As June of 1812 started, President James Madison had asked Congress for a declaration of war against the British. We’ve discussed the reasons before, so we won’t spend a ton of time on them. The British were arming Native Americans, who then used that hardware to kill Americans. The British were capturing U.S. ships and forcing their captives to fight on British ships. The British were blockading France, preventing U.S. trade with an important ally.
Some (or all) of these things had been going on for years, and for years the U.S. government had been negotiating with the British. But the last set of concessions, sent from London in June of 1811, were deemed by Madison (and most everyone else) as dishonorable at best and, in the worst case, totally humiliating. War was all but inevitable.
The mid-term elections, held in November of 1811, had seen a “War Hawk” Congress elected by the people. But the military structure to fight a war was almost completely non-existent. Long gone from the scene was the “strong government” influence of men like Alexander Hamilton. As we recall, he had pushed hard for a solid military, particularly a navy. But this was not popular with President Jefferson, nor his successor, President Madison, who feared a government with too much power. So the military languished. Furthermore, Hamilton’s Bank of the U.S., with its 20-year charter, had been allowed to expire, so even raising money to build a navy or hire soldiers was nearly impossible.
But the British affronts could not be overlooked. Madison’s request for war was approved by the House just three days after it was submitted. The Senate, on the other hand, deliberated for nearly two weeks. Sir Augustus John Foster, a friend of the President from years past and the British Foreign Minister, fully expected the Senate to knuckle under and vote against war. In fact, he did his part for his country by having an aide keep Virginia’s Senator Brent (who apparently had a penchant for alcohol he couldn’t hold) too drunk to vote. But each day, Brent staggered into the chamber to vote for war.
Debate raged back and forth, and it was a near thing on numerous occasions. On June 17, 1812, the Senate finally voted 19-13 for a declaration of war. Though confident his country would win the war, Foster knew he’d lost his battle. Coincidentally, the 17th fell on a Wednesday, and that afternoon Foster found himself, as was often the case, at Dolley Madison’s Drawing Rooms social. He bowed to the President and exchanged some chit-chat, while finding Madison looking extremely pale, weighed down by the course he would now have to take.
President Madison was criticized for his desire to avoid war. The War Hawk Congress, and many citizens that voted them into office, believed the President dragged his feet way longer than was necessary. But such was not the case. Madison wanted as much time as possible to prepare the country for the rigors of a war it, ultimately, barely won, and build as much consensus as possible.
Ralph Ketcham offers a wonderful summation in his biography of Madison. He writes, “Madison’s course during the year preceding the war declaration…appears straight and consistent, if not always wise and well executed. He thought throughout that his goal, a genuine, republican independence for the United States, found its worst menace in the commercial and maritime arrogance and power of Great Britain. To have submitted to her unilateral decrees, her discriminatory trade regulations, or her naval outrages would have restored the colonial dependence Madison had fought for half a century. It would, moreover, have ratified unjust principles in international law and emboldened antirepublican forces in Britain and the United States, thus threatening, in Madison’s opinion, the survival of free government anywhere in the world.”
I have to continue with just a couple more sentences. “But so corrosive was war to republican principles that only the direst emergency could condone it. Thus Madison tried every conceivable and even some inconceivable ways of peaceful resistance, until many…thought him hopelessly irresolute…”
The next day, the United States, led by a deeply saddened Madison, declared war on the British.
Recommended Reading: James Madison