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.)

  • The Other Weirdo

    As a Canadian, I find it disturbing that my countrypeople would gloat over this. Gloating over a war that took place 200 years before, whether one wins or loses, does nothing but perpetuate the sort of troubles that the Irish have had to deal with for centuries. What difference does it make now to Canada? I am not saying that it should be forgotten; there are lessons to be learnt from every war, no matter how far removed from our modern lives, but to gloat over victories that took place 2 centuries before smacks of a certain lack of national character. And reinforces the idea that Canada has no other source of pride except centuries-old wars. Certainly not Olympic pride, given our embarrassing medal standing at London-2012.

    • Revyloution

      Weirdo, we are just a tribal primate. Perhaps a couple more centuries of the enlightenment might trickle some civility down to masses, but right now civilization is a mass of warring apes standing on the backs of giants. Desperately cheering on their team, salivating at the defeat of the Other, without realizing the prosperity and stability of our daily life comes not from our competition, but our cooperation.

    • DMG

      Good point. I was about to jump in and gloat, given the open invitation, but you’re right.

      So, to the Americans: I’m glad that we’re able to live peacefully as neighbours. :) May we continue to do so for more centuries yet.

      On a different note, this may be the only circumstance where you’ll see a liberal blog criticizing the U.S. for not spending *enough* on its military. XD

  • James Thompson

    A lot of the founders had the idea that a standing army was dangerous. They seemed to think they would have time to enlist, train, and equip an army and navy when the time came.

    This episode seems to prove them wrong.

    • Kodie

      Your comment makes me think of things – I may not have thought this through, but I was wondering whether it might be a good idea to require basic military training with no combat unless one enlists in the military. I don’t know too much about other countries’ policies, like Switzerland or Israel, I would not feel comfortable requiring an active military tour of duty. Even what I’m proposing sounds “un-American,” it is just a thought exercise.

      As far as signing up militia we really don’t have that anymore, we just have people who may or may not have firearm training or are no longer in the military, and people who may be organizing themselves in case shit goes down. We have had the draft and as far as I know, still require men to fill in the “Selective Service” form when they turn 18. But we also have a standing military, in addition to the capacity to train non-military pretty quickly if “needed”.

      • Revyloution

        Kodie, ive always been in favor of a mandatory term of service for all citizens. Doesn’t just have to be military, I think all young adults should spend a couple of years in service to their country.

        • vasaroti

          Then we’d have to provide food, lodging and health care for them. Plus, I suspect that corporations would find a way to turn public service into free or less-than-minimum-wage labor on their behalf, like what’s happened in prisons.
          A kid coming out of high school with a good understanding of math, a foreign language, etc. shouldn’t have to cut grass along highways while their skills evaporate. A lot of high schools already offer credit for community service, and if colleges did the same, I think that would be taking it far enough.

        • blotonthelandscape

          They do this in Nigeria for all university graduates. I also think it’s a great idea, and a fantastic use of public funds.

      • Rich Wilson

        Russia also has compulsory military service. There are a few exceptions such as studying for an advanced degree. From what I’ve heard hazing is extreme, and I’ve known a few young men trying anything to avoid it. It’s more easily avoided if you have money.

  • Gregory Marshall

    One note about the “Republican” (most often called Democratic-Republican) party, Jefferson’s party at that time became the Democratic party with Andrew Jackson. The current Republican party comes from the remnants of the Federalist and the Whigs.

  • Artor

    Here is a little background on the war of 1812 everyone should know. Check it out:

    • Kodie

      Watching that, I wonder why Americans are pretty chill about the Canadians when we hold grudges about everything. I think we spent maybe 10 minutes on the War of 1812 in the last week of 4th grade, if that much, and Justin Bieber is your Donny Osmond, no biggie.

      • UrsaMinor

        Also, they have moose and hockey players wandering the streets, and they’re kinder and gentler than we are because they have no nukes. The beer is overrated, though.

        • The Other Weirdo

          Uh huh.

        • Rich Wilson

          You know why American beer is like making love in a canoe?

          (at least so I’ve been told, I don’t actually drink beer)

      • Elemenope

        What Ursa said, and I sneakingly suspect that most Americans simply think of Canadians as Americans-with-weird-habits, and we are nothing if not tolerant of weird habits.

        • UrsaMinor

          Except for the French-speaking thing, but that’s mostly confined to Quebec.

          • The Other Weirdo

            Portions of Northern Ontario. Also huge swathes of New Brunswick, pieces of Nova Scotia. There are probably other places.

          • Elemenope

            French-speaking is a weird habit. Take it from someone who studied the language for half a decade. Of course, that was junior high and high school. Heck, my grandmother is from the St. Lawrence River Valley; them there Acadian frenchie Canucks.

          • Michael

            And as a Louisianian, I just think of Quebec as the Acadia of Canada. Except there isn’t an on-again, off-again national discussion about Cajuns forming their own nation.

            • Michael

              Of course, that should be the Acadiana of Canada, what with Acadia being the Acadia of Canada.

    • Rich Wilson

      Oh of all the versions out there, the one mis-attributed…

      Here’s one performed live in Seattle.

  • Peter

    It is so un-Canadian to gloat, we leave that to our southern neighbours. Except, of course, our hockey players. Well, maybe not so much any more. What do you mean our beer is overrated?

  • vasaroti

    WE lost? Bu… but…we had gator cannons!

  • Zapski

    I would also like to point out that the British were impressing American sailors into their ships prior to the war. Which means that one of their frigates would stop an American merchantman, and kidnap people from said ship and force them to serve in the frigate as sailors. This practice, culminating in the Chesapeake-Leopard affair made for some strong calls for war from the American populace.

    It was one of many contributing factors.

    • vorjack

      Oh, I know. But look at it from the British perspective. They were at war with Napoleon. They needed sailors desperately. Their sailors were deserting in droves, particularly the Irish. Many of them were running to America, land of high wages and cheap whiskey. They sailors were taking jobs on American merchant ships. Which were doing a very brisk trade, because the two greatest trading powers of the day – France and Britain – were at war and sinking each others ships.

      The British were caught coming and going. What choice did they have but to stop American ships and try to take back their deserted sailors?

      (There’s a joke here about how we went to war because of a desperate need for seamen … but I won’t make it.)

  • Michael Caton

    Really interesting piece of history, thanks. You wonder why there isn’t more early North American alternate history. Another question is what would’ve happened if the U.S. went to war over the 54’40″ or fight campaign, although I hesitate to post the following alternative history since vorjack will likely spot some inaccuracies: