The Federalist “Roman Doctrine” featuring increased defense spending improving the army & navy were eliminated by Jefferson, leading to poor military preparation in 1812.
When the War of 1812 began, the United States was ill prepared for what would be a prolonged conflict with Great Britain. Years of frugal monetary policies, begun by Thomas Jefferson, had left the army and more particularly the navy in a weakened position. Earlier Federalist defense measures had been scraped as the Jefferson and Madison administrations came to rely on militias and privateers in the event of war. When the war came, it dragged on for several years, ending in late 1814 after bleeding the national treasury. The lack of war preparedness was a direct cause of poor performance and lackluster leadership.
Jefferson’s Republicans Control the National Government
Unlike George Washington and several of the early founders of the young nation, Thomas Jefferson had no history of leading troops into battle during the Revolution. Safely ensconced in his Virginia plantation, his closest brush with the enemy came late in the war when Colonel Tarleton, under the command of Lord Cornwallis, came within ten minutes of capturing him. Jefferson was an idealist whose Enlightenment inspired writings produced some of the greatest documents associated with independence and government by the consent of the governed.
This idealism and lack of first-hand military experience contributed to Jefferson’s determination as president to severely cut defense spending. Opposed to massive government spending and determined to end what he believed to be unnecessary taxes, Jefferson decreased the size of the regular army from 5,400 men to 3,300 men, eliminating many veteran officers in the process. The navy suffered even more as the new administration halted the building of new ships-of-the-line, replacing them with less reliable and cheaper gunboats. When war broke out in 1812, the US navy could count on seven warships to defend its ports.
Jefferson’s Republicans did spend large sums on improving coastal fortifications, but without adequate naval support the effort would prove fruitless. In 1814, the British easily landed near the national capital, defeated an army sent to defend the city, and burned most of the public buildings, including the president’s mansion or White House.
The Coming of War and the Fruits of Poor Preparation
As late as 1811, Congress refused to increase the size of the army or authorize needed naval upgrades. Taxes were raised, however, and included both internal excises as well as increases on import duties. When war finally came, the army was greatly increased but hampered by poor leadership. Historian Page Smith writes that, “The generals on whom Madison relied to command a virtually nonexistent army were…survivors of the Revolutionary conflict.”
Most of these men were in poor health and, according to Winfield Scott, ruined by excessive drinking. They inspired little confidence within the ranks, a fact demonstrated by initial failures, notably in regard to the haphazard invasion of Canada. Only in the navy was superb young leadership exhibited, attributed to experience gained fighting the Barbary pirates.
War Successes Driven by Diplomacy and not the Battlefield
Historians point out that the Treaty of Ghent resulted in status quo antebellum. Although the ending of the War of 1812 was prompted in large measure by British war-weariness following over a decade of intermittent continental conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte, the United States gained substantially despite its poor military performance.
British garrisons finally evacuated frontier posts held since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. American trade and commerce would not be interdicted by the British navy. Finally, the war, often called the Second American Revolution, resulted in widespread feelings of nationalism rooted in a distinctive spirit of Americanism. This national pride would help forge a modern nation and society unlike any the world had ever seen.
- Joseph E. Gould, “The End of British Interference,” Challenge and Change: Guided Readings in American History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1969)
- Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989)
- Page Smith, The Shaping of America: A People’s History of the Young Republic Volume Three (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980)