In this cultural history of the War of 1812, Nicole Eustace examines the way this expensive, unproductive war won popular support through appeal to the emotions. 1812 looks at the major dramatic events of the war and the subsequent songs, speeches, and images that spoke of opportunity and romantic adventure.
2012 | 336 pages | Cloth $34.95 | Paper $24.95
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Table of Contents
Preface. Emotion, Persuasion, and the Meaning of War
Chapter 1. Celebrating Love, Liberty, and Progeny United States, Circa 1811
Chapter 2. Failures of Feeling as National Disasters Detroit, August 1812
Chapter 3. Romantic Stories of Republican Conquest on the Great Lakes Lake Erie, September 1813
Chapter 4. Demographic Strategies and the Defeat of Tecumseh Moraviantown, Canada, October 1813
Chapter 5. Liberty, Slavery, and the Burning of the Capital Washington, D.C., August 1814
Conclusion. Ardor and Triumph New Orleans, January 1815
Preface: Emotion, Persuasion, and the Meaning of War
When John Blake White's younger brother James announced that he planned to enlist in the U.S. Army in the spring of 1814, the elder White reacted with dismay. To his journal, he confided his "grief and mortification" at the news of his brother's plan. It was not that John opposed the war in progress, the British-American dispute now known as the War of 1812. A successful South Carolina lawyer and small-time slaveholder, John was also a patriotic amateur playwright and painter with a flair for taking on artistic projects with nationalist themes. Back when war had first been declared in June 1812, John had exclaimed that the news of the declaration, "though Melancholy," had "nevertheless inspired the heart of every American with animation and delight." Yet, despite the emotional pleasure he claimed to take in the war, when it came to the possibility of seeing his younger brother take on a combat role, he "remonstrated with him" and did "all in [his] power to demonstrate the impropriety of doing so." The idea of war filled John with agreeable feelings of "delight." Current events moved him to many creative flights of fancy. But he remained appalled at the thought that his brother wanted to take an active part in the fighting
A member of his local militia, John Blake White boasted the rank of captain and turned up to parade with his fellow militia members a couple of times a year. But he never performed any service more demanding than that and the war did nothing to interfere with the pleasant rounds of plays and parties that leavened his workaday world. White preferred to make his national contributions with pen and paintbrush rather than with sword or musket. Throughout the war years, he produced theater pieces and history paintings. He recorded often in his diary his "endeavour[s] to amuse myself with my pencil," noting that his inspiration was "furnished by the barbarities of the enemy with whom we are at War." White likely would have been perfectly willing to see his brother follow his example and assume honorary status in the militia. What filled him with concern was the fact that his brother had decided to enter the regular army.
In the official census of 1810, the United States of America claimed a population of 7.2 million people. Of this number, more than half a million served in the war in some capacity. But the half-million figure is deceptive in that most of those men were militia members who served very brief terms, often contributed services that were more ceremonial than actual, and frequently refused to cross state lines to render assistance any place where it was actually needed. Only about 57,000 men served as regular enlisted soldiers during the war, and of these only 2,260 were killed. By contrast, the best estimates for the Civil War put total enlistments North and South at 2.5 million men out of a population of approximately 31.5 million. And of these soldiers, approximately 617,000 met their deaths. Proportionately, less than half of one percent of all servicemen died during the War of 1812, while a staggering one-fourth of all soldiers died in the Civil War. Statistics like these seem to argue against the historical significance of the War of 1812.
Yet the life of John Blake White suggests that the meaning of the War of 1812 can be found as much in books and broadsides as on battlefields. If we truly wish to assess the impact and importance of the War of 1812, we need to consider it as a cultural event as much as a military one. Like John Blake White, many more people in the United States read and wrote about the War of 1812 than fought in it.
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The War of 1812 enjoys the uneasy distinction of being the first war ever to be declared in a modern democracy. Unlike the American Revolution, which developed piecemeal out of the patriot protest movement, and unlike the many quasi wars and campaigns conducted in the first quarter century or so of the new nation's history, the War of 1812 was begun by formal constitutional process. James Madison made a detailed case against Great Britain in a June 1 message to members of Congress. They duly responded with a formal statement of hostilities, a bill that Madison quickly signed into law on June 18, 1812. Enormously controversial with members of the Federalist Party from the moment it began, the war received a sort of popular referendum in the next two presidential elections, of 1812 and 1816. Madison easily won reelection in November 1812 and his hand-picked successor and former secretary of war, James Monroe, enjoyed landslide success four years later, in 1816. Hundreds of thousands of men cast Democratic-Republican votes in these contests. The war, in other words, proved to be a popular success.
