- Category: History 117 Week 3
- Published on Friday, 28 December 2012 23:37
- Written by Dr. Eric Mayer
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Jefferson won by a majority of 73 electoral votes to 65. But the colorless and
presumably unpopular Adams polled more electoral strength than he had gained
four years earlier--except for New York.
The Empire State fell into the Jeffersonian basket, and with it the election,
largely because Aaron Burr, a master wire-puller, turned New York to Jefferson
by the narrowest of margins.
The Virginian polled the bulk of his strength in the South and West, particularly
in those states where manhood suffrage had been adopted.
Jeffersonians rejoiced wildly over the end of "the Federalist Reign of Terror."
Some of them, with alcoholic enthusiasm, bawled the song "Jefferson and
Lord! how the Federalists will stare
At Jefferson, in Adams's chair!
But Jeffersonian joy was dampened by an unexpected deadlock. Through a
technicality Jefferson, the presidential candidate, and Burr, his vice-presidential
running mate, received the same number of electoral votes for the presidency.
Under the Constitution the tie could be broken only by the House of
Representatives (see Art. II, Sec. I, para. 2).
This body was controlled for several more months by the lame-duck Federalists,
who had been swept into office during the French war scare and who were
eager to elect Burr. (A "lame duck" has been humorously defined as a politician
whose political goose has been cooked at the recent elections. The possibility of
another such tie was removed by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804 [for text, see
the Appendix]. Before then, each elector had two votes, with the second-place
finisher becoming vice president.)
Voting in the House moved slowly to a climax. As ballots were taken in
wearisome succession, representatives snored in their seats; a sick member lay
in an adjoining room. Historians used to think that Hamilton, bargaining secretly
with Jefferson, played a decisive role. But the evidence indicates that the
deadlock was broken when a few Federalists, despairing of electing Burr and
hoping for moderation from Jefferson, refrained from voting. The election then
went to the rightful candidate.
Jefferson later claimed that the election of 1800 was a "revolution" comparable
to that of 1776. But it was no revolution in the sense of a massive popular
upheaval or an upending of the political system. In truth, Jefferson had narrowly
squeaked through to victory. A switch of some 250 votes in New York would
have thrown the election to Adams. What was revolutionary was the peaceful
and orderly transfer of power on the basis of an election whose results all parties
accepted. This was a remarkable--indeed even "revolutionary"--achievement for
a raw young nation, especially after all the partisan bitterness that had agitated
the country during Adams's presidency. It was particularly remarkable in that
age; comparable developments would not take place in Britain for another
generation. After a decade of division and doubt, Americans could take
justifiable pride in the vigor of their experiment in democracy."
Long Tom" Jefferson was inaugurated president on March 4, 1801, in the
swampy village of Washington, the crude new national capital. Tall (6 feet, 2.5
inches; 1.89 meters), with large hands and feet, reddish hair ("The Red Fox"),
and prominent cheekbones and chin, he was an arresting figure. Believing that
the customary pomp did not befit his democratic ideals, he spurned a horse-
drawn coach and simply walked over to the Capitol from his boardinghouse.
The inaugural address, beautifully phrased, was a classic statement of
democratic principles. Seeking to allay Federalist fears of a bull-in-the-china-
closet overturn, Jefferson blandly stated, "We are all Republicans, we are all
Federalists." As for foreign affairs, he pledged "honest friendship with all
nations, entangling alliances with none."
With its rustic setting, Washington lent itself admirably to the simplicity and
frugality of the Jeffersonian Republicans. In this respect it contrasted sharply
with the elegant atmosphere of Federalist Philadelphia, the former temporary
capital. Extending democratic principles to etiquette, Jefferson established the
rule of pell-mell at official dinners--that is, seating without regard to rank. The
resplendent British minister, who had enjoyed precedence among the pro-
British Federalists, was insulted.
As a widower, Jefferson was shockingly unconventional. Having no wife to police
his apparel, he would receive callers in sloppy attire--once in a dressing gown
and heelless slippers. He started the precedent, unbroken for 112 years, of
sending messages to Congress to be read by a clerk. Personal appearances, in
the Federalist manner, suggested too strongly a monarchical speech from the
throne. Besides, Jefferson was painfully conscious of his weak voice and
unimpressive platform presence.
As if plagued by an evil spirit, Jefferson was forced to reverse many of the
political principles he had so vigorously championed. There were in fact two
Thomas Jeffersons. One was the private citizen, who had philosophized in his
study. The other was the public official, who made the disturbing discovery that
bookish theories worked out differently in the noisy arena of practical politics.
The open-minded Virginian was therefore consistently inconsistent; it is easy to
quote one Jefferson to refute the other.
The triumph of Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans and the eviction of the
Federalists marked the first party overturn in American history. The vanquished
naturally feared that the victors would grab all the spoils of office for themselves.
But Jefferson, in line with his conciliatory inaugural address, showed
unexpected moderation. To the dismay of his office-seeking friends, the new
president dismissed few public servants for political reasons. Patronage-hungry
Jeffersonians watched the Federalist appointees grow old in office and
grumbled that "few die, none resign."
Jefferson quickly proved an able politician. He was especially effective in the
informal atmosphere of a dinner party. There he wooed congressional
representatives while personally pouring imported wines and serving the tasty
dishes of his French cook.
In part, Jefferson had to rely on his personal charm because his party was so
weak-jointed. Denied the power to dispense patronage, the Democratic-
Republicans could not build a loyal political following. Opposition to the
Federalists was the chief glue holding them together, and as the Federalists
faded, so did Democratic-Republican unity. The era of well-developed, well-
disciplined political parties still lay in the future."
The "deathbed" Judiciary Act of 1801 was one of the last important laws passed
by the expiring Federalist Congress. It created sixteen new federal judgeships
and other judicial offices. President Adams remained at his desk until nine
o'clock in the evening of his last day in office, allegedly signing the commissions
of the Federalist "midnight judges." (Actually only three commissions were
signed on his last day.)
This Federalist-sponsored Judiciary Act, though a long-overdue reform, aroused
bitter resentment. "Packing" these lifetime posts with anti-Jeffersonian partisans
was, in Republican eyes, a brazen attempt by the defeated party to entrench
itself in one of the three powerful branches of government. Jeffersonians
condemned the "midnight judges" in violent language. To them, the trickery of
the Federalists was open defiance of the people's will, as recently expressed at
The newly elected Republican Congress bestirred itself to repeal the Judiciary
Act of 1801 in the year after its passage. Jeffersonians thus swept sixteen
benches from under the recently appointed "midnight judges." Frustrated
Federalists, in turn, were acidly critical of this "assault" on the judicial arm.
