The contrast between the importance of the subject of Richard Buel’s new book—New England’s defiance of federal authority during the years of commercial embargo and war with England—and the dullness and conventionality of the narrative reminds us that history is too important to be left to the current occupants of the academy.
To enter the author’s text is to wander a desert utterly devoid of metaphor, irony, alliteration, allusiveness, analogy, or the beauty of a well-crafted sentence. Instead, we have constructions whose meaning lies buried under a pile of sand: “Considerations like these led the Federalists to cling to behaviors their opponents were anxious to discourage so as to limit Republican options as much as possible.” He tries to clear things up in the conclusion by explaining that his maps, though difficult to read, are as accurate as any available:
But describing Federalist behavior has always been subsidiary in my mind to explaining it, even though attempts at explanation beg the question of whether Federalism constituted a sufficiently homogenous entity to be comprehended under any coherent hypothesis.
Reading sentences such as that brought back the sage advice of one of my dissertation advisers: Read only the opening and closing paragraphs of books, just enough to gauge where to place it on the scale of accepted orthodoxy—saves time for committee meetings.
Buel adheres to the nationalist plot line, however false, with remarkable tenacity. He claims that Jefferson’s doctrine of “nullification would become central in the defense of slavery.” It was called upon most often to defend commercial freedom: by Massachusetts, in declaring the embargo of 1813 “unconstitutional and void”; by South Carolina, in nullifying the tariffs of 1828 and 1832. And it was used at least once to oppose slavery: Wisconsin, in 1859, citing Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions as authority, resolved that the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was an “act of undelegated power, and therefore without authority, void, and of no force.” It was never summoned to defend slavery.
Buel is determined to keep the rabid dogs of anarchy from being loosed on the land: He characterizes secession as equivalent to “destroying” the republic, rebukes state resistance to unconstitutional legislation as “dominating the majority,” and depicts Federalists as inflexible ideologues, paranoid about Napoleon and nostalgic for the days of British paternalism, traitors bent on wrecking the noblest experiment in freedom ever known to man. He is indignant and shocked to find them celebrating the emperor’s military defeats in Russia and Germany and his abdication in April 1814, for the enemy of our government’s enemy should be our enemy, too.
He also accuses them of “bankrupting the government” and conspiring to bring on the banking panic of 1814. (Buel, like most of his colleagues, never learned the laws of currency or studied the principles of banking.) The truth is that the government bankrupted itself by going to war without funds or revenue. Jefferson’s embargo and Madison’s nonintercourse acts deprived the government of its chief source of revenue: custom duties. Then, to compound the error, Madison would not raise taxes to pay for his war. When the New Englanders would not exchange their gold for bonds, the treasury resorted to the spendthrift’s favorite method of war finance: the printing press. Contractors and soldiers were paid either with interest-bearing treasury notes or the depreciating notes of the state banks. The banks hoarded the treasury notes and used them as reserves on which to inflate money and credit. The inflation drove up prices and encouraged an orgy of speculation, culminating in the inevitable run on the banks for specie, promptly followed by a suspension of payments. The banks had ruined themselves. Only those of New England remained solvent, as they had wisely refrained from buying government bonds with their own paper and had not lent money on the security of a real-estate bubble. To blame the Federalists for such financial folly is juvenile. They were under no moral obligation to lend their money to a war they opposed, nor were they unpatriotic to demand that the banks east of the Hudson River pay their debts (i.e., bank balances owed).
Buel might have crafted his narrative to provide White House officials with precedents for failure caused by “other” people (liberals, anti-Americans, servants of the Antichrist) by offering evidence that America has always been burdened with the weak and traitorous. Just as neoconservatives continue to blame the press and the antiwar left for the loss of Vietnam, Buel blames the Federalists for America’s failure to win the War of 1812, begging the question of whether it was prudent to wage it in the first place. (Great Britain was the superpower of her day, capable of waging war on more than one continent: The Royal Navy commanded 1,000 ships.) He claims the Federalists forced the Republicans to declare war as the last alternative to national “humiliation” resulting from the failure (because of Federalist opposition, of course) of Jefferson and Madison’s policy of commercial retaliation. It was a choice between war and the loss of American “credibility”—that threadbare and hackneyed excuse for compounding error. Even when Federalist objections to going to war proved prescient by subsequent debacle (they predicted that the British would prevail over the French and pointed to the vulnerability of the coast—a thousand points of access for Royal Marines to pillage, rapine, and burn), Buel cannot bring himself to admit they were right:
The support they derived from empirical fact didn’t make them any less dependent on their ideology . . . Once the Federalists had pushed the Republicans into an unwanted war, there was no turning back.
