When President James Madison asked for a declaration of war in June 1812, he had legitimate reasons – impressment of U.S. sailors, British forts on U.S. territory to do so, actions and policies by the England which was our largest trading partner, etc. – to do so. (See 8/13/23 post – America’s Second Struggle for Liberty – https://marcliebman.com/americas-second-struggle-for-liberty/). Jefferson’s ill-conceived Embargo Act of 1807 was largely ignored by the British, the nation it was intended to affect. England was locked in a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon and responded with the 1807 Orders in Council issued by the Privy Council on January 6th and November 11th. Orders in Council is a process through which the sovereign and his/her closest advisors establish guidelines the British government turns into policy, laws, and action.
While not named in the 1807 Orders in Council, the U.S. was the target since we insisted on trading with whatever country we chose. The order required any ship headed for a port in a country controlled by France to stop at an English port to be checked for military supplies. Those that did not could be seized by the Royal Navy, and the ship and cargo sold in an Admiralty Court.
Napoleon ignored the British rules since he controlled most of Continental Europe and imposed what he called the Continental System, which forbade any trade with England or its colonies. Since we were not allied with either side, merchants in the United States, supported by its government, ignored these rules since they believed they did not affect the goods sent to Europe. The British saw U.S.-flagged ships and ships from other nations carrying cargo to European destinations as smugglers.
The Embargo Act of 1807 caused the growing U.S. economy to contract by 5 – 7% in its first year. Hardest hit were the merchants in New England, where most international traders were. The act also reduced growth in the agrarian southern states. (See 8/8/22 post – The 1807 Tale of Ograbme – https://marcliebman.com/the-1807-tale-of-ograbme/).
Geographically, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans (from which the modern Democratic Party evolved) strength was in the south and its members supported an agrarian-based economy built on slavery. The Federalists, albeit a party that was strong in the northeast and opposed the Embargo Act of 1807 and slavery.
What followed should be familiar to Americans who follow the actions of today’s Democratic and Republican parties. Back in 1812, the animosity between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists was such that if one party suggested a policy, the other would automatically oppose it, no matter what the relative merits of the policy. The opposition to what became known as Mr. Madison’s War was so strong that state militias refused to be recalled. Banks refused to loan money to the Federal government to fund increasing the Army and the Navy.
Remember Jefferson shut down the Bank of the United States since it was created by a Federalist, Alexander Hamilton and he thought it gave too much power to the Federal government. Jefferson was an advocate of “a state’s rights” over that of the Federal government despite what was in the Constitution.
The offices of the newspaper Federalist Republican were sacked and burned by a Democratic-Republican mob. Several of its employees were tortured, and one was killed. Opposition to the war made recruiting soldiers and sailors difficult for the Federal government. Madison tried to get Congress to pass a bill enabling conscription, but it was defeated by Daniel Webster.
In the election of 1812, eight Democratic-Republican Senators who voted for the war lost their seats. The Federalists positioned themselves as the party of peace and, throughout the war, opposed any bill proposed by the Madison administration that would support prosecuting the war.
The actions of both parties made creating and executing a coherent strategy to win impossible. Both parties took positions that were often imbecilic and almost cost the U.S. its independence.
Engraving is of Timothy Pitkin, leader of the Federalist Party in 1812.