Oh Say Can You See…?: How the War of 1812 Gave Us Something Worth Fighting For | HistoryNet MENU

Oh Say Can You See…?: How the War of 1812 Gave Us Something Worth Fighting For

By Nicole Eustace
4/6/2016 • American History Magazine

ON AUGUST 16, 1812, Americans saw a spectacle in red, white and blue that they had hoped never to witness. Above the red and blue striped marquee tent that staked a U.S. military camp on the Detroit River, a white flag fluttered in surrender. American General William Hull had just capitulated to British General Isaac Brock, surrendering 2,000 soldiers without firing so much as a shot, much less achieving the army’s goal of conquering Canada.

That white flag might easily have marked a moment of national despair. Yet President James Madison insisted that this would be far from its final effect. “The national spirit rises according to the pressure on it,” he said. As he explained a few months later, “the loss of an important post and the brave men surrendered with it inspired everywhere new ardor and determination.”

Determined or not, the nation accomplished few of its stated goals in the conflict that became known as the War of 1812. Among the host of complaints that had sparked the war, the United States charged Great Britain with violating its international shipping rights and with impressing its sailors into the Royal Navy. By war’s end in 1815, after the British had burned Washington, D.C., to the ground and the national debt had nearly tripled, from $45 million to $127 million, the only concession the United States won was the return of all territorial boundaries and diplomatic disputes to their prewar status. Yet Madison was right about one thing: The nation’s “spirits” did rise. The war created what soon became celebrated across the country as an “Era of Good Feelings.” In this remarkable triumph of feeling over facts, American patriotism arose in a new and powerful form.

The War of 1812 enjoys the uneasy distinction of being the first war that was formally declared in a modern democracy. As the fighting commenced, it had very little direct impact on the lives of ordinary people. The numbers of men mustered into the regular army were few, and most of the major military actions occurred far from U.S. population centers, on the fringes of the frontiers or on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes. Nonetheless, Americans from President Madison down to ordinary tavern-goers clamored to express their opinions about the conflict. While Federalists in New England critiqued the war at ever y tur n, Republicans in the South and West took ever y opportunity to celebrate it. Whether pro or con, all this war talk opened the work of the nation to public participation on an unprecedented scale. The war might easily have been dismissed as a terrific waste of time and money, if not deplored as a disastrous display of hubris. Instead, it played a key role in shaping people’s commitment to active democratic participation. The chance to make their voices heard led Americans to articulate what love of country meant to them. They might not share common ties of descent or devotion to a divinely blessed monarch, but they could forge patriotic bonds of love with each other. When Madison spoke of raising the country’s “ardor” he literally meant that love would save the nation. A similar sentiment was immortalized in “The Star Spangled Banner,” which the young poet Francis Scott Key penned after watching the British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore toward the end of the war.

William Hull Goes On Trial

The idea that emotion mattered as much as action was taken so literally that when William Hull was court-martialed for the disaster at Detroit, failures of feeling were high on the list of the formal charges against him. Accused of treason against the United States, Hull stood trial for his life on the basis of claims that he had shown “cowardice at and in the neighborhood of Detroit,” and that as a direct result, “the general ardor of the army [had] insensibly abated.” Junior officers testified that when Hull’s “forces landed in Canada, they landed with an ardent zeal,” a level of emotional arousal that, they asserted, would have ensured victory had Hull not led them off track.

According to Hull’s accusers, emotional arousal rightly counted as an essential element of military preparedness. The general countered that emotional ardor was no substitute for armed effectiveness. The men under his command, Hull said, “though, they were very ardent and patriotic in their expressions, had had no service and neither men nor officers had ever been tried. It is not extraordinary that I should have felt some want of confidence in these raw troops.”

James Madison and the Republican Congress took the nation to war with almost no preparation whatsoever in terms of military or financial infrastructure. Hull, a celebrated veteran of the American Revolution who knew firsthand the value of a professional fighting force, had spent the months before his surrender sending increasingly urgent letters asking Washington to remedy the situation. He faced almost insurmountable odds at Detroit, leading a tattered force of under-supplied and underfed men, most of them brand new to battle and many of them openly mutinous. To Hull’s mind, preemptive surrender had the virtue of preserving thousands of lives that would otherwise have been doomed against the combined force of professional British regulars and their Indian allies. Yet it proved far easier for politicians in Washington to reprimand Hull for a supposed lack of ardor than to correct the inadequacies of their military planning.

