The Road to War in 1812: Imperialism, Empire, and the Proletariat

Part One of a Two Part Series

With Donald Trump, President of the United States, visiting Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson before the 250th Anniversary of his birth, it is best we remember when the US government declared war on the British Empire in 1812, beginning Mr. Madison’s War, falsely and deceptively called the “War of 1812.” This article is part one of a two-part series on the war, beginning with the events and years leading up to military conflict.

The roots of Mr. Madison’s War spring out of the Revolutionary War’s aftermath. In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed between the US and the British Empire, the same day as other documents between Britain and European imperial powers. The “empire of liberty,” as brutal slave owner Thomas Jefferson called it, was born, with the treaty granting the new country “vast territory west of the Ohio River” and the Appalachian Mountains.1 Granting of this territory, central to the fur trade, meant that indigenous sovereignty was violated, since Britain had no right to cede such land to the US. Yet it was declared regardless, which was no surprise because treaty was never signed by any indigenous peoples, enslaved Blacks, women, English or US proletariat. At this time in US history, the US proletariat was very small. Sure there were seamen, hawkers, booksellers, immigrants, retailers, artisans, and other dwellers, along with members of the more propertied middle class and established bourgeoisie in the US’s urban cities. However, even if you put all of these people together, they do not constitute a majority and are still very small and concentrated in urban areas, with the only major expansion of their ranks after 1815 when industrialization began to dramatically expand. Even so, the biggest cities within the US “offered fertile ground for political consciousness, political persuasion, and political action,” which allowed the existing proletariat to organize themselves effectively.

Getting back to the Treaty of Paris, while it recognized the claims of illegal US sovereignty over indigenous peoples, it didn’t fulfill all of the US aims. In 1775 and 1776, the nascent US tried to invade Canada as part of a war of conquest.2 While this was an obvious failure, in the Articles of Confederation, written in 1777 but entering into force in 1781, the US constitution in force until 1791, declared US ownership of Canada. Article XI of this constitution said that “Canada…shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this Union,” and that no other “colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine States,” despite the fact that making Canada a part of the US violated British sovereignty and was wishful thinking.

In the later 1780s, friction began to build. The creation of the Northwest Territory, which comprises the present-day states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota, in 1787, along with proposals for new states in the region, and the push of White settlers westward, led to justifiable anger from indigenous nations.3 While this feeling was not unanimous, numerous nations and their leaders expressed their outrage with passion and energy. One such person was Buckongahelas, a Lenape warrior chief. In 1781, he addressed the Delaware Nation, in the present state of Ohio, arguing that the British had asked them for assistance, which they had agreed to because of massacres of their people by US colonists, the “Long-Knives,” warning that such massacres would continue to occur if there wasn’t resistance.4 Such a defiant stand was assisted by the British. While they were obligated by the Treaty of Paris to leave the area west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi, they did not do so. Instead, they clung to their forts, supplying weapons and giving advice to indigenous nations who were resisting US expansion into the Ohio River Valley.5

In 1790, the US issued its first Federal Census. This census revealed that a total of about 3.9 million people were living within the US, including over 694,000 enslaved Blacks. The rest of the populated included “free” White men over age 16 and under 15, “free” White females, and “other free persons.” The latter category seemingly included “free” Blacks and possibly indentured servants, foreigners or immigrants but not indigenous people as such people were considered “Indians not taxed,” and not counted in this Federal Census. Interestingly, while most of the enslaved Blacks lived in the South, 40,370 lived in northern states, except Maine and Massachusetts, above the Mason-Dixon line, poking a hole in the “free”/“slave” state dichotomy used too often. In a show of how small the proletariat was, it is worth noting that about 95% of US residents lived in rural areas and about 5% in urban areas, with the majority of those in the US not living in urban areas until 1920 and onward. The agricultural nature of the country at the time was further proven by the fact that the geographical center of the US in 1790 was Kent County, Maryland, 23 miles east of the port city of Baltimore.

By the 1790s, the “glorious Revolution of 1776” was showing its true colors. During the following decade, tentacles of White settlers spread further beyond the Appalachian Mountains: there were speculators in the Northwest Territory, trade rights to the Mississippi River were gained by the Spanish, and the US gained control over the Mississippi territory (present-day Mississippi and Alabama) from the Spanish.6 In 1791, the same year that General Arthur St. Clair was roundly defeated by the Western Confederacy in the Battle of a Thousand Slain, Congress, under the new, and illegal Federal Constitution we know today, instituted the first tax. The new tax was levied on whiskey, which made it very unpopular, especially in poorer areas. Due to the fact that the tax benefited big distillers and hurt farmers, and petty bourgeoisie, which constituted small distillers, there would be a rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, and similar ones cropping up in other parts of the US, by angry individuals, falsely called the “Whiskey Rebellion.” This rebellion came to a head in 1794. Despite the appeals of “moderating voices” such as Hugh Henry Brackenridge and Albert Gallatin, a Pennsylvania state legislator and land developer, later calling his participation “only political sin,” for a peaceful resolution, local militia responded. Without going into too much detail, since historians such as William Hogeland and Thomas P. Slaughter have already written extensively on the topic, the rebellion was crushed by federal force. This meant that the “thread of aristocracy in the United States,” had been reinforced rather than eliminated, disproving that it was removed by the Revolutionary War.7