In strict military and diplomatic terms, the War of 1812 accomplished almost nothing at all. The declared foe was Great Britain and the desired object was Canada. Among a host of complaints against the British, the United States charged that nation with violating its international shipping rights and with impressing its sailors into forced service in the Royal Navy. By the war's end in 1815, after the British had burned Washington, D.C., to the ground and the national debt had nearly tripled, from $45 million to $127 million, all that the United States had managed was to convince the British to return all territorial boundaries and diplomatic disputes to their prewar status. Yet somehow, the population at large regarded the war as a rousing triumph.
In a democracy, public opinion matters more than anything else. Politicians gain and maintain power with the approval of the populace. The War of 1812 provided an ideal moment for Americans, from virtual unknowns such as John Blake White to leading national statesmen, to experiment with shaping popular public opinion. How could a war that might easily have been dismissed as a terrific waste of time and money, if not deplored as a disastrous display of hubris, instead have sparked what one newspaper famously described as an "era of good feelings"? Feeling, it turned out, was everything. And good feelings were not hard to generate when most people did not experience the war firsthand, but only through their imaginations, as sparked by words and images on the printed page.
When President James Madison addressed the nation to announce that war had been declared, he said: "I . . . exhort all the good people of the United States, as they love their country, as they value the precious heritage derived from the virtue and valor of their fathers; as they feel wrongs . . . that they exert themselves." Immediately printed in pamphlet form in Washington and widely circulated in newspapers, Madison's call made clear the expectation that showing love of country required supporting the war. Emotion was required for morality; feeling would motivate the actions and exertions of "good people."
Both those who welcomed the coming of war and those who opposed it believed that marshaling the support of the U.S. population required mounting emotional appeals that would stir the soul. In 1812, Daniel Webster, an anti-war Federalist whose vocal opposition to the war would soon land him a seat in Congress, was an up-and-coming young lawyer with a flair for oratory. Rousing an audience of war opponents in the Federalist preserve of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on July 4, 1812, just weeks after the president's statement, Webster proclaimed that James Madison's war went against the traditions of George Washington. He knew this, he declared, because of the way the war made him feel.
"There is," Daniel Webster asserted, "not only a transmission of ideas and of knowledge, from generation to generation; there is also a traditional communication of sentiments and feelings." For Webster, it seemed obvious that anyone who was truly sentient would recoil from the prospect of an unnecessary war. Casting an eye toward "the horrible pit of European suffering and calamity," created by the Franco-British conflict in Europe, he urged his audience to share his vision. Reason alone might not be enough to sway the undecided. But emotional persuasion offered another way out. "If they will not hearken to the warning voice," he urged, "they may perhaps be shocked into some feeling by the evidence of their own senses." Webster believed that if only people felt the horror of war vividly, they would also oppose it avidly.
But the shock of feeling could easily cut the other way. War boosters well understood this and traded on emotion in their turn. Few people would witness the war with "their own senses," whereas many more would enjoy the pleasurable sensory experience of artistic and literary representations of war. Although war critics offered their audiences the discomfort of pain and fear, supporters presented far more enticing emotional options. When John Blake White created a "National Picture" featuring an Indian massacre and presented it for public viewing in his hometown of Charleston in August 1813, the local newspaper the City Gazette pronounced that, "the subject, though horrible beyond measure, is rich and glowing." White described in his journal the effect such paintings had on himself as artist and on his audience as viewers by explaining, "while it fully occupies the mind and exercises the imagination, of the artist, painting affords pleasure to the beholder, by elevating and enlarging the mind." In White's telling, even the worst moments of the war could produce an appealing sort of emotional frisson in the casual observers who visited the free exhibition of his art at the Charleston courthouse and commercial exchange.
The task White and other war boosters set for themselves was nothing less than the transformation of Webster's "horrible pit of suffering and calamity" into "rich and glowing" pleasure. To recast suffering as elevation and calamity as mental enlargement required performing a kind of emotional alchemy. Yet through just such "exercises [of] the imagination," many U.S. residents in 1812 came to view the war as a positive good.
