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Most congressional elections simply tweak the House of Representatives, shifting a few seats in toss-up districts, but every so often a partisan or generational shift occurs that produces a brand new thing. The 112th Congress that took office this January is the latest example: It has a large new Republican majority (49 seats) and an ambitious agenda (resisting the Obama administration). Two hundred years ago the 12th Congress (1811-13) was even more ambitious. It brought in a cohort of new leaders who planned to change the way the House worked, and to revive the country’s character by taking it into war.

The men of the 12th Congress accomplished a lot of what they intended, although it was not always easy. Many of them also got too used to their offices and, when they took the support of their constituents for granted, they got hammered at the polls.

The 12th Congress was notable for its youth. Nearly half the members were freshmen; more than half were under 35 years old. One older politician compared them to hatchlings, “the shell still on their heads.” The 12th was also notable for its talent level. Two of the newcomers—Henry Clay of Kentucky, 34, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, 29—would be towering political figures for four decades.

The young Turks were well organized. In an informal Sunday caucus before the first session of the House, they picked Clay as their candidate for speaker. He had Washington experience: Despite his youth he had already served two brief stints in the Senate, filling vacancies left by resignations. The House elected him speaker on the following day. He transformed the office from figurehead to political force. Clay packed the key committees—Ways and Means, Foreign Relations, Military Affairs, Naval Affairs— with allies, fellow freshmen or other junior members. A gifted orator and a deft parliamentarian, Clay knew when to speak and when not to: He broke precedent by joining in debates himself, and he controlled the tempo of debate by entertaining motions to stop talking and vote. One of his first moves set the tone for his tenure. John Randolph of Virginia, a 12-year House veteran with a sharp tongue and a sharper temper, was in the habit of bringing his dogs into the chamber with him. Clay ordered the sergeant at arms to take the animals out. One beast— Randolph—was enough.

Members of the 12th Congress longed to make a mark on history. The founding fathers had done great things, and a founder, 60-yearold James Madison, was president. But the men of the 12th wanted their own greatness. Clay expressed the thought in his florid style. “The withered arm and wrinkled brow of the illustrious founders of our freedom are melancholy indications that they will shortly be removed from us….We shall want the presence and living example of a new race of heroes to supply their places.”

Clay and his congressional brethren looked for heroism in war with Britain. The United States had a plate full of grievances against Britain by 1811, arising from its behavior in the Napoleonic Wars. Britain seized American ships that traded with Napoleonic Europe; it impressed American sailors into the British navy on the grounds (sometimes true, sometimes not) that they were British deserters; the governor general of Canada encouraged hostile Indians on the western frontier. Randolph, who was bitterly antiwar, alleged a fourth grievance: America’s desire to conquer Canada. “We have heard but one word” from the 12th Congress, said Randolph, “like the whip-poor-will, but one eternal monotonous tone—Canada! Canada! Canada!” The leaders of the 12th Congress took their nickname, not from Randolph’s whippoorwill, but from another bird, becoming the War Hawks.

Behind all these reasons for war loomed a larger one: national self-respect. Preoccupied with its superpower conflict, Britain bullied the young republic. Rep. Richard Johnson of Kentucky put it this way: “We must now oppose the further encroachments of Great Britain by war, or formally annul the Declaration of Independence.”

Biographers of James Madison debate whether he was reluctant or eager to fight; I believe that by 1811-12, he was a War Hawk himself. Clay and his House majority had no doubts. War was declared in June 1812.

The 12th Congress got America into war, but found there were many glitches in waging it. They did not take the financial side of war seriously. They raised a loan, which came up short; they raised customs duties, which were bound to fall once the British navy blockaded America in earnest; and they refused to raise taxes (a third rail in politics, then as now). Without credit or revenue, America’s finances were put on the road to collapse.

Once the fighting began, the War Hawks were forced to recognize that war is waged not by Congress but by the executive. Winfield Scott, then a young lieutenant colonel, said the U.S. Army’s officers were “imbeciles and ignoramuses.” Their civilian leaders were little better: Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton was a drunk who quit work at noon. The president himself, Clay wrote a friend, “is wholly unfit for the storms of war. Nature has cast him in too benevolent a mold.” In time much of the dead wood was culled, but there was a steep learning curve, in Washington and in the field.

The 12th Congress had to learn along with everyone else. To their credit, several of the War Hawks put themselves on the line. Johnson, as well as Peter Porter of New York, left the House to take militia commands; Johnson killed the Shawnee war leader Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, and would ride the fame of that deed all the way to the vice presidency. Clay temporarily gave up his House seat to join the five-man team of negotiators that went to the Belgian city of Ghent in the summer of 1814 to make terms with Britain. By then it was clear that America had gotten its military, if not its financial, house in order: Britain could make dramatic raids, like the burning of Washington, D.C., but no lasting conquests. The peace terms that Clay and his partners got after five months of wrangling—status quo ante—were the best America could have hoped for, given its mixed performance in the field.

The no-longer-young Turks acquired a bad habit in office: forgetting their constituents. In March 1816, the 14th Congress raised member salaries from $6 a day to $1,500 a year. The public was outraged; Clay said there was not “one solitary individual” in his district who did not hate the bill. He barely kept his seat, but three-quarters of his colleagues were ousted.

The new team that stormed into the House in 1811 was not as smart as they thought they were, and over time they developed the usual vices of officeholders. But for all their slip-ups they had achieved their main goal in declaring the War of 1812. A draw against a superpower counted as a victory. America had taken on the conquerors of Napoleon, and not been conquered. New Congresses can accomplish a lot. But the price can be high, and they may not be around very long to enjoy it.


Originally published in the April 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.