One Last Historical Note

One last bit on the whole Barton fiasco. There’s something ridiculous about dealing with David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies right at this time. Judging from John Fea’s comments, Barton’s book seems to be Jefferson hagiography. Well, right now we’re in the summer of 2012, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. This is not the time to engage in Jefferson worship.

The War of 1812 is something of a national embarrassment. We attacked British Canada and – in military terms – lost. Yes, you could argue it was a stalemate, but that was largely because Britain had just ended the war with Napoleon and wanted to focus their resources on problems in Europe. They were willing to accept a peace deal in which the Americans lost very little and sell out their native American allies in return for being able to turn their backs on this theater.

We have Jefferson, his protege James Madison and their Republican party to thank for this military fiasco. This isn’t the place for a lecture, but here are a couple of points:

In an attempt to pressure the British by denying them American trade, Jefferson created the Embargo Act. It backfired massively, strengthening British trade, weakening America’s image overseas, hurting Jefferson’s Republican party and damaging the nation’s economy. It stands as one of the most excessive example of government overreach as well as one of the least productive acts in American history.

But Jefferson needed a non-military way to strike at the British because he had very little military. Committed to lowering taxes and weakening the central government, Jefferson had shrunk the American Navy down to the point where we had only two frigates in operation, along with thirty-some smaller ships. America had no ability to enforce its will against the massive British navy.

After the failure of the Embargo Act at the end of Jefferson’s term, the Madison and the Republicans needed some way to recoup, and a short victorious war seemed just the ticket. America could pressure Britain by attacking its colonies in Canada. Better, America could surely conquer the much smaller, poorer colonies swifty:

The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent. (Jefferson’s letter to William Duane, Aug. 1812.)

But – guess what – Jefferson and Madison had weakened the regular Army as well. Which meant fighting a war with militia. Poorly trained, poorly equipped, poorly fed militia at that, because the Republicans were committed to fighting this war on the cheap. Such weak troops fought poorly and had little discipline. This meant a heavy desertion rate and, after one of America’s few victories, widespread looting that injured America’s image with the Canadians.

This could go on and on. The War of 1812 produced many absurdities and a great deal of human suffering, and Jefferson, Madison and the Republican policies are mainly to blame. If we’re going to remember Jefferson right now, we’re going to have to remember this critical failure of his administration and his ideals.

(I will now step aside so that the Canadians can gloat. Bonus points for every mention of Laura Secord and Isaac Brock.)

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