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See also: Henry Adams Collection
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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Auspices of the War of 1812
By Henry Adams (1838–1918)
 
From the ‘History of the United States,’ Vol. vii., Chap. 1.

THE AMERICAN declaration of war against England, July 18th, 1812, annoyed those European nations that were gathering their utmost resources for resistance to Napoleon’s attack. Russia could not but regard it as an unfriendly act, equally bad for political and commercial interests. Spain and Portugal, whose armies were fed largely if not chiefly on American grain imported by British money under British protection, dreaded to see their supplies cut off. Germany, waiting only for strength to recover her freedom, had to reckon against one more element in Napoleon’s vast military resources. England needed to make greater efforts in order to maintain the advantages she had gained in Russia and Spain. Even in America no one doubted the earnestness of England’s wish for peace; and if Madison and Monroe insisted on her acquiescence in their terms, they insisted because they believed that their military position entitled them to expect it. The reconquest of Russia and Spain by Napoleon, an event almost certain to happen, could hardly fail to force from England the concessions, not in themselves unreasonable, which the United States required.  1
  This was, as Madison to the end of his life maintained, “a fair calculation;” but it was exasperating to England, who thought that America ought to be equally interested with Europe in overthrowing the military despotism of Napoleon, and should not conspire with him for gain. At first the new war disconcerted the feeble Ministry that remained in office on the death of Spencer Perceval: they counted on preventing it, and did their utmost to stop it after it was begun. The tone of arrogance which had so long characterized government and press disappeared for the moment. Obscure newspapers, like the London Evening Star, still sneered at the idea that Great Britain was to be “driven from the proud pre-eminence which the blood and treasure of her sons have attained for her among the nations, by a piece of striped bunting flying at the mastheads of a few fir-built frigates, manned by a handful of bastards and outlaws,”—a phrase which had great success in America,—but such defiances expressed a temper studiously held in restraint previous to the moment when the war was seen to be inevitable….  2
  The realization that no escape could be found from an American war was forced on the British public at a moment of much discouragement. Almost simultaneously a series of misfortunes occurred which brought the stoutest and most intelligent Englishmen to the verge of despair. In Spain Wellington, after winning the battle of Salamanca in July, occupied Madrid in August, and obliged Soult to evacuate Andalusia; but his siege of Burgos failed, and as the French generals concentrated their scattered forces, Wellington was obliged to abandon Madrid once more. October 21st he was again in full retreat on Portugal. The apparent failure of his campaign was almost simultaneous with the apparent success of Napoleon’s; for the Emperor entered Moscow September 14th, and the news of this triumph, probably decisive of Russian submission, reached England about October 3d. Three days later arrived intelligence of William Hull’s surrender at Detroit; but this success was counterbalanced by simultaneous news of Isaac Hull’s startling capture of the Guerrière, and the certainty of a prolonged war.  3
  In the desponding condition of the British people,—with a deficient harvest, bad weather, wheat at nearly five dollars a bushel, and the American supply likely to be cut off; consols at 57 1/2, gold at thirty per cent. premium; a Ministry without credit or authority, and a general consciousness of blunders, incompetence, and corruption,—every new tale of disaster sank the hopes of England and called out wails of despair. In that state of mind the loss of the Guerrière assumed portentous dimensions. The Times was especially loud in lamenting the capture:—
          “We witnessed the gloom which that event cast over high and honorable minds…. Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American; and though we cannot say that Captain Dacres, under all circumstances, is punishable for this act, yet we do say there are commanders in the English navy who would a thousand times rather have gone down with their colors flying, than have set their fellow sailors so fatal an example.”
  4
  No country newspaper in America, railing at Hull’s cowardice and treachery, showed less knowledge or judgment than the London Times, which had written of nothing but war since its name had been known in England. Any American could have assured the English press that British frigates before the Guerrière had struck to American; and even in England men had not forgotten the name of the British frigate Serapis, or that of the American captain Paul Jones. Yet the Times’s ignorance was less unreasonable than its requirement that Dacres should have gone down with his ship,—a cry of passion the more unjust to Dacres because he fought his ship as long as she could float. Such sensitiveness seemed extravagant in a society which had been hardened by centuries of warfare; yet the Times reflected fairly the feelings of Englishmen. George Canning, speaking in open Parliament not long afterward, said that the loss of the Guerrière and the Macedonian produced a sensation in the country scarcely to be equaled by the most violent convulsions of nature. “Neither can I agree with those who complain of the shock of consternation throughout Great Britain as having been greater than the occasion required…. It cannot be too deeply felt that the sacred spell of the invincibility of the British navy was broken by those unfortunate captures.”  5
