Part 4 of a series. See complete list of series here.
This spring, a small cadre of Williams College students is participating in an experimental history course on the American Presidents. Instead of producing papers, as is the norm in most history classes, the students will create video campaign ads for the presidential elections from Washington to Lincoln.
There’s a catch, though. The students can only use images, quotes, documents, and music from the era. They cannot use anything that came afterwards. An image of the White House burning in 1812 would not work for the election of 1808. They cannot use images of Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, a product more reflective of the 1840s than the 1770s. Their assignment is to capture the spirit of the age – not the spirit of our historical memory.
RealClearHistory has agreed to partner with our class. Every week or so, RealClearHistory will display the best videos the students produce.
We began with John Adams’ 1796 election and we will continue to Abraham Lincoln’s in 1860, stopping at all the major, transformative elections along the way. This week, we examine James Madison’s reelection in 1812. Madison struggled to manage foreign affairs throughout his first term. War with Great Britain seemed increasingly probable until June 1812, when Congress made war official. In July, the United States launched an invasion of Canada. Optimists expected a quick victory would end the war and expand America’s national domain. The offensive proved disastrous. By the election of 1812, many Americans feared the worst and wanted a speedy return to peace. Madison had to run on his record, while his opponents blamed him for launching an unnecessary war that placed the nation in grave peril.
War divided the nation in the election of 1812. After Madison’s election in 1808, Great Britain increased their interference with American interests. British naval cruisers targeted American merchant ships, seized their goods, and impressed American sailors into British naval service. The United States also worried about British intrigue in the west. Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and Tenskatawa, also known as the Shawnee Prophet, began encouraging Native American groups in the west to unite in armed opposition to American expansion. Many in Washington suspected that British spies aided the nascent Native American resistance movement.
The turmoil on the high seas and on the American frontier led President James Madison to send a message to Congress in June 1812 that outlined the violations the British regularly committed against the United States. The message provided much-needed fodder for the “War Hawks” in Congress hungry to check British power. Within weeks of receiving Madison’s message, Congress declared war against Great Britain.
Support for the war was by no means unanimous or bipartisan. Instead, the nation fractured upon regional lines. The vote for the war was 98-62, with 14 abstentions. All 39 Federalists in Congress, most of whom came from New England, voted against the declaration. Republicans opposed the war as well. Twenty-three voted against the war, and 34 supporters of the war later claimed that the Madison administration pressured them to vote for a war they opposed. The congressional delegations from New Jersey and New York, dominated by Republicans, joined the Federalists in voting against the war.
With region rather than party determining support for the war, the election of 1812 pitted southerners and westerners, united in their support for the war, against a fusion ticket of northerners opposed to war. DeWitt Clinton, a prominent Republican from New York, led the anti-war ticket. They accused the War Hawks of leading the nation into an unnecessary war for reasons of expansion, senseless vainglory, and a slavish devotion to the French.
Madison and his supporters countered that they entered the war reluctantly and only after repeated British infringements on American rights. They accused the “Peace Party” of protecting the mercantile interests of the Northern elite at the expense of national sovereignty. Madisonians also tapped into Americans’ continued distrust of the British by claiming that the Clintonians fondness for the British would return America to a colonial status. For many of Madison’s supporters, “Mr. Madison’s War” became a second war for American independence.
(Madison and Clinton campaign ads videos on Page 2)