This was not an unwanted war. The evidence (Jefferson and Madison’s correspondence, administration-sponsored legislation) is irrefutable that the two hoped to go to war against Great Britain as early as the summer of 1809 with the hope of acquiring Canada—a long-standing American ambition, Arnold’s expedition to Quebec having been launched a full year before Congress declared independence. Although ostensibly waged in vindication of “free trade and sailors’ rights,” “Mr. Madison’s war,” as it was derisively termed by opponents, had Canada as its real, although unavowed, objective. Think of the Iraq war. The Bush administration has proclaimed numerous reasons for bombing Baghdad (liberating women, establishing Arab voting rights, annulling the Iraqi branch of Terrorists Incorporated) but never the real ones—securing oil reserves and garrisoning the Garden of Eden.
There are other similarities between the two conflicts. Most support for the war came from the Southern and Western states, even though the former stood to gain little from even a victorious outcome: It was not their shipping that was being rerouted to Halifax or London. The South has supported every war in our history, large and small, without exception. Every war. Remember when Secretary Rumsfeld boasted he could take Baghdad for a song, while Shinseki spoke of 250,000? Secretary of War Henry Dearborn calculated he needed 24,000 regulars just to take Canada; yet the President had provided him with less than half of that when they started firing the cannon. Then, there was the financing—or lack thereof. The same Congress that drew the sword neglected to lay a tax. John Randolph of Virginia, a liberal aristocrat and a leader of the antiwar Republicans, mocked them openly: “Go to war without money, without men, without a navy! Go to war when you have not the courage, while your lips utter ‘war,’ to lay war taxes!” Hermanus Bleeker, a New York Federalist, had the bad manners to ask the whereabouts of the Army, for a count of the money in the treasury, a listing of the battle-ready ships-of-the-line. The “paper preparations” were impressive, he agreed; but “to go to war under such circumstances would necessarily bring upon us shame, disgrace, and defeat.”
During the summers of 1812 and 1813, the Americans held menacing maneuvers along the northern border, but, apart from burning down the village of York (Toronto), their invading columns were repulsed or else refused to march: One mutinous regiment of New York militia declined to cross into Canada on the grounds that such an act would constitute offensive war, which was not what they had signed up for. True, the Americans won some brilliant naval engagements, but these were in the nature of medieval jousts and did not weaken the Royal Navy’s supremacy at sea. By 1814, with France fallen and Napoleon sequestered on an island, the British went on the rampage in North America, raiding along the coasts, occupying Maine, gang-raping women in the Chesapeake, burning down the capitol, interrupting Madison’s dinner.
Buel dismisses the Federalists as “failed leaders,” but how does standing up for one’s constituents, resisting unconstitutional encroachments on their liberties and property, averting an unnecessary war (in 1809), and refusing to participate in an aggressive one (the governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island withheld their militias from federal service) constitute failure? If that be failure, please give us more: more “failed leaders” to oppose Mr. Bush’s never-ending but immensely profitable “World War IV: The Return of Bin Laden.”
For 50 years, we have been taught that John Marshall’s nationalist rulings were as inerrant as Scripture; that states’ rights is a synonym for segregation; that secession was a slaveholder’s plot. Yet, during a 12-year period, from roughly 1803 to 1815, the Federalists of New England endorsed Jefferson’s compact theory of the Union, defended the reserved powers of the states, invoked the power of state interposition, and discussed leaving the confederacy. The Virginians were corrupted by the possession of power and, even more, by the waging of war. It was left to New England, and Delaware and Pennsylvania, to stand up for the ancient principle that only power can check power—a principle embodied in the structure of the republican confederation, put there by men who knew their Polybius, their Machiavelli, their Montesquieu.
About all this, Buel has nothing to say. Either he is unaware of the constitutional significance of the key documents of Federalist dissent, or he intentionally ignores them. How would he explain his omission of the key sentence of the Connecticut Resolves (1812): “The United States are a confederacy of states . . . a confederated and not a consolidated republic”? (Notice how the country is rendered in the plural.) How does it happen that he does not enlighten us that Massachusetts believed the union of the states was formed by a “federal compact” in which the states enjoyed “concurrent sovereignty” with the federal government? That “all her citizens” were entitled to look for “protection” from federal usurpation “in the strong arm of the state government” (Massachusetts Resolves of 1809 and 1814)? Or that the legislators of Connecticut were determined “to interpose their protecting shield between the right and liberty of the people, and the assumed power of the General Government” (Speech of Governor Trumbull, February 1809)? Perhaps Buel has neglected to print these texts to avoid lending aid and comfort to a neo-Confederate interpretation of American history, or out of fear of arming the militia with a principle, or instigating the storming of the palace. But isn’t that what we need? What was it that Jefferson said about a “little rebellion now and then” being necessary to keep the rulers from plundering the treasury, betraying our liberties, laying waste the world and calling it peace?
[America on the Brink: How the Political Struggle Over the War of 1812 Almost Destroyed the Young Republic, by Richard Buel, Jr. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 289 pp., $29.95]
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