By the spring of 1863, the Union had given the Confederacy every reason to remain defensive: for the duration of the war, federal troops had invaded points throughout the south forcing the rebels to shift to the location of each incision. Allowing this dynamic to continue to play out meant the only way for a Confederate success was a negotiated peace. On May 15, the southern brain trust, including General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis, convened in Richmond to discuss strategy. Lee proposed that he lead an effort that would remove the threat to Richmond, throw the Yankees on their heels, spell political doom for the Republicans (led by Abraham Lincoln in the White House), open up the possibility of Britain or France recognizing the Confederacy, and, at worst, an armistice that resulted in the Confederate States of America coexisting with the United States.[i] While Postmaster-General John Reagan and other Confederates felt that Lee should have sent troops to protect Vicksburg and the west from the trouble Ulysses S. Grant and his men were causing, Lee did not want to oblige the Confederacy to remain on the defensive but instead introduce the “prospect of an advance” as it would change “the aspect of affairs.”[ii] Read more
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on the 130th anniversary of George Washington’s birthdate, was due to be inaugurated for a second time. Davis ran unopposed in the first (and only) presidential election in the Confederate States of America and was set to begin his six-year term on February 22, 1862. His daily responsibilities as president left him more involved in paperwork than any other activity, and the beginning of the day of his second inauguration was scarcely different from any other day for Davis: he did an hour of paperwork before preparing for the ceremony.[i] Read more
The First Battle of Bull Run, which was fought near Manassas, Virginia, inaugurated the Eastern Theater of the Civil War. Weeks later, the first major battle of the Western Theater would occur on the banks of a creek in Missouri: Wilson’s Creek. The battle resulted in another Confederate victory and the first death of a Union general in the war. It also served as foreshadowing to the Confederacy; showing it that the Union was going to make a vigorous effort to prevent any other states from joining the Confederacy. Read more
Within a matter of weeks of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency beginning, the gravest crisis of perhaps any president confronted him and the nation: civil war. Read more
In 1848, when word spread to America that a revolution was breaking out in France, President James Polk wrote: “The great principles of popular sovereignty which were proclaimed in 1776 by the immortal author of our Declaration of Independence, seem now to be in the course of rapid development throughout the world.” James Knox Polk to Richard Rush, April 18, 1848, quoted in Michael Morrison, “American Reactions to European Revolutions, 1848-1852,” Civil War History 49 (June 2003): 117.
Leading up to President James Polk’s May 13, 1846 announcement of the Mexican-American War, tension arose between President Polk and the Secretary of State, James Buchanan.
In the fall of 1845, prior to the Mexican-American War, President James Polk attempted to use what he perceived as leverage to negotiate with the Mexican government to expand American borders.
America, in the early part of the 1800s, developed a reputation for being an experimental society. It was a prime example of popular rule, which brought a unique perspective to the world stage. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 304.
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.