Jeffersonians likewise had their knives sharpened for the scalp of Chief Justice
John Marshall, whom Adams had appointed to the Supreme Court (as a fourth
choice) in the dying days of his term. The lanky Marshall, with his rasping voice
and steel-trap mind, was a cousin of Thomas Jefferson. As a Virginia Federalist,
he was cordially disliked by the states' rights Jeffersonians. He served for about
thirty days under a Federalist administration and thirty-four years under the
administrations of the Jeffersonian Republicans and their successors. The
Federalist party died out, but Marshall went on handing down Federalist
decisions serenely for many more years. He probably did more than Hamilton to
engraft the Hamiltonian concept of a powerful central government upon the
American political and economic system.
One of the "midnight judges" of 1801 presented John Marshall with a historic
opportunity. He was obscure William Marbury, whom President Adams had
named a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia. When Marbury learned
that his commission was being held up by the new secretary of state, James
Madison, he sued for its delivery.
Chief Justice Marshall knew that his Jeffersonian rivals, entrenched in the
executive branch, would hardly spring forward to enforce a writ to deliver the
commission to his fellow Federalist Marbury. He therefore dismissed Marbury's
suit, avoiding a direct political showdown. But the wily Marshall snatched a
victory from the jaws of this judicial defeat. In explaining his ruling, Marshall said
that the part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 on which Marbury tried to base his
appeal was unconstitutional. The act had attempted to assign to the Supreme
Court powers that the Constitution had not foreseen.
In this self-denying opinion, Marshall greatly magnified the authority of the
Court--and slapped at the Jeffersonians. Until the case of Marbury v. Madison
(1803), controversy had clouded the question of who had the final authority to
determine the meaning of the Constitution. Jefferson in the Kentucky resolutions
(1798) had tried to assign that right to the individual states.
But now his cousin on the Court had cleverly promoted the contrary principle of
"judicial review"--that the black-robed tribunal of the Supreme Court alone had
the last word on the question of constitutionality. In this epochal case, Marshall
inserted the keystone into the arch that supports the tremendous power of the
Supreme Court in American life. (The next invalidation of a federal law by the
Supreme Court came fifty-four years later, with the explosive Dred Scott
Marshall's decision regarding Marbury spurred the Jeffersonians in their desire
to lay rough hands on the Supreme Court through impeachment. Certain
Federalist judges had become highly offensive, especially in Sedition Act cases,
by delivering harangues from the bench against the Republican "mobocracy."
Jefferson favored free speech, but not this kind of free speech. Accordingly, he
urged action against an arrogant Supreme Court justice, Samuel Chase, who
was so unpopular that Republicans named vicious dogs after him.
Early in 1804 impeachment charges against Chase were voted by the House
of Representatives, which then passed the question of guilt or innocence on to
the Senate. The indictment by the House was based on "high crimes and
misdemeanors," as specified in the Constitution (For impeachment, see Art. I,
Sec. II, para. 5; Art. I, Sec. III, paras. 6, 7; Art. II, Sec. IV, in the Appendix.) Yet
the evidence was plain that the intemperate judge had not been guilty of "high
crimes" but of bad manners, injudicious statements, and unrestrained
The Senate, after a determined prosecution, failed to muster enough votes to
convict and remove Chase. The precedent thus established was fortunate. From
that day to this, no really serious attempt has been made to reshape the
Supreme Court by the impeachment weapon.
John Marshall viewed the attack on Chase with deep misgivings. He suspected,
not unreasonably, that if it succeeded, he would be next--and then his other
Federalist colleagues. These fears were now laid to rest. Jefferson's ill-advised
attempt at "judge breaking" was a reassuring victory for the independence of the
judiciary and for the separation of powers among the three branches of the
As a passionate champion of freedom, Jefferson distrusted large standing
armies as a standing invitation to dictatorship. Navies, though also suspect,
were less to be feared: they could not march inland and "endanger liberties."
Pinning his faith to the frail reed of an ill-trained militia, Jefferson reduced the
military establishment to a mere police force of 2,500 officers and men.
The Republicans, primarily agrarians, saw little point in protecting a few
Federalist shippers with a costly navy that all the taxpayers would have to
support. Pledged to rigid economy, Jefferson gladly reduced the navy to a
peacetime footing, in accordance with legislation already passed by the outgoing
But harsh realities forced a penny-pinching Jefferson to change his tune on
navies and war. Pirates of the North African states had long made a national
industry of blackmailing and plundering merchant ships that ventured into the
Mediterranean. Preceding Federalist administrations, in fact, had been forced to
buy protection. At the time of the French crisis of 1798, when Americans were
shouting, "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute," twenty-six barrels of
blackmail dollars were being shipped to piratical Algiers.
At this price, war seemed cheaper than peace, and the showdown came in 1801.
The Pasha of Tripoli, dissatisfied with his share of protection money, informally
declared war on the United States by cutting down the flagstaff of the American
consulate. A challenge was thus thrown squarely into the face of Jefferson--the
noninterventionist, the pacifist, the critic of a big-ship navy, and the political foe
of Federalist shippers. He reluctantly rose to the occasion by dispatching the
infant navy to the "shores of Tripoli," as related in the song of the U.S. Marine
Corps. After four years of intermittent fighting, marked by hair-raising exploits,
Jefferson succeeded in extorting a treaty of peace from Tripoli in 1805. It was
secured at the bargain price of only $60,000--a sum representing ransom
payments for captured Americans.
With the pattern thus set, the punishment of other North African corsairs
continued, off and on, until after the War of 1812. The navy reaped a rich
harvest of experience, while strengthening its budding tradition. Foreign nations
in general, and the Barbary cutthroats in particular, developed a wholesome
respect for the United States--a nation willing and able to defend its rights with
Small gunboats, which the navy had used with some success in the Tripolitan
War, fascinated Jefferson. Pledged to tax reduction, he advocated a large
number of tiny coastal craft--"Jeffs" or the "mosquito fleet," as they were
contemptuously called. He believed these frail vessels would prove valuable in
guarding American shores, although not in defending Federalist merchantmen
on the high seas.
About two hundred tiny gunboats were constructed, democratically in small
shipyards where votes could be made for Jefferson. Often mounting only one
unwieldy gun, they were sometimes more of a menace to the crew than to the
During a hurricane and tidal wave at Savannah, Georgia, one of them was
deposited eight miles (12.9 kilometers) inland in a cornfield, to the derisive glee
of the Federalists. They drank toasts to American gunboats as the best in the
world--on land. Jefferson's pinch-penny economizing backfired badly when the
War of 1812 broke out and the whole swarm of gunboats proved virtually
stingless. The money could have been much more wisely invested in a few
frigates of the Constitution class
A secret pact, fraught with peril for America, was signed in 1800. Napoleon
Bonaparte induced the King of Spain to cede to France, for attractive
considerations, the immense trans-Mississippi region of Louisiana, which
included the New Orleans area.
