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Formation of the Union By Albert Bushnell Hart Characters: 5995

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


[Sidenote: Madison's first Congress.]

The responsibility for peace or war was now thrown upon the Congress which assembled Nov. 4, 1811. It had been elected at a time when it was believed that France had at last withdrawn the Decrees, and it had a strong Republican majority in both branches; there were but six Federalists in the Senate, and thirty-seven in the House. Even Massachusetts had chosen a Republican senator.

[Sidenote: The young Republicans.]

The new Congress had little of the timid spirit of its predecessor. It contained an unusual number of vigorous young men. Among the members who appeared for the first time in the House were John C. Calhoun, Langdon Cheves, and William Lowndes; two years later Daniel Webster took his seat. The first act of the new House Was to elect as its Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky,-a young man for the first time a member of the House, and known to be in favor of war. His selection meant a change of counsels; the committees were reorganized, and Calhoun was made a leading member of the committee on Foreign Relations.

[Sidenote: Influence of the West.]

For the first time since 1807 war seemed likely. The controlling element in Congress had no longer the traditions of the Revolutionary War and the influence of Revolutionary statesmen. Many of these members represented interior States, having no sea-coast, and subject to no danger from invasion. These States were too new to command the affectionate support of their people; to their members the United States government represented the power and dignity of America; they chafed under the humiliations which had so long been suffered. The growth of the South and West enabled Congress to override the Federalists of New England and the peace Republicans of the Middle States.

[Sidenote: Madison's attitude.]

The President was a peaceful man, but he was unable to manage Congress, and was weary of the long series of offensive measures against his country. The annual message bore a distinctly warlike tone, especially toward England; and Gallatin suggested increased import duties and new war taxes.

[Sidenote: Who was the enemy?]

The grievances of the United States were heavy, but to go to war was difficult. The government was hampered by the fact that the New England ship-owners, in whose behalf the government was negotiating and threatening, preferred an irregular and hazardous trade to war. A more serious difficulty was that France had notoriously been a worse enemy than England; she had done all the open injury in her power, and had then treacherously entrapped our vessels. Madison had taken the untenable ground that our trade was respected by France, and that the British government was therefore bound to withdraw its Orders. The New England Federalists had a corresponding partisan friendship for England, and could see no offence in the blockade of our coasts, or even in impressment.

[Sidenote: Designs on Canada.]

Yet the war spirit agains

t England was steadily rising. The reason is to be found in a speech delivered by Henry Clay some months later: "An honorable peace is obtainable only by an efficient war. My plan would be to call out the ample resources of the country, give them a judicious direction, prosecute the war with the utmost vigor, strike wherever we can reach the enemy at sea or on land, and negotiate the terms of peace at Quebec or Halifax." The immediate object of the war was, therefore, not to secure the rights of vessel-owners: war would instantly make all American commerce subject to capture; the evident purpose was to take Canada, and by the occupation of British territory to force England to make a favorable peace.

[Sidenote: Preliminaries of war.]

On Jan. 6, 1812, a bill for raising twenty-five thousand troops was passed, and fifty thousand volunteers were authorized. The enthusiasm of Congress was chilled by new action of the French government, which proved its friendliness by capturing American merchantmen wherever found upon the sea. Nevertheless, on April 1 the President recommended an embargo, which was understood to be preliminary to war with England. As the time for Presidential nominations came on, the New York Republicans bolted, and nominated De Witt Clinton.

[Sidenote: War declared.]

Still the war was delayed. Although on May 19 news was received that the British government would not yield the Orders in Council, it was June 1 before Madison sent to Congress a message recommending war, and not until June 18 did the declaration pass. Nearly forty Republican members refused to vote for it, and the test vote was seventy-nine to forty-nine in the House, and nineteen to thirteen in the Senate.

[Sidenote: Causes of the war.]

The causes of the war, as set forth in the messages of the President and in contemporary speeches, were four. The first was that the British had tampered with the Indians and urged them to hostilities: it was true, and it was trying; but the breaking out of war simply aggravated that difficulty. The second charge was the interference with neutral trade by the Orders in Council; but the injury from the French Decrees had been more humiliating. The third complaint was perhaps the most serious and exasperating: it was the virtual blockade of American ports by British cruisers, and their interference with arriving and departing vessels. Finally came the impressment of American seamen.

[Sidenote: Orders in Council withdrawn.]

Of these grievances the last two had not up to this time been put forward as cause for war. On June 16, two days before the declaration of war, the British government reluctantly withdrew the Orders in Council against which the United States had for six years protested. Before hostilities had fairly begun, notice was sent to the American government: it insisted on prosecuting the war, which was therefore undertaken ostensibly for the protection of the coast and the prevention of impressments.

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