By Kevin Mahnken
MASSACHUSETTS “At least people know when the War of 1812 was fought,” Peter Drummey jokes. A librarian at Boston’s venerable Massachusetts Historical Society, Drummey is all too familiar with the limits of public awareness about the conflict: He spent the summer curating “Mr. Madison’s War: The Controversial War of 1812,” an exhibition supported by Mass Humanities to mark the war’s bicentennial and retell the story of its forgotten political legacy in New England. Scholars of the period have had to contend not only with an incomplete understanding of the war, but also the ubiquitous commemorations of another prominent nineteenth-century conflict. “The bicentennial anniversaries of the War of 1812 are completely subsumed within the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversaries having to do with the Civil War,” Drummey concedes ruefully.
Neglected as they are, the battles of Plattsburgh and the Thames cry out for a portion of the attention that has long been lavished on Gettysburg and Bull Run. The era in which they were fought was also riven with sectional discord, and the great political questions of the day revolved around the intersection of state sovereignty and federal power. In one of American history’s great inversions, however, it was northerners who first claimed the mantle of states’ rights, objecting venomously to President James Madison’s foreign policy and attempting to keep their own militias on the sidelines.
The exhibition’s name arises from a local epithet for the war, first coined by the Boston pamphleteer John Lowell. “This war of Mr. Madison is in effect a French war, and not an American one, that is undertaken for French interests,” he wrote in 1812. Lowell was writing as both a Massachusetts citizen and a Federalist. One of the young republic’s two dominant political factions, the Federalist party stood for strong national institutions, a burgeoning industrial economy, and trade with Britain. Though their leadership included such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Marshall, the party was consistently outmaneuvered by Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and had spent twelve years out of power by the time the war began. During that time, the group pared their agenda down to a reflexive defense of northern business interests and a hysterical Francophobia. Meanwhile, as the Napoleonic Wars raged across Europe, Britain began to take extraordinary and provocative measures to ensure American neutrality. These actions—the use of blockades to impede trade with France, the impressment of American sailors in the Royal Navy, even the arming and organization of Indians in the Midwest—outraged Americans across the country and made the new nation’s clash with its former colonial masters nearly inevitable.
When that clash came, it would prove contentious. Federalist newspapers in Baltimore inveighed against Madison during the war’s first summer, and a volley of mob attacks was leveled against them that left one man dead and countless others maimed. Yet the effects of Britain’s crippling blockade of eastern ports, combined with the reversals suffered by American troops on the Canadian border, eventually softened the will of even belligerent states in the south and west. The War of 1812 became “undoubtedly the most unpopular war that this country has ever waged, not even excepting the Vietnam conflict,” wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison in 1968.
Nowhere was it more hated than in New England. Though the region’s patriotic population contributed thousands of its sons to the war effort, its congressional representatives voted overwhelmingly against the war and used every legislative tool at their disposal to limit their states’ participation in it. In the characteristically tart words of Henry Adams, the war’s preeminent historian, “the attitude of New England pleased no one, and perhaps annoyed most the New England people themselves, who were conscious of showing neither dignity, power, courage, nor intelligence.” By 1814, the Federalists had degenerated from an irrelevant rump party to a borderline- treasonous cabal. Massachusetts governor Caleb Strong, Drummey remarks, “opened separate negotiations with representatives of Great Britain during wartime about . . . whether Massachusetts and New England might have some separate truce or peace with Great Britain. And that sounds a lot like secession.”
Though the war ended just a few months later, it would prove to be the rock that split the first party system. The Federalists lost whatever remained of their national credibility and would field only one more presidential candidate before imploding. Massachusetts fared much better, completing its evolution into a shipping and manufacturing dynamo and basking in the conciliatory mood of the postwar period, later dubbed the Era of Good Feelings. A milestone on the republic’s journey to world power status, a headstone on the grave of its first political party—the War of 1812 is history worth remembering.