Rumors of the transfer were partially confirmed in 1802, when the Spaniards at
New Orleans withdrew the right of deposit guaranteed America by the treaty of
1795. Deposit privileges were vital to frontier farmers who floated their produce
down the Mississippi to its mouth, there to await oceangoing vessels. A roar of
anger rolled up the mighty river and into its tributary valleys. American pioneers
talked wildly of descending upon New Orleans, rifles in hand. Had they done so,
the nation probably would have been involved in war with both Spain and
Thomas Jefferson, both pacifist and anti-entanglement, was again on the
griddle. Louisiana in the senile grip of Spain posed no real threat; America could
seize the territory when the time was ripe. But Louisiana in the iron fist of
Napoleon, the preeminent military genius of his age, foreshadowed a dark and
The United States would probably have to fight to dislodge him; and because it
alone was not strong enough to defeat his armies, it would have to seek allies,
contrary to the deepening anti-alliance policy.
Hoping to quiet the clamor of the West, Jefferson moved decisively. Early in
1803 he sent James Monroe to Paris to join forces with the regular minister
there, Robert R. Livingston. The two envoys were instructed to buy New Orleans
and as much land to the east as they could get for a maximum of $10 million. If
these proposals should fail and the situation should become critical, negotiations
were to be opened with England for an alliance. "The day that France takes
possession of New Orleans," Jefferson wrote, "we must marry ourselves to the
British fleet and nation."
Nothing could better illustrate Jefferson's concern. Though a passionate hater
of war and an enemy of entangling alliances, he was proposing to make an
alliance with his old foe, England, against his old friend, France, with the object
of waging a defensive war.
At this critical juncture, Napoleon suddenly decided to sell all Louisiana and
abandon his dream of a New World empire. Two developments prompted his
change of mind. First, he had failed in his efforts to reconquer the sugar-rich
island of Santo Domingo, for which Louisiana was to serve as a granary.
Infuriated ex-slaves, ably led by a gifted black, Toussaint L'Ouverture, had put
up a stubborn resistance that was ultimately broken. Then the island's second
line of defense--mosquitoes carrying yellow fever--had swept away thousands
of crack French troops.
Santo Domingo could not be reconquered, except perhaps at a staggering cost;
hence there was no need for the granary. "Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn
colonies!" burst out Napoleon. Second, Bonaparte was about to end the twenty-
month lull in his deadly conflict with Britain. Because the British controlled the
seas, he feared that he might be forced to make them a gift of Louisiana. Rather
than drive America into the arms of England by attempting to hold the area, he
decided to sell the huge wilderness to the Americans and pocket the money for
his schemes nearer home. Napoleon hoped that the United States, strengthened
by Louisiana, would one day grow to be a military and naval power that would
thwart the ambitions of the lordly British in the New World. The distresses of
France in Europe were again paving the way for America's diplomatic
Events now moved dizzily. The American minister, Robert Livingston, pending
the arrival of Monroe, was busily negotiating in Paris for a window on the Gulf of
Mexico at New Orleans. Suddenly, out of a clear sky, the French foreign minister
asked him how much he would give for all Louisiana. Scarcely able to believe
his ears (he was partially deaf anyhow), Livingston nervously entered upon the
negotiations. After about a week of haggling, while the fate of America trembled
in the balance, treaties were signed, under the date April 30, 1803, ceding
Louisiana to the United States for about $15 million
National honor would not permit a slavish submission to British and French
mistreatment. Yet a large-scale foreign war was contrary to the settled policy of
the new Republic--and in addition it would be futile. The navy was weak, thanks
largely to Jefferson's antinavalism; and the army was even weaker. A disastrous
defeat would not improve America's plight.
The warring nations in Europe depended heavily upon the United States for raw
materials and foodstuffs. In his eager search for an alternative to war, Jefferson
seized upon this essential fact. He reasoned that if America voluntarily cut off its
exports, the offending powers would be forced to come, hat in hand, and agree
to respect its rights.
Responding to the presidential lash, Congress hastily passed the Embargo Act
late in 1807. This rigorous law forbade the export of all goods from the United
States, whether in American or in foreign ships. It was a compromise between
submission and shooting.
Jefferson, the onetime strict constructionist, had once more flip-flopped into the
camp of the loose constructionists. In the interests of the Federalist shippers,
whom he disliked, he was rereading the Constitution with strange bifocals. To
him, it now meant that Congress, under its authority to "regulate" commerce,
could go so far as to stop foreign trade altogether. Regulation thus became
Federalist New England could well have prayed for relief from its newly found
Virginia friend, "Mad Tom" Jefferson. Forests of dead masts gradually filled
once-flourishing harbors; docks that had once rumbled were deserted (except for
illegal trade); and soup kitchens cared for some of the hungry unemployed.
Jeffersonian Republicans probably hurt the commerce of New England, which
they avowedly were trying to protect, far more than Old England and France
together were doing.
Farmers of the South and West, the strongholds of Jefferson, suffered no
less disastrously than New England. They were alarmed by the mounting piles of
unexportable cotton, grain, and tobacco. Tart-tongued John Randolph of Virginia
remarked that enacting the embargo was like cutting off one's toes to cure one's
corns. Jefferson in truth seemed to be waging war on his fellow citizens rather
than on the offending belligerents.
The American people, from the days of the colonial Navigation Acts, have never
submitted meekly to unpopular legislation. Although basically law-abiding, they
habitually flout laws that are opposed by large numbers of the population.
An enormous illicit trade mushroomed in 1808, especially along the Canadian
border, where bands of armed Americans on loaded rafts overawed or
overpowered federal agents. Irate citizens cynically transposed the letters of
"Embargo" to read "O Grab Me," "Go Bar 'Em," and "Mobrage," while heartily
denouncing the "Dambargo."
Jefferson nonetheless induced Congress to pass iron-toothed enforcing
legislation. It was so inquisitorial and tyrannical as to cause some Americans to
think more kindly of George III, whom Jefferson had berated in the Declaration of
Independence. One indignant New Hampshire poet burst out in song:
Our ships all in motion,
Once whiten'd the ocean;
They sail'd and return'd with a Cargo;
Now doom'd to decay
They are fallen a prey,
To Jefferson, worms, and EMBARGO
New England seethed with talk of secession; and Jefferson later admitted that
he felt the foundations of government tremble under his feet.
An alarmed Congress, bowing to the storm of public anger, finally repealed the
embargo, on March 1, 1809, three days before Jefferson's retirement. A half-loaf
substitute was provided by the Non-Intercourse Act. This measure formally
reopened trade with all the nations of the world, except the two most important,
England and France. Though thus watered down, economic coercion continued
to be the policy of the Jeffersonians from 1809 to 1812, when the nation finally
plunged into war
Why did the embargo, Jefferson's most daring act of statesmanship, collapse
after fifteen dismal months? First of all, he underestimated the bulldog
determination of the British, as others have, and overestimated their
dependence on America's trade. Bumper grain crops blessed the British Isles
during these years, and the revolutionary Latin American republics unexpectedly
threw open their ports for compensating commerce.