In later years, tensions with greedy European empires came to the fore. In 1795, the US tried to make peace with the British by adopting the Jay Treaty. The treaty was seen unfavorably, domestically, as promoting “pro-British foreign policy.” Beyond such squabbles, it arguably postponed hostilities with the British Empire until 1812.8 By this point in US history, two political parties had emerged: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, or Republicans for short. The former included (and voiced) the interests of “large-scale mercantile bourgeoisie,” large Northern landowners, and some Southern planters, basing their behavior off England.9 As for latter, they consisted of petty bourgeoisie, specifically “small and medium-scale planters, farmers and petty urban bourgeoisie,” who supported Revolutionary France by contrast.

The uneasy neutrality put in place by the Federalist administrations of John Adams and George Washington, did not last. At sea, the European empires of France and Britain were on the offensive. With the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 and his further consolidation of power in 1804, there was the seizure of hundreds of US vessels.10 This made some very nervous. Philadelphia merchant Stephen Girard, later to be a close ally and benefactor of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s administrations, wrote to Alexander Hamilton, the slave-owning Secretary of Treasury. Girard argued that the US government needed to: “Take Such Steps therein as Justice and the Interest of a Citizen of the United States may requiere” to protect his property, and that of others, on the high seas.11

With such hostility, there was bound to be conflict. The British engaged in wide-ranging impressment of sailors on US ships, meaning that they forced US sailors to serve in the Royal Navy, sailors who already had ambiguous citizenship. The British engaged in such harsh measures officially to “catch” deserters from the Royal Navy in order to fight the menace of Napoleon and unofficially to bully the US out of its neutrality. Anger from the US government grew when they searched US warships. Not only did the British want to maintain maritime supremacy, with impressment and blockades to restrict trade, but shipping interests within Britain felt that the US “merchant marine was profiting immensely from European wars” and was a threat to their commercial monopoly. Hence, the English bourgeoisie, with George III, the same king who had ruled during the Revolutionary War, sought to take advantage of the US economic dependence on them, and their military weakness. They did this by continuing domination of the “Old Northwest” through the maintenance of forts and seizure of US ships, a number of which were commercial vessels.12  Between 1789 and 1815, less than 10,000 US sailors were impressed by the Royal Navy’s press gangs, expanding the manpower of the British Navy from 10,000 men before the Napoleonic War to 140,000 by 1812. Most of these men came into the Royal Navy due to the efforts of press gangs, which swept British streets, ports, and coastal areas to grab men for naval service. While this is often cited as a reason for war in 1812, it is too simplistic. For one, the British suffered from shortages in manpower “due to the low pay and a lack of qualified seamen,” and on the hundreds of US ships, as many as 10-15% were foreign born and 15% were Black.13 This is why some have said that the British Navy patrol of the West Coast of Africa was a cause of war, since the British were supposedly freeing enslaved people on US vessels, and others have claimed that anti-slavery language in a British Order in Council (trade embargo measure) led to war.

By 1800, the United States had changed. The second Federal Census asked for the names of the local area where the families lived, “free” white men and women, and “other free persons,” including over 61,000 “free” Blacks, along with a number of enslaved individuals. This census, which included states and territories northwest of the Ohio River and Mississippi Territory, determined that there were over 5 million individuals living within the United States, with occupations including merchants, laborers, domestic servants, and paupers, along with the “learned” bourgeoisie. The economy was relatively small, growing from $668 million in 1799 to $901 million in 1809, with the majority of national income in the agricultural, transportation and communication sectors. A very small amount of income came from the mining and quarrying, manufacturing, construction, trade, service, and finance sectors. With only 73,000 bales of cotton, 300,000 feet of lumber produced, over 67,000 acres of land sold, and an almost negligible amount of lead smelter production that year, the economy was clearly not developed to the level of a more industrial one like Britain. Hence, the proletariat did not constitute the mass of the population. While the US bourgeoisie were in a fragile state because of a weak economy and agricultural status of the country, the proletariat did not have much political power. Instead, control was held in the nascent US capitalist class. However, with the county’s geographic center in later-day Howard County, Maryland, and slightly more of the population in urban areas, the proletariat had a chance to expand. Once again, while most of the enslaved Blacks, numbering over 875,000, lived below the Mason-Dixon line, 36,080 lived in states above the line, apart from Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont, a reduction from 1790. Even with this, the division showed, just like the previous census, that the “free”/“slave” state division was a false one in many respects.

In what some called the “revolution of 1800,” perhaps inaccurately, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr won slightly more votes from the Electoral College, making them the new administration.14 Some, such as Col. Samuel Osgood, who would be central in war with Britain years later, agreed with this assessment. He said it was a pleasure for a “change in the politics of our common country” and said that Jefferson had “richly merited the Confidence of his Country…[and] ably supported the genuine Principles of civil Liberty.”

