Tag Archives: Politics

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.

Empires and Keeping the Peace

It is clear that as the European empires struggled to maintain control over their colonial possessions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the United States searched for footholds in the regions formally under European control. In the nineteenth century, the United States expanded westward and southward absorbing territory which had been held, often loosely, by Spain. In some cases, the United States annexed regions which became part of the union. In other cases U.S. businessmen, or filibusters, simply moved in and dominated the local economies. Due to the Napoleonic Wars and political shifts in Europe, little by little, European interests, or the ability to capitalize on the interests, in the Americas dwindled. Even Great Britain, the great empire of the 1800s, intensified its focus on developing colonial markets in Africa, India, and China rather than the Americas. Certainly the United States was not left alone in the Americas, but it was able to expand its sphere of influence, especially economic influence with greater ease during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

While the War of 1812 did not gain the United States territorial holdings in Canada as some had hoped it would, it did establish that the United States was willing to use war as a means to expand, even war with European powers.[1] During the decades following the war, the United States made it very clear to Europe that it intended to be the regional power in the Americas, and that it would not tolerate European interference. Great Britain was actively expanding and defending its worldwide empire, but U.S. Secretary of State John Q. Adams was determined to prevent Great Britain from taking advantage of Spain’s weakened control of territories in the Americas. In a debate with British Minister Stratford Canning in 1821, Adams pointed out that Britain was seeking to gobble up the world markets, even quipping that Britain might have designs on “a piece of the moon.” When the debate circled around to the question of whether the United States still had designs on Canada, Adams replied, “Keep what is yours and leave the rest of the continent to us.”[2]

Shortly after this debate on the expansion of spheres of influence and territorial acquisition, Adams drafted what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine. He encouraged President Monroe to take a bold stand on the issue of European interference in the Western Hemisphere. It did not matter whether it was Great Britain, France, or Russia who had their sights set on a piece of the Americas. The United States declared that it would act to prevent the further exploitation of the Americas by Europe, but that did not mean it would not exploit the Americas for its own benefit. Nor did it mean that it would not seek to spread U.S. political and economic influence beyond the Americas.

During the decades preceding the War of 1812, revolution and independence movements disrupted imperial control, but in the years preceding World War I, a rise in nationalist revolutions set the stage for the demise of the great empires of the previous centuries. Colonialism would be challenged and eventually, after a second world war, eliminated in its previous form. Yet, even as the sun was setting on the colonial system which had helped create the empires of the past, a new colonial structure began to emerge. While the world focused on the war raging in Europe, President Wilson was flexing U.S. muscle in the Americas.[3] Neocolonialism became the policy of a new and emerging empire – the United States. Maybe not an empire in the traditional sense, but an empire in how it used its influence to set economic and political policy favorable to its own national interests rather than the interests of the neighbors it policed. As the great empires of Europe warred and their colonial control declined over the resource rich regions which had once made them powerful, the United States (and later the Soviet Union) expanded a growing economic and political sphere of influence that would rival any traditional empire.  In some cases, the sphere would include a military presence or intervention to keep the peace. This was not necessarily a peace that benefited the citizens in the new nations emerging in the wake of decolonization, as much as it benefited U.S. economic interests; but as the United States would remind itself from time to time, peace even a forced peace, was better than war. When the forced peace protected U.S. economic growth and stability, forced peace would certainly, at least to the United States, be the lesser evil, even if it made the United States seem very much a twentieth century empire.



[1] Walter T. K. Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 73-74.

[2] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 134.

[3] Herring, 386.