The hated embargo was not continued long enough or tightly enough to achieve
the desired results. But leaders must know the temper of their people, and
Jefferson should have foreseen that such a self-crucifying weapon could not
possibly command public support. The Americans, notoriously people of action,
did not take kindly to the passive type of heroism. They much preferred
commercial activity, with all its risks, to enforced inactivity, with no chance of
A crestfallen Jefferson himself admitted that the embargo was three times more
costly than war. The irony is that with only a fraction of its cost to the country, he
could have built a fairly strong navy. Such a fighting force would have won more
respect for American rights on the high seas and might well have prevented the
War of 1812.
The embargo further embroiled relations with both Britain and France. It
embittered the British, partly because it hit them more forcibly than it did
Napoleon. The French despot naturally applauded the embargo, for it was an
indirect American blockade of his foe. He cynically helped enforce it by seizing
scores of Yankee merchant ships in his ports; by the terms of the Embargo Act,
he argued, these vessels should have been tied up at home. His "cooperation"
merely rubbed salt into old sores.
A stoppage of exports hurt Federalist shipping but temporarily revived the
Federalist party. Gaining new converts, its leaders hurled their nullification of the
embargo into the teeth of the "Virginia lordlings" in Washington. In 1804, the
discredited Federalists had polled only 14 electoral votes out of 176; in 1808,
the embargo year, the figure rose to 47 out of 175.
Curiously enough, New England plucked a new prosperity from the ugly jaws of
the embargo. With shipping tied up and imported goods scarce, the resourceful
Yankees reopened old factories and erected new ones. The real foundations of
modern America's industrial might were laid behind the protective wall of the
embargo, followed by nonintercourse and the War of 1812. Jefferson, the
avowed critic of factories, may have unwittingly done more for American
manufacturing than Alexander Hamilton, the outspoken friend of factories.
Jefferson's embargo, followed in modified form by nonintercourse, undeniably
pinched England. Many British importers and manufacturers suffered severe
losses, especially those dependent on American cotton. As thousands of factory
workers were thrown out of jobs, agitation mounted for a repeal of the
restrictions that had brought on the embargo. A petition to Parliament in 1812,
from the city of Birmingham alone, bore twenty thousand names on a sheet of
parchment 150 feet long. So strong was public pressure that two days before
Congress declared war in June 1812, the British foreign secretary announced
that the offensive Orders in Council would be immediately suspended. The
supreme irony is that Jefferson's policy of economic coercion did win in the end,
but America was not patient enough to reap the reward of its sacrifices
Scholarly James Madison took the presidential oath on March 4, 1809, as the
awesome conflict in Europe was roaring to its climax. Madison was small of
stature (5 feet, 4 inches; 1.62 meters), light of weight (about 100 pounds; 45
kilograms), bald of head, and weak of voice. Despite a distinguished career as a
legislator, as President he fell tragically short of providing vigorous executive
leadership. Crippled also by factions within his cabinet, he was unable to
dominate his party, as Jefferson had once done.
The Non-Intercourse Act of 1809--the limited substitute for the embargo aimed
solely at Britain and France--would expire in about a year. Congress,
desperately attempting to uphold American rights, adopted in 1810 a bargaining
measure known as Macon's Bill No. 2. While permitting American trade with all
the world, it dangled an attractive lure. If either England or France repealed its
commercial restrictions, America would restore nonimportation against the
nonrepealing nation. In short, the United States would bribe the belligerents into
respecting its rights.
This opportunity was made to order for Napoleon, a past master of deceit. He
was eager to have nonimportation clamped down once more on the British,
because it would serve as a partial blockade, which he would not have to raise a
finger to enforce. He was hopeful that such a boycott would embroil the
Americans in war with Britain, for then they would be serving as his indirect allies
to weaken his arch-enemy. Accordingly, he blandly announced, in August 1810,
that his objectionable decrees had been repealed.
Responsible Americans, rising above self-delusion, should have examined the
hollow-sounding French announcement with extreme caution. Napoleon, prince
of liars, had no intention whatever of repealing his damaging decrees. But
Madison, frantically seeking to wrest a recognition of American rights from
England, accepted French bad faith as good faith. He formally announced, in
November 1810, that France had complied with the terms of Macon's Bill No. 2
and that nonimportation would consequently be reestablished against Britain.
His decision was fateful. Britons were angered by America's apparent
willingness to be the dupe and partner of Napoleon. Once Madison had aligned
his nation against England commercially, he found himself gravitating toward
France politically--and edging toward the whirlpool of war
But why fight Britain rather than France, which had committed nearly as many
maritime offenses? The traditional Republican attachment to France partly
explains the choice of foe, as does the visibility of British impressments and the
British arming of the Indians, who were smashing into pioneer cabins on the
The choice prize of Canada also beckoned from the north. Americans fondly (but
wrongly) believed that taking Canada would be absurdly simple, a
"frontiersman's frolic." If this northern mirage had not been so inviting, the
administration would have waited a few more months and thereby learned of
London's intention to repeal the Orders in Council.
In fact, the announcement of the intention to repeal was made two days before
Congress voted for war. Had there been an Atlantic cable, the war hawks
probably could not have forced a declaration of hostilities through the Senate.
Seafaring New England damned the war for a free sea. The news of the
declaration of war was greeted with muffled bells, flags at half-mast, and public
Why the opposition? To New Englanders, impressment was an old and
exaggerated wrong. New England shippers and manufacturers were still raking
in money, and profits dull patriotism. Pro-British New England Federalists also
sympathized with England and resented the Virginia dynasty's sympathy with
Napoleon, whom they regarded as the "Corsican butcher" and the "anti-Christ of
Federalists also condemned the War of 1812 because they opposed the
acquisition of Canada, which would merely add more agrarian states from the
wild Northwest. This, in turn, would increase the voting strength of the
Jeffersonian Republicans. New England Federalists were determined, wrote
To rule the nation if they could,
But see it damned if others should.
The bitterness of New Englanders against "Mr. Madison's War" led them to
treason or near-treason. In a sense America fought two enemies simultaneously:
old England and New England. New England gold holders probably lent more
dollars to the British than to the federal treasury. New England farmers sent
huge quantities of supplies and foodstuffs to Canada, enabling British armies to
invade New York. New England governors stubbornly refused to permit their
militia to serve outside their own states.
Man for man and ship for ship, the American navy did much better than the
army. But the results of its heroism have been exaggerated.
Britain's navy in 1812 boasted more than 800 men-of-war. Of these oaken
craft, 219 were ships of the line of the 74-gun class, and 296 were frigates of
roughly the 44-gun class. America, by contrast, had only 16 ships in its entire
navy, the largest of which were a few 44-gun frigates, unable to stand up to
British ships of the line. There could obviously be no saltwater fleet
engagements in the slam-bang Trafalgar tradition; the only fleet battles were
fought on the interior lakes.
