concluded that the Compensation Act brought more discontent than any other law up to that point in history. Thomas Jefferson agreed with him. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 719. Jefferson’s popularity amongst his fellow Republicans soared, as they all “resented paying taxes to pay for what seemed to be the high salaries of their public officials.” Id. citing Thomas Jefferson to De Meunier, 29 April 1795, in Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson: Federal Edition (New York, 1904), 8: 174.
The public made their outrage known. There were public meetings throughout the country, there were publications strongly criticizing Congress for its work, and in Georgia, “opponents even burned the members of Congress in effigy.” Id. at 719-20 citing Skeen, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” JER, 6 (1986), 261.
Congress’ reputation took a bit hit. Then, “[i]n the fall elections of 1816 nearly 70 percent of the Fourteenth Congress was not returned to the Fifteenth Congress.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 720.
The ordeal with the Compensation Act of 1816 was the first hint of what was to come with Americans’ behavior and perspective toward the actions of their government. Accountability became paramount. Participation became mandatory.
It seemed clear that the days were over of the government being separate from the people and conducting its business in a sort of vacuum. Americans were taking matters into their own hands and sending a clear message to elected officials: do what is best for the country and its people, or you will not be re-elected.
This is a message that is reinforced continually in American history, up to the present day. But many modern Americans may take for granted that it was not always the case. The acts of the early Americans, particularly in reaction to the Compensation Act of 1816, ensured that the country would develop opinions about the government, which in turn would lead to accountability. That accountability has inevitably served to perpetuate the health and wellbeing of the Republic.
Albert Gallatin knew as early as 1799 that the United States “had become commercially and socially different from the former mother country” England. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 704. At that time, Gallatin was a Congressman, but he would later serve as Secretary of the Treasury from 1801 to 1814.
In realizing that America was different, he said that Britain had “trades and occupations” that were “so well distinguished that a merchant and a farmer are rarely combined in the same person; a merchant is a merchant and nothing but a merchant; a manufacturer is only a manufacturer; a farmer is merely a farmer; but this is not the case in this country.” Id. at 704-05 quoting Annals of Congress, 5th Congress, 3rd session (Jan. 1799), 9: 2650.
He said that if one were to venture into the middle of America, that individual would “scarcely find a farmer who is not, to some degree, a trader. In a grazing part of the country, you will find them buying and selling cattle; in other parts you will find them distillers, tanners, or brick-makers. So that, from one end of the United States to the other, the people are generally traders.” Annals of Congress, 5th Congress, 3rd session (Jan. 1799), 9: 2650.
This meant that Thomas Jefferson’s dream of Americans being a nation of agriculture and avoiding the industrialization that Europe had experienced was not a dream to be realized, even after the transformative War of 1812.
While this may have been troubling to Jefferson, Gallatin’s observations showed that Americans were developing a collective entrepreneurial spirit. Trading became an integral part of the American economy.
Part of this was inevitably by necessity, where some had to supplement their income by engaging in trading that perhaps they did not have experience in. On the other hand, part of this change from England must have been that there was a wealth of natural resources and a middle class emerging in America.
This early development after the War of 1812 should sound familiar to most modern Americans. First, although the middle class may change in size and wealth generation-by-generation, it has continually existed since the early Republic. Second, and most notably, Americans still carry an entrepreneurial spirit with them. Many would cite that entrepreneurial spirit for the success of America. It is certainly a factor.
Amidst the War of 1812, the Republicans passed a tax law “which included a direct tax on land, a duty on imported salt, and excise taxes on stills, retailers, auction sales, sugar carriages, and negotiable paper. All these taxes, however, were not to go into effect until the beginning of 1814.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 684.
One Virginian congressman wisely concluded that “everyone is for taxing every body, except himself and his Constituents.” Id. citing Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana, IL, 1989), 122. It is believed that this quote is attributable to the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Congressman John Eppes. Bill White, Barron’s, Pay It All, and Pay it Quickly, Feb. 13, 2015, available at http://www.barrons.com/articles/SB51367578116875004693704580454041219159332.
While this was during the War of 1812 and was undoubtedly true then, it is a prescient quote and universally applicable. Taxation has consistently been viewed as an evil necessity by many and a necessity that should be imposed on others, not themselves. While this perspective is only natural for self-preservation, it is one that is dangerous for the future generations of Americans.
Taxation has always played a unique role in American society, beginning with the British taxes on America’s colonial goods, which were viewed as crippling the colonial economy unnecessarily. Taxation was later viewed as an impediment on growth and an unnecessary burden on finances.
Modern policymakers would do well to remember that taxation is a tool to place a burden on future generations without necessity and without justification. The temptation to act in conformance with populist beliefs should not prevent policymakers from confronting the uncomfortable truth: taxation is necessary to preserve the society that all Americans should enjoy.
While the appropriate taxation rate is always up for debate and will always be debated, the burden of taxation should be fairly apportioned to all generations of Americans, so as to ensure that revenues are raised consistently to provide the services and necessities to all Americans for the foreseeable future of the country.
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.
In the early Republic, trading became a staple of the American economy, which affected American relations with other countries in drastic ways.
American merchants “brought home products from Canton, China, and ports in the Indian Ocean, including teas, coffee, chinaware, spices, and silks, before shipping them on to Europe . . . .” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 623. America imported goods from Europe only to export them to “the West Indies, South America, and elsewhere.” Id. However, perhaps most surprisingly, between 1795 and 1805, “American trade with India was greater than that of all the European nations combined.” Id. citing Ted Widmer, Ark of the Liberties: America and the World (New York, 2008), 66.
Much of this trading arose out of the fact that America had not transformed into a purely industrial, manufacturing economy as much of Europe had during this time period. Rather, many Americans maintained their farming and picked up trading and other practices to make virtually all Americans participants in a massive national and international economic system. See Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 627. These changes had domestic political implications, with the Republicans satisfied with the economic system and the Federalists believing it was an underachieving system. Id.
The Republicans wanted to raise America’s status in the world, rather than solely focus on the state of the economy like the Federalists. Id. at 629. The Republicans wanted to create a system that prevented war from occurring and would also make America a recognized force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Id.
Republicans ultimately took actions that surprised other countries’ officials. For example, the Republicans replaced diplomatic missions with consuls who handled international trade. A Russian official commented that Americans were “singular,” and wanted “commercial ties without political ties,” which was widely considered an impossibility at the time. Id. at 632 citing Irving Brant, James Madison: The President, 1809-1812 (Indianapolis, 1956), 69.
These actions by the early Americans were largely intended to distinguish America as a player on the international stage. Perhaps out of a desire to show the world that America was not England and certainly was its own country who had its own policies, the Republicans underwent this course of action, much to the chagrin of the English and to some other government officials.
The Americans were eager to distinguish themselves and to build an economy that was sustainable. The ongoing war between Napoleonic France and England partially allowed America to use its resources to build its trade routes and grow its economy.
Some may look to these events as some of the earliest examples of American exceptionalism, which would perhaps be a keen observation. These early years of the Republic would ultimately set the stage for the War of 1812, but for the time being, Americans would have been content knowing that the economy was growing, trade was blossoming, and they were building the new country.