The First US Defeat

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The two-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812 is upon us, and I'm shocked and surprised the War Party hasn't planned a celebration: after all, as Jefferson Morley points out in Salon, this was the first neocon war, i.e. an unnecessary war of choice. Perhaps the reason for this shameful lack of hosannas is that it wasn't particularly successful: the Brits burned Washington and routed our militias, while the glorious conquest of Canada — where, Americans were told, the inhabitants would shower us with rose petals at the moment of their u201Cliberationu201D — was rudely repulsed by the ungrateful Canadians.

The stated reason for the war — the forcible impressments of British deserters and American citizens on the high seas — had little to do with reality. After all, the Brits had been doing this since the Revolution, and their actions, while hardly conducive to Anglo-American relations, in no way threatened the survival of the Republic. Much more important, as a factor in starting the war, was the agitation of the u201Cwarhawks,u201D a group of younger members of the Jeffersonian (or Democratic-Republican) party in Congress, who charged that His Majesty's Government was encouraging attacks on American settlers by the Indians, and who dreamed of conquering Canada. Indeed, the latter motivation was underscored by the libertarian congressman John Randolph, who declared:

u201CSir, if you go to war it will not be for the protection of, or defense of your maritime rights. Gentlemen from the North have been taken up to some high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the earth; and Canada seems tempting to their sight. That rich vein of Gennesee land, which is said to be even better on the other side of the lake than on this. Agrarian cupidity, not maritime right, urges the war. Ever since the report of the Committee on Foreign Relations came into the House, we have heard but one word- like the whip-poor-will, but one eternal monotonous tone – Canada! Canada! Canada!u201D

The warhawks, led by John Calhoun, were motivated less by outrage over British harassment of American persons and commerce than by the emerging delusion of Manifest Destiny that energized the earliest advocates of an international American empire. The Appalachian and southern states were the epicenter of this ultra-nationalistic agitation, and the editors of the Nashville Clarion gave voice to the imperialist impulse when they asked:

u201CWhere is it written in the book of fate that the American Republic shall not stretch her limits from the Capes of the Chesapeake to Noorka Sound, from the isthmus of Panama to Hudson Bay?u201D

Before the neocons there were the warhawks of 1812. On the eve of war, their leader, the protectionist Senator John Calhoun, smugly declared:

u201CI believe that in four weeks from the time a declaration of war is heard on our frontier, the whole of Upper Canada and a part of Lower Canada will be in our power.u201D

Secretary of War William Eustis enthused:

“We can take the Canadas without soldiers, we have only to send officers into the province and the people . . . will rally round our standard.”

We'll be greeted as liberators — don't worry, it'll be a cakewalk. Does any of this sound familiar?

Aside from their complaint that the US government hadn't killed enough native Americans, the warhawks longed for war with the British, who were aiding the desperate guerrilla defense mounted by the u201CIndians.u201D The frontiersmen resented competition from British-Canadian fur traders, who had good relations with the tribes.

In any case, the war was a disaster for the militarily weak fledgling republic, which might easily have been soundly defeated, and reabsorbed back into the empire. Think of it: If London hadn't been busy fighting another war in Europe, we might all be speaking British.

American forces were surprisingly successful on the sea, handing the Brits several stinging defeats, but on land it was a different story. The British army struck at the very heart of the young republic, burning Washington to the ground.

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Justin Raimondo [send him mail] is editorial director of Antiwar.com and is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard and Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.

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