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  • War of 1812 Showed Importance of Maintaining Military Strength


    This week 200 years ago, Congress passed and President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain, then the world’s most powerful nation. Our young country had already fought three wars since adopting the Constitution in 1788, yet this marked Congress’s first such declaration, and the highly controversial act passed without a single vote from a member of the Federalist party. The War of 1812—mostly forgotten today—helped shape the national character and greatly refined Americans’ understanding of the common defense.

    For years, lawmakers had been scrimping on defense spending, saving money in the short term while weakening the country’s long-term defenses. These lawmakers, and all Americans, would soon learn an expensive lesson.

    The reasons for war given by Congress included attacks on U.S. shipping and the British practice of impressement—taking sailors off American vessels and forcing them into service with the British navy. In previous years, the British navy had detained dozens of U.S. ships and seized thousands of dollars’ worth of American goods. The U.S. viewed Britain’s continued policy of impressement as a violation of the rights of its citizens and a threat to U.S. sovereignty. “Our power upon the waves enables us to dictate the terms,” wrote one British journalist aptly characterizing the British position of coercive dominance. “Not a sail should be hoisted…without paying a tribute.” Tribute was synonymous with submission and so threatened America’s sovereign independence.

    Earlier attempts to peacefully persuade Britain to respect U.S. sovereignty were unsuccessful. President Thomas Jefferson’s failed 1807 embargo forestalled open conflict while doing great harm to the American economy. Madison’s Secretary of State, James Monroe, summed up the situation: “the British government has not believed us. We must actually get to war before the intention to make [war] will be credited either here or abroad.”

    Despite a bold declaration, however, years of inadequate defense spending due to congressional neglect had left the United States woefully unprepared to fight a full-fledged war. America’s navy consisted of 16 vessels, while Britain ruled the waves with some 600 warships. The connection between congressional defense spending and the nation’s material security was about to be exposed.

    For two years, Americans fought Britain to a stalemate, but when U.S. land forces invaded Canada, they were quickly repulsed, revealing that the militia-dependent U.S. army was insufficient. As Britain began to win the contest against Napoleon in Europe, Britain shifted its forces to North America. In August 1814, a British army landed on the shores of Maryland eager to conquer the U.S. capital. The purely defensive American gunboats provided by Congress under Jefferson’s Administration provided no defense at all and, within 11 days, the British had captured Washington and razed its public buildings. Peace through means other than strength was proving to be very expensive.

    After burning the Houses of Congress, the White House, and the Library of Congress, the British withdrew to their ships and attempted to capture strategically important Baltimore. Blocking the British navy’s path into Baltimore harbor was Fort McHenry—one of the peacetime defensive coastal fortifications authorized by Congress under George Washington’s Administration in 1794. The British navy attacked on September 13, but the defenders of Fort McHenry stood firm for more than 24 hours, withstanding 2,000 artillery shells. As the Americans held hour after hour, Francis Scott Key, who was being temporarily held against his will aboard a British ship within view, penned the words that would be sung by every American: the “Star Spangled Banner.” This victory and several key American naval victories against the British were directly attributable to earlier congressional appropriations for forts, frigates, and officer training.

    On the high seas, earlier investments in the navy also paid off. The few frigates that existed were able to carry the war to the enemy. U.S. ships had defeated several British ships in sea combat. During the war, American ships had sailed the waters of the Americas, the Caribbean, the Atlantic sea lanes, and even Ireland to impede British trade. These naval actions were the most effective defense America possessed during the war. The British Naval Chronicle acknowledged the situation: “It must be allowed the Americans have fought us bravely at sea, they have almost in every instance been successful; and there cannot be a doubt they will speedily become a respectable, and ere long, truly formidable naval power.” These U.S. ships had been authorized and built decades earlier at the requests of Presidents George Washington and John Adams, and they were the fruits of the largest federal programs to that time.

    It is often said today—and it was true in the 18th and 19th centuries as well—that nations go to war with the army they have. Presidents then, as now, depended largely on the military built up by their predecessors to defend the country. Instructively, the War of 1812 highlights the wisdom of Washington’s and Adams’ military procurements, but also reveals the insufficient spending of Congress in Jefferson’s first Administration and an imprudent reliance on purely defensive gunboats and militia prior to 1812.