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Ostensibly a conflict with Britain over naval rights, the American War of 1812 quickly became a test of the strength and meaning of American patriotism in a nation torn by sectional and political factionalism. While Federalist war opponents based in New England often attempted to elicit feelings of disgust about the conflict, Democratic-Republican advocates concentrated in the South and West more often tried to evoke delight. Throughout the war years, Republicans worked to portray the war as a romantic adventure, one in which dashing young men went to war to win the hearts of patriotic maidens and in which the thrill of romantic love contributed directly to the surge of patriotism. From generic songs and poems to specific descriptions of particular military engagements, war supporters relied on a new language of romantic patriotism to tell the story of the war. From the desks of high military officers and prominent politicians, the presses of the nation's burgeoning newspaper and pamphlet printers, and the kitchen tables of ordinary scribblers came a flood of professional and amateur efforts.
While Federalists relied largely on feelings of fear and revulsion in their efforts to dissuade people from supporting the war, Democratic-Republicans saved their attempts to provoke disgust for descriptions of the enemy, including the British and their Indian allies. The Federalists failed to make a persuasive case against the war and one clear consequence of this was the way they faded forever from national power with the close of the conflict. Republican writers had all too successfully discovered the effectiveness of making war support the measure of love of country, and of likening love of country to ordinary romantic affections.
In American popular culture, in the era of the War of 1812, war stories and love stories intertwined. Many claims of equivalence were open and unrepentant. One of the first novels to come out of the war was an 1816 production by a New York writer named Samuel Woodworth with the unwieldy but suggestive title: The Champions of Freedom; or, The Mysterious Chief, a Romance of the Nineteenth Century, Founded in the Events of the War Between the United States and Great Britain, Which Terminated in March 1815. The book interwove seduction plots worthy of a sentimental romance novel with detailed historical descriptions of all the major events of the war. As a chapter titled "Love and Patriotism" made clear, the novel juxtaposed these seemingly unrelated story lines the better to showcase the essential relationship between romantic love and martial action. The chapter began with an epigram: "Love rais'd his noble thoughts to brave achievements / For love's the steel that strikes upon the flint . . . / And spreads the sparkles round to warm the world." Here love and bravery both appeared as inflammatory states, libidinal heat the spur of military honor. Americans of the early republic largely enjoyed the notion of romantic love as national duty.
Meanwhile, Woodworth's complex title elided the difference between the stated opponent of the United States—Britain— and the war's ghostly proxy losers, the "mysterious" Indians whose lands were overrun by the "champions of freedom." As war supporters well knew, the connections between war and romance were literal as well as figurative. Every time war boosters joined the prosecution of the war to the private love of courting couples, they made the takeover of Indian lands into a romantic possibility and a patriotic duty. Though the United States won no changes in British policy as a result of the war, the country did gain undisputed control of substantial Western territories once claimed by Indians, lands that would soon be settled by whites and cultivated in substantial part by enslaved men and women. In an age when starting a family usually meant clearing a farm, the population's fertility and the land's fecundity were closely linked. Yet in Woodworth's telling, as in the accounts of many self-appointed polemicists of the day, a war fraught with moral, political, and practical problems could be successfully portrayed both as a righteous cause and as a pleasurable romantic romp.
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When it came to shaping public opinion, John Blake White, Samuel Woodworth, and thousands of other Democratic-Republicans quickly discovered how strongly emotions influenced judgments. By attaching delightful feelings to dire events, they could transform both how people felt about the war and how they thought about it. Blood and anguish held little appeal, but love and sex were hard to resist. Death and destruction stood little chance of support, but family formation and procreation spoke to universal aspirations. If the experience of the latter could be made to stand in for the former, then liberty and equality could emerge from slavery and territorial aggression.
