Politics & the War of 1812

The more I look into the War of 1812, the more I suspect that one of the reasons it’s been neglected by historians is that it torpedoes the pleasant image of a post-Revolutionary nation that was happily united except for the slavery thing.  Certain documents I’m examining indicate rather strongly that the states may have reflexively viewed the central government as a potential threat to their powers and liberties.

Consider this August 1812 committee report from the Connecticut General Assembly:

… it is very apparent, that the claim set up, by the Administration of the Government of the United States is, that when a War has been declared to exist, between this, & any foreign Country, the Militia of the several States are liable to be demanded, by the Administration of the Government of the United States, to be called into the Service of the United States, to enter their forts, and there remain, upon the presumption, that the Enemy may invade the place or places, which they are ordered to Garrison & defend. —— And that for this purpose, they may be ordered to any part of the United States — For it will be remarked that no pretension is set up, that any more or greater danger of invasion exists, at New London or New Haven, than exists in any other place on the Sea Coast –

… If then the Militia can be constitutionally required to man the Garrisons, of the United States, they may continue to be so required, as long as the danger continues to exist; and so become, for all the purposes of carrying on the war, within the United States, standing troops of the United States. – and a Declaration of War made by the Administration of the Government of the United [States], & announced to the Governours of the States, will substantially, convert the Militia of the States, into such troops —-

But it must not be forgotten, that the State of Connecticut is a free, sovereign & independent State – that the United States, are a Confederacy of States – that we are a confederated, & not a consolidated Republic — That the Governour of this State, is under as high & solemn obligation, “to maintain the lawful rights & priviledges thereof, as a Sovereign free & independent State” as he is “to support the Constitution of the United States.” … The same Constitution, which delegates powers to the General Government, inhibits the exercise of powers, not delegated, and reserves those powers to the State respectively …

(Connecticut Archives, War of 1812 Vol. 1, Item 98).

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  I believe this kind of argument largely disappeared as a major political factor after the Civil War.  Dealing with the fact that the Civil War was not the only inter-sectional conflict that rested on such concepts would undermine the idea that the Civil War was a distressing aberration in our history, revolving entirely around slavery.  In fact, it was part of a long, ongoing argument over how strong the Federal government was supposed to be; while slavery was, undoubtedly, the preeminent issue that exposed this internal conflict, and the one that actually led to a civil war, the equally basic debate over federal versus states’ rights clearly could and did involve other issues as well.

2 thoughts on “Politics & the War of 1812

  1. The Hartford Convention that included delegates from most of the New England States was initiated to consider the Federal Embargo Act. This meeting has been cited as an early example of secessionist ideas.

    • True as far as it goes, but it’s also another example of the need to use historical sources carefully. Modern scholars have noted that the actual evidence of what they talked about – as opposed to what their critics at the time said – indicates that their focus really was on repairing the flaws they perceived in the Constitution (or in the Republicans’ interpretations of it), not on trying to duck out of it.

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