RALEIGH – When the ancient Roman author Vegetius wrote that those who desire peace should prepare for war, he was offering a timeless insight about the risks of presenting a weak front to an aggressive opponent. If only James Madison had taken the insight to heart.
It was 200 years ago this week that the Congress of the United States voted to approve President Madison’s proposed declaration of war against Great Britain. He formally signed it into law on June 18, setting off what became known as the War of 1812. It didn’t exactly go as planned for the Americans. Their chief war aim, the conquest of Canada, would elude them throughout the war. The British considered the U.S. declaration of war a dastardly stab in the back while they were challenging Napoleon Bonaparte’s domination of Europe. After Bonaparte’s initial abdication in 1814, the British devoted more attention and resources to the American war, capturing Washington, D.C. in August 1814 and setting fire to the White House and Capitol.
That the War of 1812 ended up as essentially a draw was primarily the work of America’s naval forces and privateers, who did much better than expected, rather than the work of America’s army and militia, who often performed poorly. Only on the frontier, first against British-allied Indians and later against a British invasion at New Orleans, did American ground forces acquit themselves well.
It’s not that Madison and his “War Hawks” in Congress didn’t have just cause for war. Britain had been treating America contemptuously – impressing American seamen to fill out British naval crews and encouraging Indian attacks against frontier settlements stretching from the Great Lakes to the Deep South. But having a just cause isn’t enough. If you are going to risk lives and money, you ought to have a viable plan for success. Madison didn’t.
He and other old-school Jeffersonians had convinced themselves that militia forces were sufficient for waging 19th century warfare. They were wrong. Militia units – which were based on local conscription, by the way, not voluntary service – could be useful in defending particular locations. But they were not suited for large-scale military action, particularly when launched over the border into Canada. What the Madison administration needed was a regular army of paid volunteers and professional soldiers. Lacking that, all its plans were just so much paper and ink.
America’s successes at sea and on the Great Lakes, by contrast, were impressive. As East Carolina University historian Wade Dudley has observed, the country relied heavily on privateers – military contractors, essentially – to raid British shipping and imperil naval support for British operations in North America. The Americans imposed significant costs on British commerce, while poking holes in the British naval blockade of America.
Over the next three years, we’ll hear a fair amount about the bicentennial of the War of 1812. There will be new articles, books, and documentaries about Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Winfield Scott, Francis Scott Key, Davy Crockett, and other personalities associated with the war. There will be reminders that the real losers of the war were Indian tribes such as the Shawnee and Creeks who received British aid and encouragement to attack American settlements. That proved to be unwise.
I look forward to the hoopla. I hope we all take the opportunity to learn more about these fascinating events in American history. But I also hope we learn at least one important lesson from the conflict: It might never have happened if Britain had perceived a greater military threat from the Americans in the first place.
That is, the British could see that U.S. military forces were pitifully weak. They had little fear of the U.S. Navy. They saw little need to resolve conflicts about military impressment and North American border disputes at the negotiating table. If push came to shove, the British concluded, they would win any war with the Americans.
Both sides miscalculated. If America had matched its bellicose rhetoric with credible military preparations, war might well have been avoided altogether. Peace through strength is not a new idea. It remains a good one.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.