American frigates and smaller sloops did clash with the enemy in a series of
spectacular duels. In the frigate class, the Americans won four out of five of the
single-ship contests; and in the sloop class, eight out of nine. American craft on
the whole were more skillfully handled, had better gunners, and were manned by
non-press-gang crews who were burning to avenge numerous indignities. The
American frigates were specially designed superfrigates, notably the
Constitution ("Old Ironsides"). They had thicker sides, heavier firepower, and
larger crews, of which one sailor in six was a free black.
The British were deeply humiliated by their naval defeats, all the more so
because they had sneered at America's "few fir-built frigates, manned by a
handful of bastards and outlaws." In a few months they lost more warships to the
Yankees than the French and Spaniards together had captured in years of
Swift and annoying American privateers--the "militia of the sea"--numbered
about 500. They were in fact much more damaging than the regular navy and
had an important bearing on the coming of peace. Built to fly from stronger ships
rather than fight them, these speedy craft captured or destroyed some 1,350
British merchantmen, even pursuing them into the English Channel and the Irish
Sea. Assisted by fast-sailing sloops of the navy, Yankee privateers were so
destructive that Lloyd's of London refused to insure unconvoyed British
merchantmen crossing the Irish Sea. (At the same time, British warships and
privateers were capturing hundreds of American merchant ships.)
Yet the American privateers were a mixed blessing. They lost scores of their
own craft and diverted valuable manpower from the navy and army. But they
brought urgently needed wealth into the country, boosted sagging morale, and
slowed up British operations in Canada and elsewhere by capturing arms and
supplies. Moreover, the privateers brought the war home to British
manufacturers, merchants, and shippers, who pressed Parliament to end this
Its wrath aroused, the Royal Navy finally retaliated by throwing a ruinous naval
blockade along America's coast and by landing raiding parties almost at will.
American economic life, including fishing, was crippled. Customs revenues were
choked off, and near the end of the war the bankrupt Treasury was unable to
meet its maturing obligations
"A second formidable British force, numbering about four thousand, landed in
the Chesapeake Bay area in August 1814. Advancing rapidly on Washington, it
easily dispersed some six thousand panicky militia at Bladensburg ("the
The invaders then entered the capital and set fire to most of the public buildings,
including the Capitol and the White House ("the Yankee Palace"). President
Madison and his aides, chased into the surrounding hills like frightened rabbits,
witnessed from afar the billowing smoke. The British fleet next appeared before
Baltimore, a nest for privateers, but was beaten off by the doughty defenders at
Fort McHenry, despite "bombs bursting in air." At the same time, the American
land defenders, though driven back at first, caused the attacking army to
The memory of the Chesapeake campaign was further kept alive when Francis
Scott Key, a detained American anxiously watching the bombardment at
Baltimore from a British ship, was inspired to write the words of "The Star-
Spangled Banner." Set to the tune of a saucy old English tavern refrain, the song
quickly attained popularity.
A third British blow of 1814, aimed at New Orleans, menaced the entire
Mississippi Valley. Gaunt and hawk-faced Andrew Jackson, fresh from crushing
the southwest Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in what is now Alabama,
was placed in command.
His hodgepodge force consisted of seven thousand sailors, regulars, pirates,
and Frenchmen, as well as militiamen from Louisiana, Kentucky, and
Tennessee. Among the defenders were two Louisiana regiments of free black
volunteers, numbering about four hundred men. The Americans threw up their
entrenchment, and in the words of a popular song:
Behind it stood our little force--
None wished it to be greater;
For ev'ry man was half a horse,
And half an alligator.
The overconfident British, numbering some eight thousand battle-seasoned
veterans, blundered badly. They made the mistake of launching a frontal
assault, on January 8, 1815, on the entrenched American riflemen and
The attackers suffered the most devastating defeat of the entire war, losing over
two thousand, killed and wounded, in half an hour, as compared with some
seventy for the Americans. This slaughter was as useless as it was horrible, for
the treaty of peace had been signed at Ghent, in Europe, two weeks earlier. But
Jackson became more than ever the hero of the West.
The "glorious news" from New Orleans reached Washington early in February
1815, and about two weeks later came the tidings of the treaty of peace. Naive
citizens promptly concluded that the British, beaten to their knees by Jackson,
had hastened to make terms
Tsar Alexander I of Russia, hard-pressed by Napoleon's army and not wanting
his British ally to fritter away its strength in America, proposed mediation
between the clashing Anglo-Saxon cousins in 1812. The tsar's feeler eventually
set in motion the machinery that brought five American peacemakers to the
quaint Belgian city of Ghent in 1814. The bickering group was headed by early
rising, puritanical John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, who deplored the
late-hour card playing of his high-living colleague Henry Clay.
Confident after their military successes, Britain's envoys made sweeping
demands for a neutralized Indian buffer state in the Great Lakes region, control
of the Great Lakes, and a substantial part of conquered Maine. The Americans
flatly rejected these terms, and the talks appeared stalemated.
But news of British reverses in upper New York and at Baltimore, and increasing
war-weariness in Britain, made London more willing to compromise. Preoccupied
with the Congress of Vienna and still-dangerous France, the British lion
resigned itself to licking its wounds. Revenge against its upstart American
offspring would be sweet--but expensive. Once again European distress brought
American diplomatic success, for the War of 1812 was "won" by the United
States, so far as it was won at all, in Europe.
The Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve in 1814, was essentially an
armistice. Both sides simply agreed to stop fighting and to restore conquered
territory. No mention was made of those grievances for which America had
ostensibly fought: the Indian menace, search and seizure, Orders in Council,
impressment, and confiscations. These maritime omissions have often been
cited as further evidence of the insincerity of the war hawks. Rather, they are
proof that the Americans did not defeat the British decisively. With neither side
able to impose its will, the treaty negotiations--like the war itself--ended as a
The news from Ghent triggered an outburst of rejoicing in the United States.
Many Americans had rather expected to lose some territory, so dark was the
military outlook early in 1815. But when the treaty arrived, the public mood
rocketed from gloom to glory. The popularity of the pact was so overwhelming
that it was unanimously approved by the Senate. A slogan of the hour became
"Not One Inch of Territory Ceded or Lost"--a phrase that contrasted strangely
with "On to Canada" at the outset of the war
nvolving about 6,000 Americans killed or wounded. It was but a footnote to the
mighty European conflagration. In 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia with
about 500,000 men, Madison tried to invade Canada with about 5,000 men. But
if the American conflict was globally unimportant, its results were highly
important to the United States.
