War Hawks

In the spring of 1811, a group of young men arrived in Washington, D.C. to fill congressional posts. Led by men like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, these new members of congress called for stronger measures in dealing with Europe and in dealing with the American frontier. War was viewed as the answer to problems unresolved by diplomacy or embargo. Europe, it seemed, placed little value on U.S. sovereignty. The wars of Europe threatened U.S. economic stability, and increased the British tendency to confiscate U.S. ships and impress U.S. sailors. On the western frontier, the native population was less friendly to the United States than they were to British Canada, thereby causing the increased worry in the United States that Great Britain might use the natives to further challenge the sovereignty of the United States. Additionally, Spain did little to curb the native raiding parties that caused havoc along the U.S. southern border. The War Hawks, as the new congressmen were called, believed that war was not only inevitable, but also the only practical solution.

Henry Clay stated, “…where is the motive for longer delay? … Our wrongs have been great; our cause is just; and if we are decided and firm, success is inevitable.” He continued with assurances that the United States was not only prepared but that Britain would not bother with another war in America. “The idea is too absurd to merit a moment’s consideration.”[1] By the end of 1814, the British had burned Washington and U.S. leaders in the northeast were discussing succession as a solution to the economic crisis plaguing their region. However it was not battle victory that ended the war which Clay had so eagerly sought, but diplomacy that ended it; ended it before the famous victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans. The United States had fought once more to establish its sovereignty but peace was not won by U.S. military prowess, rather once again the British grew weary of war with the Americans and a diplomatic solution was sought by both sides. Clay had been right to some extent when he said the British would not want to fight on American soil, not after such a long battle with Napoleon.

Europe was war weary and the United States, while not strong enough to defeat its armies and navies, was strong enough to make war an unappealing prospect. Additionally, all of Europe was ready to see an end to revolution and the international wars which had caused immeasurable strife for decades. The powers of Europe, under the new Concert of Europe, would go to great lengths to prevent war and would work to create a balance of power that would deter nations from seeking war when dealing with their neighbors. This dedication on their part would afford the United States the opportunity to grow as a nation both in size and strength without being entangled in or harmed by European war.

U.S. politicians dedicated to expansionist’s policies were well aware of the European frustrations with war. In the years following the end of the War of 1812, the United States would capitalize on Europe’s preoccupation with keeping peace at home. It would expand westward and southward. Great Britain, with its powerful navy still intact after decades of war, was the only nation which truly challenged the United States, and the British seemed content to focus on trade rather than colonization in the Americas.

While the U.S. managed to free itself from the machinations of Europe during the War of 1812, there may have been some unexpected consequences. The war may have increased the belief that a weaker nation could defeat a much greater military force simply by wearing down the enemies desire to fight. The United States would become an example that many would emulate in the future, not always to the benefit of the United States or its allies.

Additionally, the war promoted the notion that a just cause made for a successful war. Success was not inevitable as Henry Clay had stated, and in truth, success was anything but inevitable. Military theorist and Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz wrote that war was a “game in which Time and Chance shuffled the cards; but in its signification it was only diplomacy somewhat intensified, a more vigorous way of negotiating, in which battles and sieges were substituted for diplomatic notes.”[2] In the case of the War of 1812, “time and chance” favored the United States. War may, in the end, be unavoidable, but success in war is never guaranteed regardless of the rhetoric and zeal of people best labeled as War Hawks.

[1] Henry Clay, “Letter in Support of the War of 1812,” 1812, (accessed October 16, 2014), http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-in-support-of-the-war-of-1812/.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Dominique Poirier and J. J. Graham, Kindle ed., 2010.

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