    Though Great Britain and America soon negotiated a peace (the Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve 1814), the ultimate cost of the war was much more expensive than increased military preparations would have been. In an attempt to prevent Congress from dismantling the military and navy as it had done following past wars, President Madison highlighted “important considerations which forbid a sudden and general revocation of the measures that have been produced by the war.” Instead, Madison requested that Congress authorize long-term defense programs, noting that “a certain degree of preparation for war is not only indispensable to avert disasters in the onset, but affords also security for the continuance of the peace.”

    The War of 1812 gave the young nation a lasting appreciation for the role of military strength in preserving the liberty of its citizens. The war might have continued to the utter ruin of the country and possibly the loss of American independence—certainly the destruction of American prosperity. Despite hopes to the contrary, the military disasters of this war made it clear that the U.S. could not rely on its geography as a national defense nor on strictly defensive armaments and troops; America would have to maintain an increased standing army and construct a blue-water navy, capable of both offensive and defensive action on a large scale. Most Americans recognized this fact and committed themselves to a stronger military. In the following decades, average federal defense spending remained much higher, as Congress and the American people kept in mind the unacceptable cost of failing to provide for the common defense of the United States.

    It’s a lesson today’s Americans would do well to keep in mind.

    Posted in Featured, First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    21 Responses to War of 1812 Showed Importance of Maintaining Military Strength

    1. Jeanne Stotler says:

      "A country is only as strong as it's Army" This was said many years ago and is still true today but admended to "As strong as it's military" when a country weakens its defenses, it leaves itself open ti invasion from strongerntios, BHO seems to have not read his history books.

    2. Vince says:

      The defense of the United States has always been based on the fact that invasion by any substantial force is impractical for logistic reasons. The English forces landed in Maryland and Louisiana were small and could not have held any significant amount of territory for any significant length of time. Note also that in 1812 the English were, oddly, on the defense: USA declared war on them and launched an aggressive anti-shipping campaign on the high seas. So the English has an interest only in convincing the Americans to end their war, not an interest in seizing any American possessions nor in conquering the entire country and replacing the government.

      The lesson to be learned from 1812 is that silly American governments will, if not properly supervised, entangle America in foreign wars for no good reason, run up huge bills during those wars, and come away with nothing we didn't have before the war started (except the debts and graves).

      • Mike says:

        "A foreign war"? "For no good reason"? It was OUR shipping on the high seas that was being stopped! I believe that even back then that was considered an act of war!!! We did NOT start it!

    3. Tom says:

      Vince, your argument is based on an outdated concept. For one thing, one doesn't have to occupy the USA to dominate it in today's world. And you suggest we had no good reason for going to war in 1812. Are you from New England? Because that was the opinion of many merchants in that part of the country at that time because a war would interfere with their profits. What did they care that their ships were being stopped on the high seas and American seamen were being kidnapped and enslaved on British warships to fight the French? So? There were plenty of out-of-work sailors in the coffee houses along the wharfs to fill the holes. As far as they were concerned, the British could keep kidnapping Americans to fight their wars and as long as they continued to make money, who gave a darn?

      Chesapeake was ordered to

    4. Tom says:

      But it wasn't just merchant ships. The War of 1812 came very close to being the War of 1807. Ever hear of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair? You should before denouncing our government for being "silly" for going to war. The War of 1812 was preceeded by two other conflicts. I'm sure you'd consider them "silly" as well. After all, they were only pirates.

      Ever since becoming an independent nation, our shipping was constantly harassed by the Barbary States, whose corsairs seized our shipping, stole the goods onboard, enslaved the crews, held the officers and any superactuaries aboard for ransom, and demanded "tribute" (extortion fees) for them to stop. After the Revolution, we paid these fees for ten years, but they always broke their treaties and demanded even more tribute, which is why Washington had the original ships — the 44s (Constitution, United States, President) and 38s (Constellation, Congress, Chesapeake) — built in the first place.

    5. Tom says:

      On top of that, some of the larger cities each built a warship with donations from the public and presented their ships to the Navy as "gifts." This is where we got the frigates New York, Philadelphia, Essex (Boston area), and some other lesser vessels.
      We had built them to defend ourselves from the marauding pirates. But before we could engage them, we had a little te-de-te with the French known as the "Quasi-War." It was not a declared war, but the French were seizing our merchant ships right off our coast as they left port. Why? Because we refused to stop trading with the British. The British were being quite haughty, but the French were the worse of the two at that time — this was before Napoleon seized power. In addition to the purpose-built warships, we had a number of merchantmen converted to warships and they and the regular navy vessels were sent to sea with orders to seize all French shipping found. There were also Letters of Marque & Reprisal awarded to private mariners, resulting in privateers augmenting the Navy.