Today, neuropsychologists can use sophisticated imaging techniques to study the way specific regions of the brain process stimuli. They have found that areas such as the amygdala and the frontal insula make instant evaluations of delight or disgust that can add positive or negative moral coloration to otherwise neutral prompts. As one scholar explains it, the amygdala "tilts" the mental "pinball machine." When a new stimulus of undetermined value is introduced by a prior stimulus with strongly positive or negative appeal, a person's reaction can be artificially shifted toward approach or avoidance. Powerful snap judgments about the practical and moral worth of a given course of action can result from the emotional reaction a person has to otherwise unrelated ideas and events. In the case of war debates during the era of 1812, partisans on both sides did what they could to shape people's political judgments by first coloring their emotional responses.
Of course, no one in the era of 1812 had access to an MRI machine. But they could find a guide for their efforts in the work of the English philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke had published his famous treatise on aesthetics in London all the way back in 1757. But not until 1806, as tensions with Britain began to heighten daily, would A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful first be printed in America. The final and climactic section of that work, "How Words Influence the Passions," spoke directly to the efforts of would-be opinion makers during the War of 1812.
Edmund Burke recognized that nothing shaped emotion as much as language did, saying, "there are no tokens which can express all the circumstances of most passions so fully as words." Yet he also posited that language could provide only the most imperfect and indirect approximation of actual experience. He argued, "the influence of most things on our passions is not so much from the things themselves, as from our opinions concerning them; and these again depend very much on the opinions of other men, conveyable, for the most part by words only." If politically active writers and speakers wished to exert decisive public influence, their best means of shaping opinion was by evoking emotion.
Burke alerted people that words and things were not one and the same. Yet the shadow could matter more than the substance, especially when the emotions evoked concerned events of death and war. Burke reasoned: "there are many things of a very affecting nature, which seldom can occur in the reality, but the words which represent them do; and thus they have an opportunity of making a deep impression and taking root in the mind, whilst the idea of the reality was transient; and to some, perhaps, never really occurred in any shape, to whom it is, notwithstanding, very affecting, as war, death, famine, etc." As America entered into a state of war, very few ordinary people would experience any direct impact of the conflict. For them military confrontation "never really occurred in any shape." In the War of 1812, the numbers of men mustered for the fight were few and their terms of service brief. Most major war actions occurred in theaters far from U.S. population centers, on the fringes of the frontiers or on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. Yet the words representing the war did have the "opportunity of making a deep impression and taking root in the mind." People's feelings about the war, and the moral judgments they made based on those feelings, would come not from direct experience but from the stories told and opinions expressed all around them, particularly in the public prints.
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Historian Alan Taylor has recently proposed that we consider the War of 1812 as a civil war, as one of the first conflicts to test the bonds of people in the United States. If this is so, it must be significant that, at the time it occurred, the War of 1812 was successfully portrayed as such good fun. If war was a frolic and patriotism the natural result of indulging romantic passions, who could ever have predicted the devastation of the Civil War? Likening war to an exercise in love hardly prepared anyone to undertake the studied assessment of the moral implications of conflict. The first major battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run, caught contemporaries by surprise. Spectators with picnic hampers who had turned out to cheer the action were shocked to the core by the carnage: five thousand dead in a single day, more than in all the years of the War of 1812. Small wonder that a population reared on popular stories of war as pleasure had given so little weight to the true costs of armed struggle.
Throughout the War of 1812, popular conclusions about the meaning of events were liable to be based more on the emotional language used to describe them than on rational appraisal of what had occurred. No matter how dire the events of the day, prowar commentators could always be counted on to put a romantic gloss on public accounts. Edmund Burke had warned that emotional words could distort reality even as they shaped understanding. He had noted, "we do not sufficiently distinguish, in our observations upon language, between a clear expression and a strong expression." People ought to be more careful in discriminating between the two modes of expression because "the former regards the understanding; the latter belongs to the passions: the one describes a thing as it is; the other describes it as it is felt." Though Burke had wished only to expose this tendency, many American polemicists in the era of 1812 proved highly eager to exploit it.
American prowar commentators—from elite politicians to parlor poets and tavern hacks—displayed no qualms about inverting Burke; his dire warnings nearly amounted to a road map for American tacticians. Writers could glory in Burke's observation that "by the contagion of our passions, we catch a fire, already kindled in another, [a match] which probably might never have been struck . . . by the object described." From prewar attempts to build public support for taking up arms to postwar efforts to cement the significance of the conflict's climactic battle, emotion played a key part in shaping public ideas. As American opinion makers would quickly discover, romance could provide the flint with which to fire a war.