Americans wrested no formal recognition of their rights on the high seas, but
informally they did. No longer did British aristocrats jeer at the "striped bunting"
over "American cockboats." The Republic had shown that it would resist, sword
in hand, what it regarded as grievous wrongs. Other nations developed a new
respect for American fighting men.
Naval officers like Perry and Macdonough were the most effective type of
negotiators; the hot breath of their broadsides spoke the most eloquent
diplomatic language. America's diplomats abroad were henceforth treated with
less scorn. In a diplomatic sense, if not in a military sense, the conflict could be
called the Second War for American Independence.
A new nation, moreover, was welded in the fiery furnace of armed conflict.
Sectionalism, now identified with discredited New England Federalists, was
given a black eye. The painful events of the war glaringly revealed, as perhaps
nothing else could have done, the folly of sectional disunity. In a sense the most
conspicuous casualty of the war was the Federalist party.
The nation thrilled to the victories of its warriors. A brilliant naval tradition,
already well launched, was strengthened by the exploits of the gallant seamen.
The ineptitude of insubordinate or fleeing militia was forgotten. The battle-
singed regular army, which in the closing months of the war had fought bravely
and well, had won its spurs. War heroes emerged, such as Andrew Jackson and
William Henry Harrison, both of whom were to become president.
Hostile Indians in the South had been crushed by Jackson at Horseshoe Bend
(1814) and those in the North by Harrison at the Battle of the Thames (1813).
Left in the lurch by their British friends at Ghent, the Indians were forced to make
such terms as they could. They reluctantly consented, in a series of treaties, to
relinquish vast areas of forested land north of the Ohio River.
Manufacturing increased behind the fiery wooden wall of the British blockade. In
an economic sense, as well as in a diplomatic sense, the War of 1812 may be
regarded as the Second War for American Independence. The industries that
were thus stimulated by the fighting rendered America less dependent on
Much of the goodness went out of the good feelings in 1819, when a paralyzing
economic panic descended. It brought deflation, depression, bankruptcies, bank
failures, unemployment, soup kitchens, and overcrowded pesthouses known as
This was the first national financial panic since President Washington took
office. It was to be followed by a succession of others every twenty or so years,
in what seemed an inevitable cycle. Many factors contributed to the catastrophe
of 1819, but looming large was overspeculation in frontier lands. The Bank of
the United States, through its western branches, had become deeply involved in
this popular type of outdoor gambling.
Financial paralysis from the panic, which lasted in some degree for several
years, gave a rude setback to the nationalistic ardor. Various parts of the country
drifted back toward the old sectionalism, as they concentrated on bailing
themselves out. The West was especially hard hit. When the pinch came, the
Bank of the United States forced the speculative ("wildcat") western banks to the
wall and foreclosed mortgages on countless farms. All this was technically legal
but politically unwise. In the eyes of the western debtor, the bank soon became
a kind of financial devil.
A more welcome child of the panic was fresh legislation to govern the sale of
public lands. The plight of the western farmer, combined with the evils of land
speculation, laid bare the defects of the Land Act of 1800, as amended in 1804.
By its terms a pioneer could buy a minimum of 160 acres at $2 an acre over a
period of four years, with a down payment of $80. When hard times came, entire
communities would default on their installments. An improved Land Act of 1820
lightened the burden somewhat. It permitted the buyer to secure 80 virgin acres
at a minimum of $1.25 an acre in cash--for a total cost of $100. There was less
acreage but less outlay.
The panic of 1819 also created backwashes in the political and social world. It
hit especially hard at the poorer classes--the one-suspender men and their
families--and hence helped cultivate the seedbed of Jacksonian democracy. It
also directed attention to the inhumanity of imprisoning debtors. In extreme
cases, often overplayed, mothers were torn from their infants for owing a few
dollars. Mounting agitation against imprisonment for debt bore fruit in remedial
legislation in an increasing number of states
Beyond a doubt the West, out of which had swooped the war hawks of 1812,
was by far the most nationalistic of the sections. Being new, it had no long-
established states' rights tradition. Moreover, it had early learned to lean on the
national government, from which it had secured most of its land, directly or
indirectly. It was a mixing bowl within the huge American melting pot, for people
from all sections rubbed elbows on the frontier.
Marvelous indeed had been the onward march of the West; nine frontier states
had joined the original thirteen between 1791 and 1819. With an eye to
preserving the North-South sectional balance, most of these commonwealths
had been admitted alternately, free or slave.
Why this explosive expansion? In part, it was simply a continuation of the
generations-old westward movement, which had been going on since early
colonial days. In addition, the siren call of cheap land--"the Ohio fever"--had a
special appeal to European immigrants. Quaintly garbed newcomers from
abroad were beginning to stream down the gangplanks in impressive numbers,
especially after the war of embargoes and bullets. Land exhaustion in the older
tobacco states, where the soil was "mined" rather than cultivated, likewise drove
people westward. Glib-tongued speculators accepted small down payments,
making it easier to buy new holdings.
The western boom was stimulated by additional developments. Acute distress
during the embargo years turned many saddened faces toward the setting sun.
The crushing of the Indians in the Northwest and South, by generals Harrison
and Jackson, pacified the frontier and opened up vast virgin tracts of land. The
building of highways improved the land routes to the Ohio Valley. Noteworthy
was the Cumberland Road, begun in 1811, which ran ultimately from western
Maryland to Illinois. The use of the first steamboat on western waters, also in
1811, heralded a new era of upstream navigation.
But the West, despite the inflow of settlers, was still weak in population and
influence. Not potent enough politically to make its voice heard, it was forced to
ally itself with other sections. Thus strengthened, it demanded cheap acreage
and partially achieved its goal in the Land Act of 1820. It demanded cheap
transportation and slowly got it, despite the constitutional qualms of the
presidents and the hostility of easterners. Finally, the West demanded cheap
money, issued by its own "wildcat" banks, and fought the powerful Bank of the
United States to attain its goal
Sectional tensions were nakedly revealed in 1819, when the territory of Missouri
knocked on the doors of Congress for admission as a slave state. This fertile
and well-watered area contained sufficient population to warrant statehood.
But the House of Representatives stymied the plans of the Missourians by
passing the incendiary Tallmadge amendment. It stipulated that no more slaves
should be brought into Missouri and also provided for the gradual emancipation
of children born to slave parents already there. A mounting roar of anger burst
from slaveholding southerners. They were joined by many depression-cursed
pioneers who favored unhampered expansion of the West and by many
northerners, especially diehard Federalists, who were eager to use the issue to
break the back of the "Virginia dynasty."
Southerners saw in the Tallmadge amendment, which was defeated in the
Senate, an ominous threat to sectional balance. When the Constitution was
adopted in 1788, the North and South were running neck and neck in wealth and
population. But with every passing decade, the North was becoming wealthier
and also more thickly settled--an advantage reflected in an increasing northern
majority in the House of Representatives.
