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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

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It’s a super-brief lesson today, but mostly because we’ve covered the salient details already.

In 1812, it was becoming more apparent that the United States and Great Britain were heading toward war again.  The British government was arming Native Americans in the territories that settlers were trying to claim.  They were forcing U.S. citizens (former British subjects) to fight in their navy.  And they had set up an economic blockade of France (with whom they were at war already), cutting America off from a major trading partner.

All of these things were viewed pretty dimly in the halls of Congress and in the White House.  On 1812’s first day of June, President James Madison went before Congress, outlined Britain’s transgressions and violations, and asked for a declaration of war.

And on June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain.  At the time, it probably seemed like a pretty good idea.  Britain was already locked in a deadly war embrace with France, which was led a little man named Napoleon (not this Napoleon, this Napoleon).  If ever there was a time for a newly-formed country to go to war, it was when the enemy country was already tied up in war with someone else.

But foresight isn’t nearly as good as hindsight, and the War of 1812 wouldn’t begin all that well for America.  And by 1814, the situation would look downright bad.  But it would end in memorable fashion.

Recommended Reading: Jackson’s Way

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When the Colonies ended their war with the British in 1781 (and signed the treaty in 1783), they probably looked at their new-found freedom with little inkling that, just 30 years down the road, they’d be on the brink of open conflict with the British yet again.  But as May of 1812 gave way to June, the war clouds had again gathered over the 18 United States.  When President James Madison went before Congress on June 1, 1812, he did so to ask for a declaration of war against Britain.  And he brought his list of reasons with him.

There were trade issues.  The British were still at war with France, the U.S. was not.  We were, in fact, a trading partner with the French.  As a way to inhibit our trade to the French, the British created a series of trade restrictions against America.  The U.S. government vehemently opposed these British measures as illegal.

The second issue Madison brought to Congress was that the British were impressing U.S. citizens.  But the word “impress” doesn’t mean “to gain admiration”.  It means “to apply pressure or to force”.  The British were taking the liberty of forcing U.S. citizens into the Royal Navy.  These U.S. citizens were actually former British citizens, and the British government refused to recognize their change in citizenship as official.

But there was also the issue with American Indians.  America was expanding.  The Louisiana Territory had been explored and adventurous men and women were heading west, and claiming territory as their own that was the possession of the natives already there.  This, of course, brought the two “into sharp debate”.  And the British took it upon themselves to arm the natives.  That didn’t sit well with Americans, who now had to overcome British bullets fired from British muskets in the hands of Native Americans in order to take their land.

President Madison offered these reasons, and more besides, as he presented his case for war to Congress.  Sixteen days later he got his answer and, seventeen days later,  the U.S. was at war again.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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When we think of earthquakes, we tend to think of specific places like San Francisco or Alaska, where major quakes have occurred.  We probably also think of places like Indonesia and Bande Aceh, where an underwater earthquake and subsequent landslide caused the immense tsunami on December 26, 2004.  Others of us may think in more general terms, like the Ring of Fire, the large volcanic and seismic zone ringing the Pacific Ocean that has spawned much of the activity in the places I just mentioned.

But rarely do we think of the central United States when discussing topics related to seismology.  And that’s easily understandable, because earthquakes in Mississippi River Valley just don’t happen all that often.  But when they do,…

It’s a relatively unknown geological fact that, as the longest river in the United States flows past southern Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas, it passes over a sizeable fault line.  Known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, it encompasses the aforementioned states (as they border on the Mississippi River) as well as southern Illinois, western Kentucky, and even the northern tip of Mississippi.  And in this area there have thousands of minor temblors and quakes in recent years, though no major quakes.

For those, we need to go back to the winter of 1811-12, when major quakes were recorded, quakes that rank as some of the most powerful in U.S. history.  Beginning in December of 1811, two major quakes were followed by numerous smaller shakes and aftershocks.  But all of those were the lead-up to the biggest of the quakes, which rocked the Midwest on February 7, 1812.  Centered around New Madrid, Missouri, estimates have the quake at 8.0 on the Richter Scale, and it was felt on a massive scale.

How massive?  Stories are told that the quake cracked sidewalks in the nation’s capital and knocked down chimneys in…are you ready?…Maine.  All told, the quake was felt in an area that covers 1,000,000 square miles.  By comparison, the infamous 1906 San Francisco Earthquake covered only about 6,000 square miles.  Though the scale was partially due to the bedrock in which the quake occurred, this was still a tremendously powerful quake.

Today, the fault is still active, and there is growing concern that another major shake-up is building, particularly since we are now approaching 200 years since the quakes of 1812.  What’s more, there has been very little earthquake preparation in the Midwest, and nothing at all approaching the scale of more earthquake-prone areas.  A repeat of the 1812 events would be catastrophic, considering the major population centers that could be affected.

Recommended Reading: When the Mississippi Ran Backwards: Empire, Intrigue, Murder, and the New Madrid Earthquakes – History, intrigue, and mayhem in one volume.  I’ve yet to read this book, but from what I’ve seen, it’s going to be part of my next book order.

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