Politically, a great deal was at stake in assigning blame for Hull’s capitulation. With presidential elections looming in November, Hull faced censure from all sides, from Federalists who denounced the entire enterprise as dubious to Madison loyalists within the Republican Party who preferred to blame Hull personally rather than admit to any policy failure on the part of the administration. Coming just two months after war was declared, Hull’s defeat invited immediate public criticism of a military adventure that many objected to on moral grounds and still more opposed on practical ones.

Hull was tried in the press long before he ever had an opportunity to appear in court. As the Alexandria Gazette noted, because “the indignant voice of the people is lifted up against the cabinet at Washington, the troops of the palace fondly hope, that they shall be able to render Hull a scape goat.” If Hull bore all the blame, the rest of the nation need feel no shame.

The court case mounted against Hull centered squarely on the effort to prove that he had lacked love for his country and feared only for himself. Witnesses paraded in front of the judge stating their opinions of the military significance of Hull’s facial expressions on the morning of the capitulation, seeking to show that cowardice not ardor had guided his decisions. Hull testified that “expressions of the human countenance, and the manners of men, are but fallible indications of the workings of the human mind.” That defense proved to be of no avail. Hull was found guilty and given a death sentence. Failure of feeling had become a capital crime.

Hull’s life was eventually spared, after the presidential election was safely over. The court recommended and Madison concurred that the death sentence should be commuted “in consideration of Brigadier General Hull’s revolutionary services, and his advanced age.” No doubt this clemency helped ease what one newspaper dryly described as “the sensitive consciences of fortunate office holders.” But Hull’s reprieve did not signal relief for the nation.

The Battle of New Orleans

Throughout Hull’s trial and many subsequent military defeats, popular enthusiasm for the war never flagged—so long as public representations of events played in an emotionally upbeat key. The great public debates on the War of 1812 allowed Americans to develop the false sense that they were truly participating in the events of the day when, in reality, few had any immediate experience of the conflict. The argument that emotional ardor represented a key contribution to national projects distracted the public from the logistical and ethical questions cast into sharp relief by the debacle at Detroit. As a result, the nation faced repeated military fiascos as the war dragged on.

The war hit closest to home when the British burned the White House, a place that was at once a national symbol and a domestic space. Madison reacted within a week of the attack, proclaiming that the British had “exhibit[ed] a disregard of the principles of humanity and the rules of civilized warfare…which must give to the existing war a character of…barbarism.” These charges were so explosive that the president’s proclamation was reprinted nearly 100 times in newspapers across the country in the first two weeks after it appeared in the Daily National Intelligencer on September 3, 1814.

The same month in which the capital fell to the British, General Andrew Jackson wrested an enormous land cession from Creek Indians in Georgia and Alabama: 22 million acres relinquished to the United States at the Treaty of Fort Jackson. The treaty garnered barely a mention in the Daily National Intelligencer, the most nationalistic of papers, even though the land cession would prove to be one of the most lasting legacies of the war years.

Within weeks Jackson headed to New Orleans, where a confrontation with the British would bring him lasting fame as the best defender of the nation’s “delicate females.” The most popular narrative portrayal of Jackson’s actions came from the pen of his friend and biographer John Eaton. In his book The Life of Jackson, Eaton set out deliberately to elevate the up-and-coming general in ways that invited direct comparison to the fallen Hull.

Whereas Hull had given up more than 2,000 prisoners, Jackson inflicted more than 2,000 casualties. Whereas Hull, a hero of the American Revolution, had preferred to be in command of a disciplined professional army, Jackson proved himself capable of winning with a ragtag militia. Most of all, while Hull faced a capital trial for the way he had allowed the ardor of his men to be “insensibly abated,” Eaton stressed repeatedly that Jackson had risen to greatness through the “natural ardor of his temper” and that in every campaign he was everywhere among his troops “inspiring them with the ardor that animated his own bosom.”

