U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The War of 1812, a National Quest for Glory


Contemporary personification of the US, Brother Jonathan, pouring Perry down the throat of UK’s personification, John Bull. Perry was both a nauseating drink and the name of one of the American naval heroes in the war.

Over the first two decades of the nineteenth century a new generation of men rose to prominence in the young American republic. Unlike their fathers, these men could not lay claim to what became known as the ‘spirit of 1776.’ It is hard to find a more unlikely couple than Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, yet both were two of the most prominent men of that post-revolutionary generation and shared in common much more than one would expect. Born in 1767, both Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams had been only adolescents during the Revolution, and indeed over these very decades the two future presidents and political adversaries increasingly felt the burden of living up to the heights achieved by the founding generation. This yoke—which the two felt more poignantly than most—would fuel their rise on to the national scene over these years.

Moving to the western frontier as a young lawyer, Andrew Jackson quickly established himself as a leading figure in his adopted community of Nashville, Tennessee. Nonetheless—despite his remarkable success in both business and politics—in the decade preceding the War of 1812 Jackson, now a militia general, felt in dire need of a war to change his fortunes. The same period was also emotionally taxing for Adams. Chosen by Massachusetts Federalists to serve as a United States Senator in 1803, he quickly broke with the Federalist Party when he felt that the spirit of faction threatened the union. Moreover, though never a war hawk, he found himself increasingly favoring militancy towards Britain. Fittingly, perhaps, both would have central roles in the War of 1812. While Jackson led the Battle of New Orleans that closed the war, Adams negotiated the Treaty of Ghent that settled the same conflict.

Usually when we think of the American war that best captured the capacity of Americans to indulge in militant nationalism, we think of the war that closed the nineteenth century, the Spanish American War. Yet the first American war of that century, the War of 1812, was no less animated by jingoism. Indeed, many Americans of a younger generation, who could not lean on their revolutionary heritage to expunge their self doubts, sought to reclaim what they called the ‘spirit of 76’ by waging war on Britain. To be sure, the context was ripe as well—the British navy had offended the honor of thin-skinned Americans for several years by the outbreak of the war. But the United States did not reverse course when, after the declaration of war, it learned that the British had suspended the Orders in Council, which the Americans had cited as their highest concern. A critical mass of Americans led by a young generation of war hawks had determined that war was the only course of action that could reinvigorate the young republic and it would take much more than revoking the British Orders in Council to stop them from achieving exactly that.

Intellectual historians have traditionally turned to political economy as the arena in which Americans worked out enlightenment hopes and classical republican apprehensions.(1) Indeed, in many ways the ideological divide that pit Democratic Republicans against Federalists hinged on where each lay their hopes and whence emanated their fears. Federalists, who hoped for a centralized polity and economy and feared anarchy and the leveling spirit of excessive democracy, viewed western expansion as hazardous—especially in the wake of The Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. To them the classical republican category of ‘commerce’—in particular when dominated by a centralized economy—did not sound quite so ominous when compared to the specter of economic and political confusion. Consequently they also tended to look to the centralized British Empire as a model and to the French, now in the hands of the populist dictator Napoleon, as the root of all evil.

Democratic Republicans, on the other hand, associated liberty and virtue with a loosely organized polity and a decentralized economy dominated by yeomen farmers, and saw in the west the key to maintaining American rustic virtue. In this sense the predicament of Andrew Jackson’s life, which I explored in my last post, captured the contradiction at the heart of the Jeffersonian ascendancy. Many of the new elites in the country often owed their new status to commercial success, yet remained nervous regarding a nebulous construction of ‘commerce.’ It of course only exacerbated their anxieties that the very medicine they meted out to curb commercial impulses—decentralizing economic and political power—tended to boost commercial activity. Thus, though by the outbreak of the War of 1812—outside of New England—the Democratic Republican persuasion led by Jefferson and Madison clearly prevailed, Americans were as worried as ever about their future as a republic. Indeed, in the years leading up to the War of 1812 contemporary Americans demonstrated a remarkable ability to boast of America’s greatness at one moment and to betray deep-seeded anxieties the next.

Though Democratic Republicans’ engagements with political economy proved central to explicating and tentatively resolving the questions posed by many Americans in the first decades of the nineteenth century, with the exception of Steven Watts and Richard Slotkin, scholars have paid too little attention to the role of militant nationalism in allaying the anxieties of the day.(2) For by the time the American government declared war on Great Britain, it seemed to many—from the westerner Andrew Jackson to John Quincy Adams of New England—that only war could secure the fate of the union. Furthermore, a great majority of Americans not only accepted war as a necessary evil (as J. Q. Adams did) but actively yearned for it. A combination of conscious analysis and subconscious intuition led them to believe that war would best address the distressing weaknesses they perceived in the American body politic. To some it seemed as the best means to bring a divided nation together. To others American honor and dignity seemed first and foremost at stake. To many westerners it served as a vehicle to purge, once and for all, the Indian terror and to claim Native lands for the advent of “civilization.” To many easterners it loomed as an invigorating stimulus for a nation that seemed consumed by an emasculating commitment to commercial and entrepreneurial activity. War offered different solutions to different people and different solutions for the same people encountering changing emotional and intellectual challenges. For all who supported war, however, it was clear that Americans must reclaim the spirit of 76, for it constituted the only viable mythological narrative they had to lean on.

Indeed, in this sense the War of 1812, a clumsily run war if there ever was one, constituted a victory of sorts, perhaps the most peculiar American victory, for it required remarkable intellectual gymnastics to construe it as such. Despite setting formal goals such as conquering Canada, putting a stop to British predations at sea, and defeating British supported Native American opposition, the real end to the war was to regenerate American nationalism and to put it on stable footing for years to come. And especially in the wake of Andrew Jackson’s victory in New Orleans early in 1815, the white men who led the war effort achieved just that. In short, the War of 1812 was a struggle to rekindle revolutionary glory and unity, and the west was where they found it, or rather constructed it. Despite numerous military failures and although Americans searched for heroes throughout the war with little success, one great victory was enough for Americans to claim glory, for it touched on all the themes that best supported an emerging nationalist mythology of the west. While a diverse mix of creoles, free blacks, regulars, and even pirates, as well as American militia, defeated the British in the battle, only white yeomen got credit for the military achievement. Andrew, Old Hickory, Jackson became the iconic hero of the war, and the men he led, according to myth predominantly Kentucky and Tennessee militia, came to embody the true spirit of America.(3)

[1] The most famous scholarship on this is Drew McCoy, The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America.

[2] Steven Watts’ brilliant The Republic Reborn:War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820 makes this argument specifically about the War of 1812.

[3] Especially the myth of the “Hunters of Kentucky,” whose sharp shooting supposedly defeated the British, had no basis in reality. Many of the Kentucky militia that arrived late were not even armed during the battle and were placed in reserve.