One of the most outspoken Representatives in the House of Representatives, John Quincy Adams, had opposed the declaration of war on Mexico and fought President James Polk’s policies for the duration of his presidency.
Some Americans may suppose that during wartime, partisanship declines and a sense of unity prevails. During the Mexican-American War, this was not the case. The Whigs were vocal in their disagreement with President James Polk and the Democrats.
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.
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.
In 1807, Congress passed the Embargo Act at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson. The Embargo Act “prohibited the departure of all American ships in international trade.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 649. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin doubted the effectiveness of the embargo on preventing the oncoming confrontation with the battling European behemoths of France and England. Id. at 650. Gallatin predicted that the embargo could result in “privations, sufferings, revenue, effect on the enemy, [and] politics at home . . . .” Id.
Gallatin advocated for war, rather than the embargo. Id. at 651. He realized one of the greatest truths of government: “momentous actions by governments often had unanticipated consequences.” Id. In support of that point, he told President Jefferson that “governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves.” Id. quoting Gallatin to Thomas Jefferson, 18 Dec. 1807, in Henry Adams, ed., The Writings of Albert Gallatin (Philadelphia, 1879), 1: 368.
Gallatin’s prescient words were wise at the time, as the embargo precipitated the War of 1812. However, his words also ring true throughout history. There are numerous examples throughout American history where momentous decisions led America down a path of unexpected, and often avoidable, consequences. Some may look to the 20th Century and 21st Century’s Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
There have been even more recent exemplifications of this principle. Most recently, Western Europe and the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia. It was a momentous decision with unanticipated consequences: the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Ukraine.
Leaders, American and otherwise, should heed the words of Gallatin. Momentous decisions are inevitable, and not all consequences are knowable, but where consequences are predictable, leaders should be aware of the potential for mitigating the negative effects of those momentous decisions.