After the many disasters, surrenders, desertions and general embarrassments that the United States endured during the War of 1812, the tide of history finally turned on the Mississippi River, a few miles south of New Orleans, on January 8, 1815. On that day, Jackson led a patched-together force of regular soldiers, militiamen from Tennessee and Kentucky, Baratarian pirates, and French, Spanish, Anglo-American and African-American residents of New Orleans to a stunning victory against the British. Hunkered down behind earthworks along the east side of the river, Jackson’s men waited patiently for the invading British regulars to leave their boats and scramble up the banks, then picked them off by the dozens. Reporting the results to Washington three days later, he declared: “Louisiana is now clear of its enemy.” Jackson and Eaton together helped spread a false story about British depravity at New Orleans that did much to galvanize American public opinion. On February 16, 1815, when the United States House of Representatives met to devise an official congressional resolution of thanks to General Jackson, Jared Ingersoll, a Republican from Philadelphia, took to the floor and exclaimed, “for the first time during this long, arduous, and trying session, we can all feel alike—we are all of one mind—all hearts leap up to the embraces of each other.”

Jackson’s success in New Orleans had been known for more than a week, but Ingersoll’s excitement related to a new and juicy bit of gossip. He informed his colleagues that word had just arrived that on their invasion of New Orleans, British officers had offered their soldiers “beauty and booty—in other words rape and rapine, as the reward of victory.” Ingersoll chortled, “thus led and thus invited the British army made its storm. Their discomfiture is without example. Never was there such disparity of loss.” Though it had no basis in fact, the shocking story electrified the capital. The supposed decision of the British to authorize extreme measures had only produced an extraordinary defeat.

Commentators in the capital made the story central to any account of Jackson’s victory. The Washington, D.C., Niles Weekly Register announced: “BEAUTY AND BOOTY—These words. Or in other terms, RAPE AND ROBBERY, were the British watch-word and countersign on their attack of the defenses of Orleans on the ever-to-be-remembered 8th of January…. ‘Beauty and booty’— rejoice, virgins of Orleans that the ravishers…your intended spoilers have perished.”

The story of “beauty and booty” swept across the country and helped to cement the importance of the New Orleans victory in the public mind. In reality, Jackson’s feat had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the war. The celebrated action of January 8 took place some two weeks after negotiators had signed a formal peace treaty with Britain in Ghent on December 24, 1814, that did nothing more than reestablish the prewar status quo. News from Europe traveled slowly cross the Atlantic. So lawmakers in Washington learned about the victory in New Orleans before they were informed about the treaty. In the war’s final irony, the United States at last achieved a significant triumph only after it no longer mattered from a negotiating perspective.

Yet if timing prevented the Battle of New Orleans from being a true “signal victory,” the story of “beauty and booty” still sent a strong signal. And it was exactly the message Ingersoll and his fellow Republicans wanted to convey. It presented the United States as a uniquely virtuous nation bent on preserving the most fundamental form of liberty—sexual consent—from British perfidy. Each person who passed on the story of “beauty and booty” helped validate assertions that American men fought for country because of the romantic ardor they felt for their wives and sweethearts. In doing so, U.S. soldiers enacted a love of liberty entirely different from British tyranny. In the end, what mattered most to the Republicans was that the war succeeded in uniting the country emotionally. “Who is not proud to feel himself an American?” Ingersoll said. “No matter what the terms of the treaty may be, the effects of this war must be permanently prosperous and honorable.”

The pro-war position triumphed not only because of the mass appeal of patriotism based in romantic love but also because every American had a stake in the growth and westward expansion of the U.S. population. Small wonder then that when Madison came to reflect on the significance of the war in a presidential message delivered at the end of 1815, he exulted that “the United States are in the tranquil enjoyment of a[n]…honorable peace….The strongest features of its flourishing condition are seen in a population rapidly increasing, on a territory as productive as it is extensive.”

Presbyterian minister Andrew McLeod of New York confidently predicted in 1815 that the “love of country will be revived…by this second war of independence.” What he and other romantic patriots did not foresee was that all too real social, political and economic conflicts would tear the country apart section by section and person by person in the decades to come.

Meanwhile, a population reared on stories of war as patriotic pleasure had learned to give little weight to the true costs of armed struggle. Perhaps this explains why the first major battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run, caught contemporaries so completely by surprise. Spectators with picnic hampers who had turned out to cheer the action were shocked to the core by the carnage: 5,000 casualties in a single day, almost as many as in all the years of the War of 1812. The easy emotional victories of the War of 1812 did nothing to prime the nation for the hard suffering of the war we can never forget, the Civil War, which finally, fully, made the nation.

Nicole Eustace is an associate professor of history at New York University. Her most recent book is 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism.

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