Yet in the Senate, with eleven states free and eleven slave, the southerners
had maintained equality. They were therefore in a good position to thwart any
northern effort to interfere with the expansion of slavery, and they did not want to
lose this veto.
The future of the slave system caused southerners profound concern. Missouri
was the first state entirely west of the Mississippi River to be carved out of the
Louisiana Purchase, and the Missouri emancipation amendment might set a
damaging precedent for all the rest of the area. Even more disquieting was
another possibility. If Congress could abolish the "peculiar institution" in
Missouri, might it not attempt to do likewise in the older states of the South? The
wounds of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were once more ripped open.
Burning moral questions also protruded, even though the main issue was
political and economic balance. A small but growing group of antislavery
agitators in the North seized the occasion to raise an outcry against the evils of
slavery. They were determined that the plague of human bondage should not
spread further into the virgin territories
Deadlock in Washington was at length broken in 1820 by the time-honored
American solution of compromise--actually a bundle of three compromises.
Courtly Henry Clay of Kentucky, gifted conciliator, played a leading role.
Congress, despite abolitionist pleas, agreed to admit Missouri as a slave state.
But at the same time, free-soil Maine, which until then had been a part of
Massachusetts, was admitted as a separate state.
The balance between North and South was thus kept at twelve states each and
remained there for fifteen years. Although Missouri was permitted to retain
slaves, all future bondage was prohibited in the remainder of the Louisiana
Purchase north of the line of 36 30'--the southern boundary of Missouri.
This horse-trading adjustment was politically evenhanded, though denounced by
extremists on each side as a "dirty bargain." Both North and South yielded
something; both gained something. The South won the prize of Missouri as an
unrestricted slave state.
The North won the concession that Congress could forbid slavery in the
remaining territories. More gratifying to many northerners was the fact that the
immense area north of 36 30', except Missouri, was forever closed to the blight
of slavery. Yet the restriction on future slavery in the territories was not unduly
offensive to the slaveowners, partly because the northern prairie land did not
seem adapted to slave labor. Even so, a majority of southern congressmen
voted against the compromise.
Neither North nor South was acutely displeased, although neither was
completely happy. Fortunately, the Missouri Compromise lasted thirty-four years-
-a vital formative period in the life of the young Republic--and during that time it
preserved the shaky compact of the states. Yet the embittered dispute over
slavery heralded the future breakup of the Union.
Ever after, the morality of the South's "peculiar institution" was an issue that
could not be swept under the rug. The Missouri Compromise only ducked the
question--it did not resolve it. Sooner or later, Thomas Jefferson predicted, it will
"burst on us as a tornado."
The Missouri dispute proved to be another serious setback to nationalism and a
tremendous stimulus to sectionalism--in the North, South, and West. From this
time forward, the embattled South began to develop a nationalism of its own, a
kind of sectional nationalism. Needing sectional reinforcements, it cast flirtatious
eyes upon the adolescent West, which in turn was seeking allies.
Hotheads in both the North and South, numbering only a tiny minority, clamored
for secession or a shooting showdown in 1820. But fortunately for the Union,
hostilities were postponed. With every passing decade the North was becoming
stronger in population, wealth, industry, and transportation--all of which added
up to military strength.
Admittedly, the Missouri solution was a compromise--a partial surrender on both
sides. Subsequent generations have tended to sneer at Henry Clay and the
other architects of the settlement as weak--as "appeasers." Yet the fact should
not be overlooked that compromise and statesmanship are often Siamese twins.
In a free and peaceful association of once-sovereign states, no group of them
could lord it over the others--that is, if they were all going to live together under
the same roof.
Without compromise there could have been no Constitution in 1787.
Compromise made the Union in 1789; compromise saved the Union until 1860.
When compromise broke down, the Union broke up.
The Missouri Compromise and the concurrent panic of 1819 should have
dimmed the political star of President Monroe. Certainly both unhappy events
had a dampening effect on the Era of Good Feelings. But smooth-spoken James
Monroe was so popular, and the Federalist opposition so weak, that in the
presidential election of 1820 he received every electoral vote except one.
Unanimity was an honor reserved for George Washington. Monroe, as it turned
out, was the only president in American history to be reelected after a term in
which a major financial panic began
One group of Marshall's decisions--perhaps the most famous--bolstered the
power of the federal government at the expense of the states. A notable case in
this category was McCulloch v. Maryland (1819).
The suit involved an attempt by the state of Maryland to destroy a branch of the
Bank of the United States by imposing a tax on its notes. John Marshall,
speaking for the Court, declared the bank constitutional by invoking the
Hamiltonian doctrine of implied powers.
At the same time, he strengthened federal authority and slapped at state
infringements when he denied the right of Maryland to tax the bank. With ringing
emphasis, he affirmed "that the power to tax involves the power to destroy" and
"that a power to create implies a power to preserve."
Marshall's ruling in this case gave the doctrine of "loose construction" its most
famous formulation. The Constitution, he said, derived from the consent of the
people and thus permitted the government to act for their benefit. He further
argued that the Constitution was "intended to endure for ages to come and,
consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs." Finally, he
declared, "Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution,
and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end,
which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution,
Two years later (1821) the case of Cohens v. Virginia gave Marshall one of his
greatest opportunities. The Cohens, found guilty by the Virginia courts of illegally
selling lottery tickets, appealed to the highest tribunal. Virginia won, in that the
conviction of the Cohens was upheld. But it lost, in that Marshall resoundingly
asserted the right of the Supreme Court to review the decisions of the state
supreme courts in all questions involving powers of the federal government. The
states' rights people were aghast.
Hardly less significant in Marshall's career was the celebrated "steamboat
case," Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). The suit grew out of an attempt by the state of
New York to grant to a private concern a monopoly of waterborne commerce
between New York and New Jersey. Marshall sternly reminded the upstart state
that the Constitution conferred on Congress alone the control of interstate
commerce (see Art. I, Sec. VIII, para. 3). He thus struck another blow at states'
rights, while upholding the sovereign powers of the federal government.
Interstate streams were thus cleared of this judicial snag, while the departed
spirit of Hamilton may have applauded
The yeasty nationalism of the years after the War of 1812 was likewise reflected
in the shaping of foreign policy. To this end, the nationalistic President Monroe
teamed with his nationalistic secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, the cold
and scholarly son of the frosty and bookish ex-president. The younger Adams, a
statesman of the first rank, happily rose above the ingrown Federalist
sectionalism of his native New England and proved to be one of the great
secretaries of state.
To its credit, the Monroe administration negotiated the much-underrated Treaty
of 1818 with Britain. It permitted Americans to share the coveted Newfoundland
fisheries with their Canadian cousins. This multisided agreement also fixed the
vague northern limits of Louisiana along the forty-ninth parallel from the Lake of
the Woods to the Rocky Mountains. The treaty further provided for a ten-year
joint occupation of the untamed Oregon country, without a surrender of the rights
or claims of either America or Britain.