The undeclared naval war with France, lasting from 1798 to 1800, which included the capturing of a French privateer and numerous other land battles, came to an end. What did not change was the justifiable anger (and resistance against) toward White settlers and frontiersmen by indigenous nations and peoples. In the early 1800s, nations such as the Osage and Mandan were friendly toward the US, but others were clearly not.15 This, and broad anti-indigenous racist attitudes by White individuals, led many Whites to feel that indigenous peoples were not “politically or economically necessary.” Jefferson himself talked about similarities between Whites and the indigenous even as he backed a ruthless war against them.16

Not everyone felt the same way. In 1805, Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket, chief of the Seneca people, criticized a White missionary, named Cram, who came to covert the indigenous people to Christianity. He told the history of the White man, on the North American continent, saying that the indigenous people had tried to be friendly by giving food, but were given the poison of rum in return. He added that the White man is ravenous, always wanting more:

They wanted more land; they wanted our country. Our eyes were opened, and our minds became uneasy. Wars took place…they also brought strong liquor amongst us. It was strong and powerful and has slain thousands…you have got your country, but you are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us…you say that there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?…we have been told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place [the frontier?]…we will wait…and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them less disposed to cheat Indians, we will consider again what you have said.17

While the hideous Alien and Sedition Acts, the first of many restrictions on bourgeois “free speech” within the US, were gone, the Jefferson Administration took a more strident approach when it came to military engagement. Apart from the acquisition of the territory of Louisiana from the French, leading to the establishment of the Illinois territory and the state of Ohio, in 1803, imperialistic incursions by the US had begun.18 These included the First Barbary War from 1801 to 1805, when marines landed in Tripoli to free a crew, invasion of Spanish territory by Captain Z.M. Pike in 1806, and US gunboats operating in the Gulf of Mexico to fend off Spanish and French privateers near the Mississippi delta. While the Jefferson Administration may have thought that a treaty with Britain in 1806 would end British harassment of US ships, this did not happen.19

In 1807, the Chesapeake affair raised the strains between the British Empire and the US to an even higher level. Off the coast of Norfolk, a US frigate, the Chesapeake, encountered a British sloop named the Leopard, with the sloop asking for the frigate to turn over possible deserters. When they refused, the sloop fired on the US ship, which ultimately surrendered, allowing the British to “board and arrest the suspected deserters.” Relations soured even more when Britain refused to “offer any compensation for the…Chesapeake incident” or revoke the Orders in Council, leading to war nearly breaking out, even as the number of people harassed on the high seas was likely exaggerated.20 The result of this was the passage of the Embargo Act, barring trade with Britain, France, and whole world. The measure was ultimately self-defeating. It led to renewal of conflict and economic paralysis, in the form of an economic depression within the US, hitting Southern slave plantations and Northeast trading cities very hard, and serving as one of the causes of war.21

In 1808, the same year that Spain, under French military occupation, allied with the English against Napoleon, a German fur trader John Jacob Astor entered the picture. Astor wrote to Jefferson, arguing that the US government should “give our own traders great advantages over their foreign competitors” on this side the Mississippi and “oust foreign traders” who he claimed led the indigenous to war against the US, the truth of which is in question. The same year, Girard, another capitalist, told Madison what interests he had in other countries: “the property which I have in England and Holland exceeds Five Hundred Thousand Dollars.” It is likely that a number of bourgeoisie of the same character also had capital in Europe, which would be negatively affected in the years to come.

The political landscape was changing by 1809. The 1807 Embargo Act was suspended, replaced with the Non-Intercourse Act, which continued only until the following year. However, the law, which was also a failure like the Embargo Act, led to a “steady clamor of war talk.”22 The same year, Tecumseh, of the Shawnee Nation, led his confederacy of indigenous nations to oppose Western expansion. While there were defeats, there were also victories. Tecumseh’s Confederacy allied with the British, just like other indigenous nations, who supplied them for strategic reasons not because they sympathized with the indigenous people’s plight.23

The next year, the Third Federal Census was conducted. It involved personal visits by the assistant marshal with census takers required to collect “available economic data.” However, such data collection seemed “erratic” since it was all over the place with no order. Despite this, the Tench Coxe, in his report on the US economy to the Secretary of the Treasury, Gallatin, in 1812, argued that cotton would become one of the next big areas of manufacturing and in favor of “labor saving” operations/devices to increase economic “efficiency.” Parts of his report also showed that boots, “wool and cotton cards,” and cables were the most expensive goods on the market. Other related reports noted that most of the cotton production, in the home and in “manufacturing establishments,” occurred in five states: Rhode Island, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee (the western half), while mixed cloths were almost exclusively produced in Pennsylvania. As for other manufactures, most of the “carding machines” were located in New York and Pennsylvania, the latter which had the most furnaces, with both of these states having the highest amount of “manufactures” of any US state at the time. This meant that of the small proletariat, most of them were concentrated in production of cotton, cloth manufacturing, and elsewhere. They worked in factories that were precursors to those that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels described in Communist Manifesto. These factories existed in the form of textile mills, mainly in Southern New England, under the Waltham-Lowell system, with mainly women working in such mills, a demographic which changed in later years.