  Of all spells that could be cast on a nation, that of believing itself invincible was perhaps the one most profitably broken; but the process of recovering its senses was agreeable to no nation, and to England, at that moment of distress, it was as painful as Canning described. The matter was not mended by the Courier and Morning Post, who, taking their tone from the Admiralty, complained of the enormous superiority of the American frigates, and called them “line-of-battle ships in disguise.” Certainly the American forty-four was a much heavier ship than the British thirty-eight, but the difference had been as well known in the British navy before these actions as it was afterward; and Captain Dacres himself, the Englishman who best knew the relative force of the ships, told his court of inquiry a different story:—“I am so well aware that the success of my opponent was owing to fortune, that it is my earnest wish, and would be the happiest period of my life, to be once more opposed to the Constitution, with them [the old crew] under my command, in a frigate of similar force with the Guerrière.” After all had been said, the unpleasant result remained that in future, British frigates, like other frigates, could safely fight only their inferiors in force. What applied to the Guerrière and Macedonian against the Constitution and United States, where the British force was inferior, applied equally to the Frolic against the Wasp, where no inferiority could be shown. The British newspapers thenceforward admitted what America wished to prove, that, ship for ship, British were no more than the equals of Americans.  6
  Society soon learned to take a more sensible view of the subject; but as the first depression passed away, a consciousness of personal wrong took its place. The United States were supposed to have stabbed England in the back at the moment when her hands were tied, when her existence was in the most deadly peril and her anxieties were most heavy. England never could forgive treason so base and cowardice so vile. That Madison had been from the first a tool and accomplice of Bonaparte was thenceforward so fixed an idea in British history that time could not shake it. Indeed, so complicated and so historical had the causes of war become that no one even in America could explain or understand them, while Englishmen could see only that America required England as the price of peace to destroy herself by abandoning her naval power, and that England preferred to die fighting rather than to die by her own hand. The American party in England was extinguished; no further protest was heard against the war; and the British people thought moodily of revenge.  7
  This result was unfortunate for both parties, but was doubly unfortunate for America, because her mode of making the issue told in her enemy’s favor. The same impressions which silenced in England open sympathy with America, stimulated in America acute sympathy with England. Argument was useless against people in a passion, convinced of their own injuries. Neither Englishmen nor Federalists were open to reasoning. They found their action easy from the moment they classed the United States as an ally of France, like Bavaria or Saxony; and they had no scruples of conscience, for the practical alliance was clear, and the fact proved sufficiently the intent….  8
  The loss of two or three thirty-eight-gun frigates on the ocean was a matter of trifling consequence to the British government, which had a force of four ships-of-the-line and six or eight frigates in Chesapeake Bay alone, and which built every year dozens of ships-of-the-line and frigates to replace those lost or worn out; but although American privateers wrought more injury to British interests than was caused or could be caused by the American navy, the pride of England cared little about mercantile losses, and cared immensely for its fighting reputation. The theory that the American was a degenerate Englishman—a theory chiefly due to American teachings—lay at the bottom of British politics. Even the late British minister at Washington, Foster, a man of average intelligence, thought it manifest good taste and good sense to say of the Americans in his speech of February 18th, 1813, in Parliament, that “generally speaking, they were not a people we should be proud to acknowledge as our relations.” Decatur and Hull were engaged in a social rather than in a political contest, and were aware that the serious work on their hands had little to do with England’s power, but much to do with her manners. The mortification of England at the capture of her frigates was the measure of her previous arrogance….  9
  Every country must begin war by asserting that it will never give way; and of all countries England, which had waged innumerable wars, knew best when perseverance cost more than concession. Even at that early moment Parliament was evidently perplexed, and would willingly have yielded had it seen means of escape from its naval fetich, impressment. Perhaps the perplexity was more evident in the Commons than in the Lords; for Castlereagh, while defending his own course with elaborate care, visibly stumbled over the right of impressment. Even while claiming that its abandonment would have been “vitally dangerous if not fatal” to England’s security, he added that he “would be the last man in the world to underrate the inconvenience which the Americans sustained in consequence of our assertion of the right of search.” The embarrassment became still plainer when he narrowed the question to one of statistics, and showed that the whole contest was waged over the forcible retention of some eight hundred seamen among one hundred and forty-five thousand employed in British service. Granting the number were twice as great, he continued, “would the House believe that there was any man so infatuated, or that the British empire was driven to such straits that for such a paltry consideration as seventeen hundred sailors, his Majesty’s government would needlessly irritate the pride of a neutral nation or violate that justice which was due to one country from another?” If Liverpool’s argument explained the causes of war, Castlereagh’s explained its inevitable result; for since the war must cost England at least 10,000,000 pounds a year, could Parliament be so infatuated as to pay 10,000 pounds a year for each American sailor detained in service, when one-tenth of the amount, if employed in raising the wages of the British sailor, would bring any required number of seamen back to their ships? The whole British navy in 1812 cost 20,000,000 pounds; the pay-roll amounted to only 3,000,000 pounds; the common sailor was paid four pounds bounty and eighteen pounds a year, which might have been trebled at half the cost of an American war.  10
 
 
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