The War of 1812: Four Different Perspectives
The War of 1812: Washington D.C. Sacked
The War of 1812
The War of 1812: Four Different Perspectives
(Fictional Monologues in 1815, the year the war ended.)
By Michael M. Nakade
James Madison – the Fourth President of the United States:
I’m both glad and relieved that the war ended in a tie. The Treaty of Ghent signed on Christmas Eve in 1814 changed nothing. Both sides simply agreed to end the war. America could have easily lost. We got a key naval victory in Lake Champlain in September of 1814, and that victory seemed to convince the British to stop advancing to New York from Montreal. I must personally thank Capt. Thomas Macdonough for leading our midshipmen. Without that victory, I would have gone down in history as the American president who lost the war.
Luck was on my side. The communication between Europe and America took forever, and it actually helped me. You see, the big battle between our soldiers and the invading British soldiers took place in New Orleans in January 1815, even though the war had been over for nearly three weeks. I feel badly for the soldiers who lost their lives in that battle. They didn’t need to fight that battle. But, it was a good thing for me because our men won the battle. With the news of victory in New Orleans combined with the arrival of the news of Treaty of Ghent, many Americans got the impression that we won the war outright. It’s not accurate, but I will take it. It saved my reputation. The war had been called “Mr. Madison’s War,” and the war was unpopular. When it was over, it wasn’t that unpopular, thanks to this victory in New Orleans.
Some people even called this war The Second War of Independence since America fought for their neutral rights in the sea. We even got our National Anthem, The Star Spangle Banner from this war. None of us knew at the time that it would later become our beloved National Anthem. As Shakespeare says, “All’s well that ends well.” That’s how I see the War of 1812.
Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House of Representative from Kentucky:
I became the Speaker of the House for the first time at the age of 34 in 1811 and pushed for the war against Great Britain. Some people called me the guiding spirit of the War Hawk faction of the House, and they were right. I appointed the like-minded politicians to key House committees so that I could help the United States get into the war and show the world we are a sovereign nation. The War Hawk faction was consisted of young men from the South and the West.
We felt the honor of America was at stake in 1812. America’s rights in the high seas had been ignored for almost two decades. France and Britain were fighting each other in Europe, and they hadn’t allowed America to trade freely with their respective enemy. In other words, our rights as a neutral nation were ignored by Britain and Napoleon’s France. Between these two countries, several hundred vessels were seized in the Atlantic. The British Navy in particular was kidnapping our sailors in international waters for years. This practice of impressments was really offensive. Our repeated protests did not achieve any changes. I insisted that it was time to fight for our maritime right. I openly suggested that Americans could take Canada, British possession to our north, to teach the British a lesson.
I do realize that our military wasn’t quite ready to bulldoze the Canadians in 1812. I admit that the conquest of Canada was not as easily done as I thought it would be. I thought that the British would be preoccupied with their fight against Napoleon in Europe when the War began. But, to our surprise, Napoleon’s force was defeated in 1812, and after that, the British military could pour their energy into North America. Those hardened British soldiers were tough. At least we tried and showed the British that Americans would not just take their abuse. Our soldiers fought bravely and held their own. Although we did not annex Canada as a result of the War of 1812, we protected our honor and demonstrated to European countries that we refused to be taken lightly in international affairs.
General Robert Ross, British commander who sacked Washington D.C. in the summer of 1814
I led 4,000 strong British troops to America’s new capital after easily defeating the American force at Blandensburg in late August. Although D.C. wasn’t strategically important in this war, I felt that the Americans would be psychologically defeated if their new capital city was taken. I was getting ready to offer the truce agreement to the Americans in exchange of sparing their capital. But, no! Those Americans were both rude and barbaric. As we marched into the capital, some of the residents in the city attacked us with sniper shots. We were both stunned and angered. My horse was killed by one of the sniper bullets. I ordered my soldiers to burn down any public buildings to teach them a lesson. I was hoping that we’d capture Mrs. Dolly Madison so that we could parade her as a prisoner in the streets of London! Anyway, we burned lots of federal buildings, including the White House. Ahhh, it felt so good to teach those Americans a lesson.
