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The War of 1812 (1809-1815)

The "War Hawks"

Madison

Attack on Canada

Summary

A new Congress convened in 1811. Like the previous Congress, the 1811 version was dominated by a Democratic-Republican majority. Yet a new faction within the party appeared, a powerful bloc of younger congressmen who quickly became known as the War Hawks. As their name suggests, the War Hawks focused primarily on one thing: war. The War Hawks, mostly from the South and the Western Frontier, were so young that the other congressmen often called them the "boys". Yet the "boys" dominated Congress: the eloquent leader of the War Hawks was Kentucky's Henry Clay, a legendary orator who, at only thirty-three, was elected Speaker of the House by a War Hawk dominated Congress.

Meanwhile, on the frontier (at this time places like Ohio and Kentucky), the American Indians were presenting a serious threat to American pioneers. Kentucky, which most Indian tribes had considered a kind of "hunting reserve" and buffer zone, was now filled with white settlers. Two visionary Shawnee Indian leaders, Tecumseh and his brother The Prophet, realized that if US encroachment onto Indian land was ever to be stopped, this was the time. Tecumseh and the Prophet rallied a broad Indian alliance to fight the white settlers. The alliance promised to sign over no more land to the whites, and the various tribes of the region promised to work together.

Tecumseh's forces struck fear into the frontier settlers, and the War Hawks in Congress became convinced that the British were financing the Indian alliance from Canada. Already incensed over the British Orders in Council and impressment, the assumed British support of Tecumseh pushed the War Hawks to even greater heights of fervor. Congress mobilized its armies to take on Tecumseh's tribes. On November 7, 1811, General William Henry Harrison invaded and torched the village of Tippecanoe, Tecumseh's headquarters.

The battle hamstrung the Shawnee, made room for white settlers on the frontier, and really excited the War Hawks. With the Indians in the frontier beaten back, the War Hawks then decided it was time to attack the Indian's supply base: British Canada. The War Hawks simultaneously had their eyes on what was left of Spanish Florida. In June 1812, against the wishes of the pro-trade and predominantly Federalist Northeast, Congress declared war on Britain.

Commentary

The appearance of the War Hawks can be attributed to a generational shift. As the sons of men who fought in the Revolutionary War now reached their primes, more and more of them were elected to Congress. Some historians have argued that the War Hawks thirst for battle emerged directly from a desire to match the bravery of their Revolutionary fathers. This argument holds that these new Congressman, reared on their father's stories of beating back the British, wanted a chance to prove their own mettle. Yet while such a psychological basis for the actions of the War Hawks seems plausible to a degree, there were certainly other, more complex and intertwined motivations in each of the War Hawks' cases: a desire for westward expansion, destruction of Indians blocking that expansion (and supposedly supported by the British), eviction of the British from Canada and incorporation into America of the vacated land, and general fervent patriotism demanding a demonstration of the vibrancy of the democratic system. The War Hawks seized on every opportunity to create anti-British zeal. For example, while the Western and Southern War Hawks bemoaned the terrors of impressment, Easterners weren't too worried about it, even though it was Easterners who were the ones being impressed. The more one considers this, the more it seems that impressment was a wedge issue the War Hawks used to justify the war they so hungrily sought.

Tecumseh and the Prophet, in setting up an Indian alliance to challenge white settlers, also started a revival in Indian culture. Many Indians started to once again become proud of their specifically unique heritage. For instance, up until around 1810 many Indians had taken to wearing convenient manufactured cotton clothes gotten from whites through trade. Now, Indians started to detest these kinds of manufactured clothes in favor of traditional garments like buckskin. Furthermore, Tecumseh convinced his braves that in order to prepare for this final battle against the whites, everyone would have to give up drinking "firewater" (alchohol). US citizens, in turn, deeply feared the possibilities of the renaissance organized by Tecumseh. Such fear can be seen in the massive acclimation accorded to General William Henry Harrison after his successful destruction of Tippecanoe. In fact, this popularity carried him to the presidency thirty years later in 1841 (though Harrison died of pneumonia soon after taking office, perhaps catching the disease while giving an immensely long inauguration address). In any event, the popularity of those who destroyed the Indians stands as testament to the very real threat the Tecumseh and his allies posed.

The Northeast opposed the declaration of war against the British, both because they felt vulnerable to British attack and because, as a shipping region, they felt a war would destroy the Northeast economy. Though Southern and Western representatives voted for the war, it was the people of the Eastern Seaboard that would bear the risk of British attack, and Northeasterners bitterly resented this fact. The differences over the War were glimpses of a growing sectionalism within the expanding US, a sectionalism that would continue throughout the first half of the 19th century and eventually explode in the Civil War. More immediately, as we shall see, the Northeastern dislike for the war would eventually be a major disaster for the already dissipating Federalists.

Why did the US declare war on Britain, and not France? After all, the British fleet would have protected the US from an actual French attack. For one, the War Hawks could not forgive the British for financing Tecumseh. Also, the War Hawks lusted after Canada, which they believed was poorly defended. Finally, a shared Revolutionary history bound the US and France together: without France, the US would likely not have been an independent nation at all. Similarly, the animosity created by the Revolution directed US enmity toward Britain, and vice versa.

In a historical twist dependent on distance and the slowness of communication (a situation that would come to play again at the close of the war, with the post Treaty of Ghent Battle of New Orleans), if the US had delayed its declaration of war, it would have learned that the embargo and the Non-Intercourse Act had worked, and that the Orders in Council had actually been repealed weeks before the June 18, 1812 war declaration.

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