This information is only scratching the surface. There were 4,250 miles in surface roads that year, an increase from1,200 miles ten years earlier. Additionally, $1.1 million in gold and silver coins were produced, 28 banks within the US held $6.6 million in capital, and a combined $152 million in export and import trade was conducted that year. The latter explains why, in part, the US bourgeoisie was so furious about British impressment and blockades. The census itself showed that more people were moving to urban areas, but the majority of the 7.2 million people, including almost 1.2 million enslaved Blacks, still lived mostly in rural regions. This was buttressed by the fact that the country’s geographic center was Loundun County, Virginia, 40 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., showing that the country was, in a sense, moving southward.

The same year the enmity between the British and US continued to grow. The Republicans, who would hold power continuously from 1801 to 1829, had trimmed the existing army from 5,400 to 3,000 men, which was later increased to 10,000, but still a small number if war occurred.24 While the war with Britain was two years away, the US government had the hunger for military action. In West Florida, which was then Spanish territory, Governor William Charles Cole Claiborne of the Louisiana territory, on President Madison’s orders, occupied territory east of the Mississippi River, seizing land as far east as a the Perido River.25 This act of blatant imperialistic annexation was followed by “conciliatory” trade policies. A law, that passed Congress, created a three-month period where trade with Britain and France would be allowed, saying that if one country stopped attacking US shipping, the US would end trade with the other until neutral rights of US shipping was recognized by that country. This was broadly ineffective. Trade with Britain continued to be prohibited, and some trade with France commenced until they stopped trading with the US altogether, making the Republicans seem to be “pro-French” even though US capital accumulated in Britain.26 As the embargo failed, US merchants still traded with countries such as Britain and France, sometimes at great cost. At the same time, others in the US were doing well, such as Astor. He worked to expand his fur empire, by bankrolling agents and giving them instructions, with a vision of buying and selling “furs on a gargantuan scale,” with such actions as key determinant of his role in Mr. Madison’s War.27

In 1811, the drums of war were deafening. Apart from a US warship, commanded by Commodore John Rodgers, attacking a British ship on the high seas, pro-war Republicans, often called the “War Hawks” were elected. They didn’t want to declare war yet, to “promote Anglophobic American nationalism,” because Madison hadn’t officially asked for a declaration of war. The idea of war appealed to politicians such as Henry Clay, Richard M. Johnson, Felix Grundy, Langdon Cheves, William Lowndes, John C. Calhoun, David R. Williams, George M. Troup, Peter B. Porter, and John A. Harper, with Clay as the most “able and articulate” of the bunch. For these War Hawks, the conquering of Canada seemed attractive and a way to achieve their goals. This is because occupying the British colony could “destroy British influence over American Indians,” put an end to the “Indian wars,” and make the British sue for peace, a view which Madison even subscribed to.28 Conflict was also seen as a way to shore up existing Republican institutions, unite the Republican Party, and silence the Federalists. Apart from this, the War Hawks, many of whom were from the frontier, saw Western expansion and destruction of the indigenous resistance as fundamental, thinking that the takeover of Canada would allow them to counter British maritime supremacy.29 They wanted to “negotiate the terms of peace at Quebec or Halifax,” as Henry Clay described it, as part of an “efficient war.”

This imperialistic thinking was only part of the equation. While some, like Governor William Hull of the Michigan Territory, believed that the US needed “naval dominance” on the Great Lakes, others, like Clay, thought of another “prize”: Florida. This territory was already inflamed by disputes and rocked by Madison’s secret encouragement to Georgia’s governor to rouse ruffians for an invasion.30 A joint resolution, authored by Clay and passing both houses of Congress, allowed the US to take possession of Florida “under certain contingencies.” It allowed the President to seize all or part of Florida in the event “of an attempt to occupy the said territory, of any part thereof, by any foreign government.” Hence, it is no surprise that those in the South and West supported the war to come.

The same year, Astor had expanded his trade network and “fur monopoly” beyond the Appalachian Mountains to new heights, even founding cities like Astoria, Oregon, adding another force for indigenous nations to resist.31 For Tecumseh, the pressure was building. While Madison did not want to provoke a war with indigenous nations, he succumbed to pleas by William Henry Harrison for more troops. This led to a victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe where the US forces suffered more casualties but indigenous peoples were driven for field with their food, supplies, and nearby villages destroyed.32 Even with this, Tecumseh’s Confederacy was a strong and formidable block to expansion by White settlers. Apart from the legends and truths of Tecumseh, whether his words played out in the December 16 earthquakes, or at other times, is wholly open to interpretation. What is more obvious is what he said in two speeches. In the first of these, before a joint Choctaw-Chickasaw council, he evokes past acts of indigenous genocide and tells his indigenous brethren to unite together. He goes on to say that Whites are already proving a match for his Confederacy, but that this challenge only means there should be more unification:

…Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohawks, the Pokanokets, and many other once powerful tribes of our race? They have vanished before…the oppression of the White Man…the annihilation of race is at hand unless we unite in one common cause against the common foe…You [Choctaws and Chickasaws], too will be driven away from your native land…Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws…every year our white intruders became more greedy, oppressive, and overbearing…shall we give up out homes, our country, bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of the dead…without a struggle?…Never!…War or extermination is our only choice. Which will you choose?…the white usurpation in our common country must be stopped, or we…be forever destroyed and wiped out as a race of people…if there be one among you enough to undervalue the growing power of the white race among us, let him tremble.33