Unfortunately for us, the burning of D.C. was all we could manage to do. Our force was too small to occupy the capital city. So, I shifted my attention to conquering Baltimore, a major port city north of Washington D.C. We bombarded the city’s port from our battleships for 24 hours, but Americans put up a pretty good fight. I was killed in the action, and our force decided to retreat. Too bad. We were ‘this’ close to victory over America.
Timothy Pickering, the former Secretary of State under Adams’ administration and the leader of the Essex Junta:
The War of 1812 has been unkind to me and my fellow New England Federalists. In fact, the war’s surprising twists and turns led to our demise as a political entity in America. We were labeled as “traitors” when the War ended in 1815. I had no choice but to retire from politics altogether. Let me tell you my take on the War.
I was always in disagreement with Jefferson and Madison. They were acting not in my New England’s best interest. When the British navy was seizing our merchant vessels in the mid decade of the 1800s, Jefferson overreacted. The British were merely preventing Americans from trading with Napoleon’s France to protect their interests. Jefferson called for the Embargo and shut down the trading with other countries altogether. It terribly damaged the New England commerce.
Then Madison became the president, and he, too, acted against the best interests of New England. He listened to the War Hawk faction of the House of Representative and declared a war on Britain. He decided to put our nation at a war with the mighty British over the mere issue of maritime rights. In reality, he wanted America to annex Canada, and the British violation of American rights in the high sea provided the necessary excuse.
When America’s invasion of Canada failed miserably, I personally felt vindicated. It was the case of ‘I told you so.’ When Jefferson ran the country as the Democratic-Republican president, he undid many of Hamilton’s policies. Jefferson slashed the military budget and made sure that America would not have a strong military force. I have always been a supporter of Hamilton’s vision of the federal government. I wanted our government to be strong so that America would be united more tightly and become a world power. Jefferson’s vision was the opposite. He wanted the federal government to be weak and wanted each state government to act like an independent nation.
When the war began, America’s forces were poorly trained and poorly equipped. Relying on those undisciplined states’ militia men was a big mistake. The British navy had a field day against our amateur sailors and soldiers. The war of 1812 was looking very badly for America especially in the summer of 1814 when Washington D.C. was sacked by the British.
I was sure that America was going to lose. The British were poised to attack New York from Lake Champlain in the fall of 1814. They were also preparing to capture New Orleans in the South in order to take a total control of the Mississippi River traffic. Many of New England Federalists were very unhappy that our nation was racking up huge national debts and would soon be defeated.
We got together in Hartford, Connecticut and planned our strategy. The Hartford Convention took place in December of 1814. I was arguing for state’s rights in order to nullify policies of the Federal government led by Madison and his Democratic-Republican cronies. At the Hartford Convention, I was suggesting that New England states work out a separate peace treaty with Britain in order to get out of this war as soon as possible. Little did I know that the war was going to be over fairly soon. What made it worse was Gen. Andrew Jackson’s huge victory over invading British forces in New Orleans in January 1815. The news of the Treaty of Ghent and the victory in New Orleans arrived simultaneously, and many Americans thought that we won the war outright. While the rest of the country enjoyed the feeling of victory and surging nationalism, we, the New England Federalists, were called Essex Junta. We became branded as traitors. From that point of on, the Federalist Party was discredited and soon dissolved.
I learned that timing is everything in politics. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. History has not been kind to me, as a result.
The War of 1812 was filled with paradox and ironies. I did my political 180, and so did Madison. I argued for the states’ rights, while Madison expanded the power of the central government. I spoke of possible secession of New England states from the Union just like Madison spoke of the secession of Virginia when he challenged the legality of the Alien and the Sedition Act of 1798.
As the result of the War of 1812, the Era of Good Feeling under Monroe ensued. John Quincy Adams, the son of President John Adams, would receive notoriety as the Secretary of State under Monroe’s National Republican administration. In essence, this war brought on many unintended consequences for subsequent American history. I wouldn’t call this war, The Second War of Independence. That’s much too glorified. I would call it Mr. Madison’s War. It was the war that didn’t have to happen, but it did, and it brought so many changes that nobody ever saw it coming. Madison got lucky with war’s outcome. He could easily have been discredited. It’s not fair, but that’s how history played out.
(This work was inspired by Knowledge Products’ Lecture Series on The United States At War – The War of 1812 created by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel.)