    6. Tom says:

      While some worked to clear our eastern coast of Frenchmen, others went to the Caribbean on seek and destroy missions against French privateer operating bases. We started cleaning their clocks in good order. Also, Thomas Truxton of the frigate Constellation defeated two French Frigates: the L'Insurgente and later Le Vengence. When Napoleon came to power, he saw France's actions against the United States were ill-advised and quickly set out to sign a treaty, ending hostilities. We never declared war, but we did what we needed to do, and it wasn't purely defensive. We had to root out their privateers among the various Islands in the Caribbean.

      After we settled with Napoleon, we were able to get our sights back on the original problem, the Barbary Pirates. Read on that conflict. The purely "defensive" and "preventation" operations of the first two commanders were a dismal failure. It wasn't until Commodore Edward Preble, a much more aggressive commander, took charge of the mission that we finally put an end to the depredations of the corsairs operating out of Tripoli. (No, Moonemmore Klodhoppy wasn't the first Libyan we ever had problems with!)

    7. Blair Franconia, NH says:

      The seeds of our weakness leading up to the War of 1812, were sown 27 years earlier, in 1785, when Congress
      sold off the last remaining frigate of the Continental Navy, the Alliance, which according to legend, was bought
      by a French privateer, and became a French privateer. The most famous single ship duels were the following:
      The Constitution of the Guerriere, the Constitution and the Java, both were successful.

      • Tom says:

        Even more impressive, however, was the United States vs the Macedonian. In this battle, Commodore Stephen Decatur maintained his distance, putting the advantage of his long 24 pounder guns agains the British 18 pounders to good use. When the British Captain saw the long-distance duel was workign against him, he tried closing the distance. Decatur would have no part of it, and sailed off, maintaining his distance. He continued his long-range cannonade to dismast the Macedonian, then heaved to to conduct repairs. Once he had done so, he sailed up and down the British hulk's bow and stern, demonstrating he could rake her at will, but held fire. That was enough for the British commander who then surrendered his ship. Unlike in the battles you mentioned, in which the British ships were reduced to wreckage and destroyed with explosives, Decatur jury rigged the dismasted frigate and sailed her home. What was so impressive is he defeated her near the Canary Islands, then sailed her home all the way across the Atlantic and snuck her through the British blockade. His prize was then added to the US Navy as USS Macedonian.

    8. Tom says:

      It wasn’t until Preble obtained other ships and commenced a heavy bombardment of the City of Tripoli that the Bashaw finally relented and surrendered the Americans he held prisoner and halted his attacks on American shipping. But I’m sure that was a “silly” and wasteful operation. We probably should have just left the America sailors there to rot and continued to pay “tribute.”

      Anyway, back to 1807. Ever since the end of the Tripoli War in 1805, we had to keep American warships on patrol just to show the flag and demonstrate to the Barbary powers that we meant business. Without this show of force, they would have assumed we lacked resolve and returned to their attacks on our shipping. This is where the Chesapeake comes in.

    9. Tom says:

      Thomas Jefferson had left half our ships laid up in ordinary (mothballs), even during the war with Tripoli. Sadly, we didn’t have the ships to maintain proper rotations. Because of this, ships sent on patrol were often stuck on station for prolonged periods. In 1807, the commander of the USS Constitution sent a letter to SECNAV from the Mediterranean Sea warning that half his crew was well over their one-year enlistments and were ready to mutiny. He insisted his ship, which was way overdue to be relieved, receive a replacement or he’d have to sail home and leave his station uncovered.

      The powers that be ordered the next frigate, the Chesapeake, to be sent on its way. They received word the ship was still outfitting for deployment, but he ordered they leave right away. So, all the stores were loaded on the ship and she set to sea with her decks strewn with supplies. They’d have to move the crates below decks and properly store supplies while crossing the Atlantic. However, she never made it.

    10. Tom says:

      As she sailed past Hampton Rhodes, she spotted three British warships at anchor in the Rhodes. They weren’t invited to anchor in our territorial waters, but simply plopped themselves there because there wasn’t anything our government would do about it. Having such a small navy, the British weren’t impressed with our complaints and simply sat in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay watching our shipping come and go.

      As the Chesapeake sailed by, the largest of the three, the 50-gun frigate HMS Leopard, weighed anchor and sailed after her sending the signal that she had dispatches for the American ship. Captain Gordon, with the approval of the Commodore on board, James Barron, heaved to in order to take the messages. However, when the longboat from the Leopard arrived, the lieutenant in charge of the party announced he was there to search for deserters and DEMANDED that the captain bring all his crew up on deck for immediate inspection. The commodore told the British officer to get his ass off his ship and kicked him overboard. The Chesapeake then resumed her course to the Med.