Later that year, during the winter, Tecumseh gave a reported speech to the Osage Nation of the Great Plains. Once again he spoke of unity and togetherness in fighting against the rabid White settlers:

…We all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path…We are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens…The white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death…The white men are not friends to the Indians…The white men want more than our hunting grounds; they wish to kill our warriors…My people wish for peace; the red men all wish for peace; but where the white people are, there is no peace for them…The white people send runners amongst us; they wish to make us enemies that they may sweep over and desolate our hunting grounds…Our Great Father, over the great waters [the British], is angry with the white people, our enemies. He will send his brave warriors against them; he will send us rifles, and whatever else we want—he is our friend, and we are his children…The Great Spirit is angry with our enemies…The great waters will cover their lowlands; their corn cannot grow, and the Great Spirit will sweep those who escape to the hills from the earth with his terrible breach.

The same year there were a number of developments that also rocked foundations. Gallatin, the longest serving Secretary of the Treasury (1801-1814), had failed to convince Congress to recharter the First Bank of the United States, the country’s first central bank. This worked out in favor of Girard, the bank’s principal creditor, since he bought the bank’s building and assets, creating his own Girard Bank, an act looked on happily by the Madison Administration.34 This would later help pay for US execution of the upcoming war. Other capitalists also asked for favors from the US government. One such person was a Quaker merchant named Jacob Barker, a Republican-leaning individual “deeply interested in navigation.” He wrote to Madison about duties on cotton, saying that present restrictions imposed on Britain should be removed, which would have likely benefited him personally. The same year, David Parish, a landowner and financier, came into the picture. Parish, who tried to develop shipping along the St. Lawrence River, pushed for Ogdensburg to become a U.S. Customs port of entry, which was granted by the US Congress, increasing his stature in the US government and ruling circles.

By 1812, war was on the tip of the US bourgeoisie. In the days leading up to June 18, there were military preparations despite the fact that the US’s fiscal and monetary system was unprepared for a possible war.35 Since many internal expenditures had been abolished, failure to charter a national bank, low military expenditures, unpopularity of the war in New England among the pro-Federalist bourgeoisie, and an embargo on international trade implemented in April, there was dependence on tariffs for much of the government’s revenue. Gallatin had discussed this with Ezekiel Bacon, then the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, in January, noting that $2.5 million came from shipping duties, as he wondered how to pay for war. He concluded that a big loan would be needed to pay for war expenses and that debt will increase.36 Even with this, the War Hawks still itched for conflict. They openly called for an invasion of Canada, while Madison stayed silent, wanting to blame the British for the fallout.37 In a “strange” coincidence, the City Bank of New York, the predecessor to present-day Citigroup, was formed by a group of New York merchants aligned with the Madison Administration, as was the Bank of America around the same time. The City Bank of New York was comprised of former First Bank of the United States shareholders and led by Osgood, the bank’s first President, the same person who had praised Jefferson’s election years before. It came into existence three days before the war began, opening its doors in the bustling city of New York, officially, on September 12, with more than $2 million in capital, 22 employees, and only one branch.38

While these events were happening in the US, harsh class struggle was occurring on the British Isles. There were food riots in April designed to force down potato and bread prices, and middle-class reformers of the “Hampton Club” were petitioning the Parliament.39 This was not unusual. There was a general strike by weavers in Scotland, and within the textile industry, undertaken by a secret association of workers, broken within three weeks.40 Adding to this were petitions by knitters who argued that trade was decaying due to fraudulent and bad articles rather than the war, as knitter wages were falling and trade with US would soon be lost. This is in line with what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels said in The Communist Manifesto: that competition among the bourgeoisie (in this case the US and British), and commercial crises, results in the wages of the proletariat fluctuating.

There were wage laborers taking more direct action, who can all be lumped in the category of the “Luddites.” These men, all of whom had to take an oath, comprising local militia and other proletarians, carried out raids against “shearing gigs” and industrial machines in the dark of night.41 These men were inspired by a mythical man named Ned Ludd. Such actions threatened “property and persons,” continuing into June 1813 until they subsided. The reason for such industrial protest was described by the Framework Knitters in January. Their statement shows that “Luddites” were trying to protect their livelihood and were not anti-technology as is often stated:

…the framework knitters are empowered to break and destroy all frames and engines that fabricate articles in a fraudulent and deceitful manner and to destroy all framework knitters’ goods whatsoever that are so made…a number of deceitful unprincipled and intriguing persons did attain an Act to be passed…whereby it was enacted that persons entering by force into any house shop or place to break or destroy frames should be adjudged guilty of felony…we are fully convinced that such Act was obtained in the most fraudulent interested and electioneering manner…we therefore the framework knitters do hereby declare the aforesaid Act to be null and void…we do hereby declare to all hosiers lace manufacturers and proprietors of frames that we will break and destroy all manner of frames whatsoever that make the following spurious articles and all frames whatsoever that do not pay the regular prices heretofore agreed to [by] the masters and workmen…all frames of whatsoever description the work-men of whom are not paid in the current coin of the realm will invariably be destroyed.

