Dissent in Wars - The quasi-war and the war of 1812




After the American Revolution, dissent in the next war presents a special case; the war did not last long enough, or amount to enough as a military operation accompanied by casualties, for the effects of duration to have much play, but in its origins the war was perhaps the most politically controversial in the history of the country. It was the Quasi-War with France of 1797–1800. With the American political system still in process of formation, and partisan political opposition still widely regarded as illegitimate, it was hardly more a war against France, however, than a war conducted by the Federalists, who controlled the executive branch and Congress, against the Jeffersonian Republican opposition. French depredations against American maritime commerce and the XYZ Affair precipitated naval conflict with the French. Yet the causes of the war never ran deep enough to generate even a brief initial enthusiasm—despite the XYZ Affair—in more than a few localities. Moreover, the Federalists used the war to push through Congress authorizations of substantial increases in the army, although President John Adams remarked that as for an enemy army for this force to fight, "At present there is no more prospect of seeing a French army here than there is in Heaven." Stephen G. Kurtz's conclusion is that the new army, whose officers were carefully screened to assure their Federalist partisanship, was to be the tangible instrument for suppressing Jeffersonianism—a political army to cow the opposition. Against this threat to the antimilitary tradition and against the Quasi-War that nourished the threat, dissent became so sharp that Kurtz also concludes that fear and resentment of the political army ranked with the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts as a cause of disaffection from the Federalists and thus of the Republican "revolution" in the election of 1800.

Historians can perceive a deeper stream of causation leading to the War of 1812 than to the Quasi-War. In 1812 there was a fuller, more widespread patriotic spirit generated by the conviction that longstanding British refusal to grant the United States the rights of independent nationhood at sea represented a threat to the very independence of the Republic. Nevertheless, to the Federalists, now reduced to the role of opposition, the War of 1812 appeared as much a partisan war conceived for the political benefit of the rival party and for the ruination of themselves as the Quasi-War had seemed to the Republicans. By 1812 the Federalist Party had become a sectional party; except for enclaves of strength in the Carolinas, Philadelphia, and New York City, it was a New England party, and its interests and those of New England had come to seem indistinguishable. For commercial New England, the War of 1812 was the hideous culmination of a perverse Republican policy of countering British and French depredations against maritime commerce by terminating American overseas commerce altogether. For New England, no cause of the old revolution had loomed larger than the Boston Port Act; now the Republican strangulation, not just of Boston's but of all New England's commerce, naturally suggested a Boston Port Act much magnified. Thus, if the Boston Port Act had offered just cause for withdrawing from the British Empire despite all the benefits and ties of loyalty that the empire represented, then some New England Federalists saw Republican restrictions upon commerce as cause for seceding from the American Union. Republican trade restrictions and the ensuing war seemed all the more perverse to the Federalists because unlike the Republicans, the Federalists saw Great Britain as the defender of all people's rights against a revolutionary France whose excesses had descended into Napoleonic tyranny, while the Republicans responded to both French and British maritime depredations with an increasingly anti-British policy leading at last to a war whose only beneficiary was likely to be Napoleon.

The vote of the New England members of the House of Representatives, except for frontier Vermont, on the war resolution of 4 June 1812, was nineteen against war, nine for, and three not voting—surely a clear alignment against the war, although not nearly so one-sided as some accounts might suggest. Connecticut and Massachusetts soon rejected federal calls for their militia, and Rhode Island and New Hampshire supplied only a handful of militiamen for federal service in 1812. Federalist Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts proclaimed a fast day to mourn a war "against the nation from which we are descended," and New England Federalist leaders generally made no secret of their displeasure with the war. Nevertheless, New England's passive dissent threatened to turn into active resistance to the Republican administration only when the badly conceived war proved to be badly fought as well. Then twenty-six New England Federalists met in late 1814 at the Hartford Convention, "to protest," in the words of James M. Banner, Jr., "against the inept Republican management of the war with Great Britain and the whole system of Republican administration since Jefferson's election … to force the federal government to provide defensive help."

Early in the conflict, New England profited from it. Hoping to encourage New England's disaffection, Great Britain at first did not apply its naval blockade of the United States to New England. In the spring of 1814, however, with Napoleon defeated and Great Britain free to devote major military attentions to the American war, the British decided that making New England bear some of the brunt of the conflict would be a more productive encouragement to dissent. On 31 May 1814 the blockade was extended to the whole United States coast. Worse, British invasion of New England followed. In July an expedition from Halifax, Nova Scotia, took Eastport in the District of Maine; by early September, Lieutenant General John Sherbrooke had entered the Penobscot, taken possession of the whole Maine coast east of that river, and claimed the coast as far as New Brunswick. Towns around Cape Cod were raided, and under British guns Nantucket declared its neutrality. What brought the Hartford Convention movement to a head, according to established scholarship, was the inability of the government in Washington to provide respectable defense against these British attacks. The Federalist state governments and the Republican federal government still quarreled over who was to control the militia, the New England states insisting that in the crisis they must retain command of their militia for their own defense but that the federal government should pay the costs of defense. When early in 1815 Congress authorized compensation of state forces by the federal government, it met what Banner calls the Federalists' "central demand"; Harrison Gray Otis, perhaps the most influential Massachusetts Federalist, thought that passage of such an act earlier would have forestalled the Hartford Convention altogether.

This issue of defense was certainly more central to the Hartford Convention than the plots of secession that have sometimes been charged against the convention. The convention was engineered by the moderate leadership of the New England Federalist Party, of whom Otis was one example and George Cabot, the president of the convention, another, in order to press for effective action for defense and against Republican mismanagement. At the same time New England Federalists kept the political initiative in their section in their own hands—those of pragmatic politicians—and out of the hands of moralists, often led by the clergy, who increasingly couched their opposition to the Republicans in absolutist moral terms and were in fact likely to move toward extreme action, even including disruption of the Union. A convention of party leaders was an affair the pragmatists could control, and they did, confining the Hartford Convention to resolutions on behalf of federal support for state self-defense and proposals for constitutional amendments to pare the power of the Republican dynasty in Washington. This outcome fulfilled George Cabot's prediction that he could tell exactly what the convention would produce, namely, "a great pamphlet."

A delegation including Otis carried the Hartford resolutions to Washington, leaving Boston just after they learned of Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans and arriving in the capital just in time for the celebrations of the Treaty of Ghent that ended the war in February 1815. Holding the convention and passing its resolutions were probably necessary to divert the New England extremists and maintain, for the time being, a viable Federalist Party in New England. But enough secessionist overtones were imputed to the Hartford Convention that Federalism was forever damned elsewhere for disloyalty in time of war.

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