    11. Tom says:

      This was done not just because Commodore Barron decided to stand firm. This was due to an earlier incident with the USS Boston which occurred in 1799. A British warship had stopped her at sea and seized several sailors at gunpoint. All the while the American captain stood by and did nothing! Remembering how that officer had been cashiered by the Navy and all officers warned against allowing such an insult to our flag, no one was about to repeat that passive and cowardly act.

      Unfortunately, due to the ship being completely unprepared for action, this brought on a disaster. HMS Leopard resumed her pursuit, pulled alongside the Chesapeake and, without warning, opened fire. She continued this bombardment, which the American frigate was unable to answer, until the Commodore hauled down our flag and surrendered.

    12. Tom says:

      Several sailors died and others were severely wounded in this unprovoked attack. This time the British boarding party was given access and took four sailors away. It was later learned that two were, in fact, British deserters, while the other two were Americans. The Brits apparently knew this at the time, but took the Americans as punishment for having refused the earlier search. They hung the two deserters, and impressed the Americans as replacements.

      The outrage across the country was so strong we almost went to war. Jefferson didn’t want to fight, but neither did he do anything to strengthen our forces for the inevitable conflict that came. The only thing that prevented Congress from declaring war on Britain at the time was the fact that the British Parliament apologized. In fact, this had been a unilateral act by the British Admiral on the North American station, and had no sanction by Parliament. As a result, Parliament denounced the act, and demanded the British government apologize for the insult. If they had not done so, we probably would have gone to war at that time.

    13. Tom says:

      We went to war for the right reason, but insufficiently prepared. It is only due to the incredible performance of the small navy we had, plus the privateers doing so much damage to British commerce, that we were eventually able to force a peace. We did not win the war, but neither did the British. The British had actually defeated Napoleon and were shifting forces to North America at the time the fortunes of war shifted against them. Those forced which burned Washington were actually "Wellington's Invicibles" which had been redeployed to America after Napoleon's first defeat. They succeeded in burning the Capital, but that's when things changed. Even the anti-war elements of New England, who called this "Madison's War" became outraged and joined the fight instead of threatening to seceed from the union as before. Forces from all over converged on Baltimore, which was said to be their next target. It was! But this time the British faced off against three times their numbers and were repulsed.

    14. Tom says:

      Those forces withdrew, sailed off to Bermuda to resupply, and then resumed their assault on America, this time at New Orleans. If you're up on your history, you'll know that our intelligence warned us in time what the target was, Andrew Jackson was sent and set up defenses, and the British attacking force was virtually annihilated. They got cocky and marched into a position that was heavily defended and were taken out. We took 12 casualties, while they suffered 1,200. This was an ever greater tragedy because it happened after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, but before everyone got word the war was winding down.

    15. Tom says:

      Now you might think it was stupid. But actually, the War of 1812 put the United States on the world map. For the first time, we were finally seen by the powers of the world as an independent nation worthy of respect. Our navy then turned its focus on taking care of the Barbary Pirates, who had resumed their attacks when we went to war with Britain, and finally put an end, once and for all, to their depredations against American shipping. Shortly thereafter, with peace and mutual respect finally won from Britain, we joined with the Royal Navy to rid the Caribbean Sea of its infestation of pirates. We began in 1822 and by 1830, our joint forces had completely cleared the region of brigands. But I'm sure that was a silly thing to do as well. Right?

    16. The Voice of reason says:

      United states must place a missile defense system not only In eastern europe but the middle east next to Iran and in Asia as well and a here In the United States A.S.A.P…. This Is a must in concert with a strong military….

    17. I often wonder if that war would have continued,and if those New England states had made good on their threat to secede from the Union,would the Southern states have invaded the North to force them back into the Union.

    18. Trevor says:

      Why is it that when the War of 1812 is mentioned, there is so little note of the numerous Privateers that were commissioned during that time to supplement the far more expensive Official Naval Forces being fielded? Privateers played a crucial role in our ability to defeat Britain's far superior Naval force.

      Granted, not many of them went out of their way to challenge the full fledged battleships Britain possessed, but they still had an enormous impact on Britain's economy. And Economy is one of the key factors in a nation's ability to win a war; far more important than the number of troops or ships fielded.

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