Such conditions by the English proletariat were only part of the equation. Through the war, some tried to provoke frame-breaking so they could engage in anti-union actions even as the “Luddite” efforts seemed to die away in much of the country, with the diffused “insurrectionary tension” seeming to recede.42 In the years to come, small traders and artisans, part of the petty bourgeoisie, and textile workers, knitters, and those trying to build trade unions, would suffer from the continuing economic depression which would lead to increased poverty and imprisonment. The war would bring (and “justify”) more repression of the proletariat by the English bourgeoisie, who tried to quickly increase their military might so they could defeat the “American rascals.” Conversely the war could allow the proletariat in the US, small because of the nascent “industrial progress” with factory processes and employment playing a small role in the economy, to be repressed by their respective bourgeoisie, keeping a low tariff environment in place, which domestic manufacturers balked at.43 The only ones who weren’t complaining were the woolen and cigar manufacturers who profited handsomely during the war as wages in existing factories began to change.

Coming back to the United States, the beat of war was even stronger. Two days before war was declared, on June 19, the British ended their “orders in council against American ships,” one of the main supposed reasons for war, but the US government didn’t know yet.44 There is one aspect we know for sure: British banker Nathan Meyer Rothschild was not a driving force behind the war. This idea, like all the others connected to it, is a case of weak historical interpretation, ignoring the numerous causes of the war, and showing that conspiracy theorists who subscribe to this unfounded historical distortion do not recognize global power relations or have read actual history books.45 The deluded individuals who believe in this hackneyed theory ignore that Rothschild supplied the troops of Wellington with “gold coin in 1814 and 1815, leading up to the Battle of Waterloo,” and later issued numerous British and foreign government loans, along with selling “large blocks of stock, convincing other investors — falsely — that the British had lost,” betting on British victory at Waterloo. While he was a shrewd business person, it makes no sense that he wanted war with the US. In fact, when the war came, the British saw it as an “irritating distraction” and “annoying sideshow” from the fight against Napoleon, angry because they believed that the US should be a market for British goods and services but not be a competitor.46 The British likely recognized the need, as Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, of a “constantly expanding market” and conquering new markets, but they did not want to engage in an invasion as they profited broadly from British goods sold in the US market, a train of money they didn’t want to disrupt.

Originally, most congress members opposed the war, including the Federalists, who were backed by New England merchant bourgeoisie who profited from French and English trade. In his speech asking Congress to declare war, Madison argued that Britain engaged in hostile acts toward the US, had been harassing US commerce, unfairly impressed US sailors, and that the British were encouraging “warfare…by the savages on one of our exclusive frontiers,” warfare which is “known to spare neither age nor sex and to be…particularly shocking to humanity.” While Canada was not mentioned, the specific mention of the British-indigenous front on the frontier shows that he was of the mind of the War Hawks, wanting to expand US territorial domination across the continent, giving the signal that there would be an invasion of Canada.

The dual nature of the United States was reflected in the war: defense of the bourgeois federal republic from the British Empire but also a “lust for expanding the nation’s boundaries,” as the US government encouraged industrialization to enhance this and break from the “dependence on Europe.”47 Capitalist labor discipline would end up shaping the lives of the US proletariat in the “Anglo-American world of labor,” with these proletariat looking like those in England by 1830. With US proletariat arrested for indebtedness and “petty commodity exchange” in New York City before the war, the large number of laborers, skilled and unskilled, mechanics or non-mechanics, journeymen or “small masters,” comprising over 65% of New York City’s population, like other developed urban centers, would suffer as a result of the war.48 It was not in their interest to fight the British Empire, it was only in the interest of the land-hungry, mouth-watering, greedy US bourgeoisie, including fur-trading, banking, and other capitalists, who would rake millions upon millions of US dollars, allowing them to consolidate their control over the US government.

In the vote for war, there was division among geographic lines: in the House of Representatives, 79 voted in favor, and 49 opposed it, while in the Senate it was more evenly divided: 19 were in favor and 13 opposed, with strong opposition from New England delegates. Still, 60% of each respective legislative body voted for war. With the war begun, a small group of Republicans, led by John Randolph, quickly formed, uniting with New England Federalists against the war. However, the “aggressive, anti-British Republican nationalists,” and some pro-war New York Federalists, were the majority and felt that they had the “spirit of 1776” in their bones even though they were actually expansionists wanting to swallow up more more land for the “empire of liberty.”49 With Louisiana as a new state and desire to take over Canada, these motives are easy to discern. As for fur trading capitalists in Montreal, they were anxious about a declaration of war since it would interrupt their trade, so they heard from their New York business partners about the war. Word reached Montreal by June 24 and British western forts by July 8, where the soldiers waited for coming attacks.50