To the south lay semitropical Spanish Florida, which many Americans believed
geography and providence had destined to become part of the United States.
Americans already claimed West Florida, where uninvited American settlers had
torn down the hated Spanish flag in 1810. Congress ratified this grab in 1812,
and during the War of 1812 against Spain's ally, Britain, a small American army
seized the Mobile region. But the bulk of Florida remained, tauntingly, under
When an epidemic of revolutions broke out in South America, notably in
Argentina (1816), Venezuela (1817), and Chile (1818), Spain was forced to
denude Florida of troops to fight the rebels. A chaotic situation rapidly developed
in the swampy peninsula. Bands of Indians, runaway slaves, and white outcasts
poured across the border into American territory, burning and scalping, and then
fled to safety behind the surveyor's line.
General Andrew Jackson, idol of the West and scourge of the Indians,
reappeared in 1817. The Monroe administration formally commissioned Jackson
to punish the Florida outlaws and, if necessary, to pursue them into Spanish
territory. But he was to respect all posts under the Spanish flag.
Early in 1818 Jackson swept across the Florida border with all the fury of an
avenging angel. He hanged two Indian chiefs without ceremony and, after hasty
military trials, executed two British subjects for assisting the Indians. He also
seized the two most important Spanish posts in the area, St. Marks and then
Pensacola, where he deposed the Spanish governor, who was lucky enough to
escape Jackson's jerking noose.
Jackson had clearly exceeded his instructions from Washington. Alarmed,
President Monroe consulted his cabinet. Its members were for disavowing or
disciplining the overzealous Jackson--all except the lone wolf John Quincy
Adams, who refused to howl with the pack. An ardent patriot and nationalist, the
flinty New Englander finally won the others over to his point of view.
Far from apologizing, he took the offensive and emphatically informed Spain that
it had violated the Spanish-American Treaty of 1795 by not suppressing the
outlaws of Florida. He then insisted that the alternatives were for the Spaniards
to control the area (a task that they admitted was impossible) or cede it to the
United States (a course that was galling to their pride).
Distressed in Latin America and at home, and believing that they were going to
lose Spanish Florida in any case, the Spanish decided to dispose of the
alligator-infested area while they could still get something for it. In the
mislabeled Florida Purchase Treaty of 1819, Spain ceded Florida, as well as
shadowy Spanish claims to Oregon, in exchange for America's abandonment of
equally shadowy claims to Texas, soon to become part of independent Mexico.
The hitherto vague western boundary of Louisiana was made to run zigzag
along the Rockies to the forty-second parallel and then to turn due west to the
Pacific, dividing Oregon from Spanish holdings
Reactions in America to the Canning proposal varied. The intimate advisers of
President Monroe, including the aged Jefferson and Madison, recommended
that the Republic lock arms with hitherto distrusted England. The one notable
exception was again the lone-wolf nationalist, Secretary Adams, who was
hardheaded enough to beware of Britons bearing gifts. Why should the lordly
British, with the mightiest navy afloat, need America as an ally--an America that
had neither naval nor military strength? Such a union, argued Adams, was
undignified--like a tiny American "cockboat" sailing "in the wake of the British
Adams, ever alert, thought that he detected the joker in the Canning proposal.
The British feared that the aggressive Yankees would one day seize Spanish
territory in the Americas--perhaps Cuba--which would jeopardize England's
possessions in the Caribbean. If Canning could seduce the United States into
joining with him in support of the territorial integrity of the New World, America's
own hands would be morally tied.
A self-denying alliance with Britain would not only hamper American
expansion, concluded Adams, but it was unnecessary. He suspected--correctly--
that the European powers had not agreed upon any definite plans for invading
the Americas. In any event the British navy would not permit hostile fleets to
come, because the South American markets had to be kept open at all costs for
It was presumably safe for Uncle Sam, behind the protective wooden petticoats
of the British navy, to blow a defiant, nationalistic blast at all Europe. The
distresses of the Old World again set the stage for another American diplomatic
The Monroe Doctrine was born late in 1823, when the nationalistic Adams won
the nationalistic Monroe over to his way of thinking. The president, in his regular
annual message to Congress on December 2, 1823, incorporated a stern
warning to the European powers. Its two basic features were (1)
noncolonization and (2) nonintervention.
Monroe first directed his verbal blast primarily at the lumbering Russian bear in
the Northwest. He proclaimed, in effect, that the era of colonization in the
Americas had ended and that henceforth there would be a permanently closed
season. What the great powers had they might keep, but neither they nor any
other Old World powers could seize or otherwise acquire more. This lofty
declaration was later resented by those nations, notably Germany and Italy, that
were not unified and hence unable to take out colonial hunting licenses until
late in the century.
At the same time, Monroe sounded a trumpet blast against foreign intervention.
He was clearly concerned with regions to the south, where fears were felt for the
fledgling Spanish-American republics. Monroe bluntly warned the crowned
heads of Europe to keep their hated monarchical systems out of this
hemisphere. For its part the United States would not intervene in the war that the
Greeks were then fighting against the Turks for their independence
The Monroe Doctrine might more accurately have been called the Self-Defense
Doctrine. President Monroe was concerned basically with the security of his own
country--not of Latin America. The United States has never willingly permitted a
powerful foreign nation to secure a foothold near its strategic Caribbean vitals.
Yet in the absence of the British navy or other allies, the strength of the Monroe
Doctrine has never been greater than America's power to eject the trespasser.
The doctrine, as often noted, was just as big as the nation's armed forces--and
no bigger. But attaching Monroe's name to the Self-Defense Doctrine has given
it the prestige that comes from a distinguished personage.
Monroe and Adams must share about equally the credit for the authorship of the
so-called Monroe Doctrine. But its basic principles, in one form or another, had
been set forth earlier by Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and others. Monroe
and Adams merely collected and codified existing ideas, giving them a new
emphasis and slant.
The Monroe Doctrine has had a long career of ups and downs. It was never law-
-domestic or international. It was not, technically speaking, a pledge or an
agreement. It was merely a simple, personalized statement of the policy of
President Monroe. What one president says, another may unsay. And Monroe's
successors have ignored, revived, distorted, or expanded the original version,
chiefly by adding interpretations. Like ivy on a tree, it has grown with America's
But the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 was largely an expression of the post-1812
nationalism energizing the United States. Although directed at a specific menace
in 1823, and hence a kind of period piece, the doctrine proved to be the most
famous of all the long-lived offspring of that nationalism. While giving voice to a
spirit of patriotism, it simultaneously deepened the illusion of isolationism. Many
Americans falsely concluded, then and later, that the Republic was in fact
isolated from European dangers simply because it wanted to be and because,
in a nationalistic outburst, Monroe had publicly warned the Old World powers to stay away.