  1. “Treaty of Paris signed, formally ends 8-year war,” Chronicle of America (ed. Clifton Daniel, Mount Kisco, NY: Chronicle Publications, 1989), 184. []
  2. Jon Latimer, 1812: War With America (London: Belknap Press, 2007), 3. []
  3. Chronicle of America, “Congress to create 10 states in West,” 185; Chronicle of America, “State of Frankland formed near Carolina,” 185; Chronicle of America, “Frankland’s name becomes Franklin,” 185; Chronicle of America, “Land law divides U.S. into townships,” 187; Chronicle of America, “Congress approves a colony in the Northwest,” 191; Chronicle of America, “North Carolina recovers the state of Franklin,” 199. []
  4. Buckongahelas, “You see a great and powerful nation divided!,” Great Speeches by Native Americans (ed. Bob Blaisdell, Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000), 27-28. []
  5. Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (New York: Vintage Books, 2011 edition), 15; “An Exposition of the Causes and Character of the War,” The Debate and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States: Thirteenth Congress—Third Session (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1854), 1417-1418. []
  6. Chronicle of America,“Treaty gives U.S. right to Mississippi,” 215; Chronicle of America, “Tennessee becomes 16th state in U.S.,” 216; Chronicle of America, “Speculators arrive in Northwest land sale,” 216; Chronicle of America, “New trading post in the Northwest,” 219; Chronicle of America, “Ex-Spanish area now Mississippi territory,” 221; Chronicle of America, “Kentucky becomes Union’s 15th state,” 209. []
  7. Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (New York: Random House, 2002), xxii. []
  8. Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Campaign, Illinois: University of Illinois, 2012), 6; Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy 1730s-1840s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 247; Chronicle of America, “Treaty stirs debate; key officials resign,” 214; Chronicle of America,  “British to quit Northwest under Jay Treaty,” 213. []
  9. LeftistCritic, “Annotating a section of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia,” Soviet History Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 12. []
  10. Chronicle of America, “French coup hands power to Bonaparte,” 222; Chronicle of America,  “Napoleon plans to seize American vessels,” 241; Chronicle of America, “U.S. adopts neutral position in conflict,” 212; Hickey, The War of 1812, 17-18. []
  11. Phillips, Wealth and Democracy, 207. Records show that between 1791 and 1823, Gallatin and Jefferson sent over 1,000 letters to each other, so they had a clear friendship in this sense. []
  12. LeftistCritic, “Annotating a section of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia,” Soviet History Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 14. []
  13. Leon Fink, Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 11; James G. Cusick, The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007, paperback edition), 21; William R. Thompson, The Emergence of the Global Political Economy (New York: Routledge, 2003 edition), 231. []
  14. There are no records of a popular vote for President until the election of 1824. This means that the President was selected by a small group of electors, by the Electoral College “process,” without the facade of a popular vote. []
  15. Chronicle of America, “Tribe attacks Chief who visited Jefferson,” 239; Chronicle of America,  “Osage pact may solve Cherokee problem,” 241. []
  16. David Hurst Thomas, Jay Miller, Richard White, and Peter Nabokov, The Native Americans: An Illustrated History (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1995), 261. []
  17. Red Jacket, “You have got our country, but are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us,” Great Speeches by Native Americans (ed. Bob Blaisdell, Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000), 41-43. []
  18. Chronicle of America, “Illinois granted territorial status,” 243; Chronicle of America,  “Louisiana returned to France by Spain,” 225; Chronicle of America, “Future state of Ohio writes constitution,”  229; Chronicle of America, “Ohio joins Union as 17th state,” 230; Chronicle of America, “U.S. doubles size; buys Louisiana for $15 million,” 251; Chronicle of America, “Congress sets up 3 separate territories,” 235; Chronicle of America, “Louisiana becomes a state, the 18th,” p. 248; Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2016, Congressional Research Service, 2016. []
  19. Chronicle of America, “British may end harassment of U.S. ships,” 237; Chronicle of America, “British fire on U.S. ship, remove four men,” 239. []
  20. Fink, Sweatshops at Sea, 14; Hickey, The War of 1812, 11. []
  21. Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition And The Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 51;  Wallerstein, The Modern World-System III, 248. []
  22. Fink, Sweatshops at Sea, 16. []
  23. Hickey, The War of 1812, 22. []
  24. Ibid, 8. []
  25. Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2016, Congressional Research Service, 2016. []
  26. Chronicle of America, “Embargo on trade with Britain reinstated,” 242; Chronicle of America,  “U.S. will trade with France, not Britain,” 245; Hickey, The War of 1812, 20-21. []
  27. Dennis Drabelle, “‘Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire’ by Peter Stark,” Washington Post, March 21, 2014. []
  28. Hickey, The War of 1812, p. 25-26, 29; Richard I. Immerman, Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), 73-74; Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003, Fifth Edition), 127. []
  29. Robert O’Neil and Carl Benn, The War of 1812: The Fight for American Trade Rights (New York: Rosen Publishing, 2011), 24, 28; Lester D. Langley, America and the Americas: The United States in the Western Hemisphere, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010, Second Edition), 22; “America’s invasion of Canada: A brief history,” The Week, August 3, 2012. []
  30. David Skaggs and Gerald Altoff, A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Companion (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000, First Bluejacket Books printing), 9-10; Langley, 21; Cusick, The Other War of 1812, 1, 19-20, 32; Johnathan Sutherland, African Americans At War: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 250; C. Edward Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 78; Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition And The Men Who Made It, 52; The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, From the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 Vol. III (ed. Ronald Peters, Boston: Charles Little and James Brown, 1846), 417-472. Southerners supported the war because they feared indigenous peoples, enslaved Blacks, resented Spanish policies in East Florida, and were concerned by the trouble on the Georgia border. []
  31. Chronicle of America, “Astor’s fur monopoly to expand in West,” 241; Chronicle of America,  “Astor’s expedition reaches Northwest,” 246. []
  32. Hickey, The War of 1812, 23-24. []
  33. Tecumseh, “Sleep Not Longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws,” Indian Oratory: Famous Speeches by Noted Indian Chiefs (ed. W. C. Vanderwerth, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 62-66; Christina Synder, Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers & Slaves in the Age of Jackson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 23, 44. Pushmataha, a chief of the Choctaw denounced Tecumseh as an “outside agitator” and helped Andrew Jackson later on in the war, gaining him the rank of brigadier general in the US military. []
  34. Phillips, Wealth and Democracy, 20-21; John E. Usalis, “Legacy of ‘America’s 1st tycoon’ continues,” Republican Herald, January 23, 2011. []
  35. O’Neil and Benn, The War of 1812, 26; Paul Studenski and Herman Edward Krooss, Financial History of the United States, p. 75; Hickey, The War of 1812, 31. []
  36. Albert Gallatin, The Writings of Albert Gallatin Vol. I (ed. Henry Adams, Philadelphia: J.P. Lippincott & Co., 1879), 501-503, 514, 516. []
  37. Langley, America and the Americas, 21; O’Neil and Benn, The War of 1812, 24. []
  38. New York Times, “Founded 2 Days Before War of 1812 Started, National City Bank Marking 140th Year,” June 1955; Justin Fox, “Citibank: Teetering Since 1812,” Time.com, January 21, 2009; Jerry M. Markham, A Financial History of the United States: From Christopher Columbus to the Robber Barons, vol. I, 1492-1900 (London: M.E. Sharpe, 2002), 128; Bray Hammond, Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 164, 166, 168, 229, 579, 643. []
  39. Christopher Lane, Hatred and Civility: The Antisocial Life in Victorian England (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 95; G.D.H. Cole and A.W. Filson, British Working Class Movements: Select Documents 1789-1875 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1965), 116, 139-141. []
  40. Cole and Filson, British Working Class Movements, 85, 112-113; A Short History of the British Working Class Movement: 1789-1848 Vol. 1 (ed. G.D.H. Cole, New York: Routledge, 2002 reprint), 61-62. []
  41. Cole and Filson, British Working Class Movements, 113-114. []
  42. Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Random House, 1963), 63-65, 78, 81, 97, 185, 221, 251, 257, 238, 278-279, 303, 316, 411, 421, 485, 493, 495-496, 517, 536, 539, 543, 554-555, 558, 564, 568, 572-573, 576-578, 580, 588, 590-591, 593-595, 597, 601, 607, 609, 618, 668, 714, 717, 735, 835. []
  43. Victor S. Clark, The History of Manufactures in the United States 1607-1860 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1916), 283, 287, 296, 305, 322, 327, 329, 331, 335, 358, 374, 376, 388, 391, 394-395, 403, 425-426, 452-453, 487, 494, 517-519, 521-522, 531, 548, 611, 625. []
  44. Elliot Channing Clarke, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave: How Americans Became the People They Are Today (Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing, 2003), p. 190. []
  45. Business Insider, “The Story Behind The Most Insidious Rothschild Dynasty Conspiracy Theory,” 2013; Modern History Project, “Final Warning: A History of the New World Order”; Richard Cavendish, “Mayer Amschel Rothschild died on September 19th 1812,” History Today, Volume 62 Issue 9, Sept. 2012. For many of these theories quotes by Nathan Rothschild about the central bank of the United States and other aspects are put forward but there is no evidence he actually said these things. Regardless, this does not mean he was not a shrewd capitalist. []
  46. Wallerstein, The Modern World-System III, 251; Latiner, 1812, 4; Thompson, The Emergence of the Global Political Economy, 190. Some argue however that there was “reciprocal hostility” between the US and Britain. Even if we grant this as the case, there are no indications that the British wanted to go to war with the United States. []
  47. Paul Le Blanc, A Short History of the U.S. Working Class: From Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 1999), p. 21; David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1996 reprint), 44, 96; Amy Bridges, “Becoming American: The Working Classes in the United States Before the Civil War,” Working-class Formation: Nineteenth-century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States (ed. Ira Katznelson, Aristide R. Zolberg, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 158-160, 162, 165-166, 172. []
  48. Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 24, 29, 40, 44-45, 81-83, 85. []
  49. Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 143-144, 154, 157, 162, 164-165, 167, 173, 175, 184, 190, 196, 215, 602, 839; Curtis Putnam Nettels, The Emergence of a National Economy, 1775-1815 (London: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1962), 376. []
  50. Wesley B. Turner, The War of 1812: The War that Both Sides Won (Canada: Dundurn Press, 2000), 38; O’Neil and Benn, The War of 1812, 25. In contrast to indigenous peoples on the lower Great Lakes, those within British areas of the upper Great Lakes had “closer ties to the fur trade community.” []

Leftist Critic is an independent radical, writer, and angry citizen and can be reached at leftistcritic@linuxmail.org or on twitter, @leftistcritic, where they tweet frequently about issues of importance relating to American empire, the environment, people of color, and criticism of the "left," whether radical or non-radical. Read other articles by Leftist.