Commentary

Mirror, mirror: The War of 1812, revisited

Posted May 01, 2012, at 8:33 p.m.

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. — Two hundred years ago this month, the administration of President James Madison dealt with what in our time might be dubbed “Henry-gate.” He and his secretary of state, James Monroe, were being accused of manipulating intelligence as rumors of war roiled the Federal City. According to the Federalist opposition, they were guilty of “a most pitiful electioneering Manoeuvre.”

As we prepare to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, when, for the first time in its history, the United States would declare war, on June 18, 1812, I think it is revealing to revisit both what historians call the Henry-Crillon affair and the surprising ways in which the Second War of Independence inform our time.

The affair began in January when the president received a letter of reference that, though it seemed altogether innocent, would prove to have a Pandora-like power. The man who penned it was Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, a gray eminence (he had signed the Declaration of Independence) who wrote to speak for the character of a French count named Crillon and for “John Henry formerly of our army in every point truly respectable.” With Secretary of State James Monroe, Madison learned that the Comte de Crillon and Capt. Henry possessed diplomatic dynamite.

A sometime spy for the British, Henry had entrusted to his intermediary some 40 pages of handwritten letters to and from British officials that, Crillon claimed, contained evidence of a plot hatched by disaffected New England Federalists to divide the Union. At a moment not unlike our own — the opposition party appeared to the Republican chief executive to be more interested in obstruction than legislation — Madison and Monroe were quick to believe the Federalists guilty of such intrigues and even of sedition.

In the weeks after Gerry’s letter arrived, Dolley Madison had found the Comte Emile Edouard de Crillon, a star of Knight of Malta hanging at his breast, seated at her dining table in the president’s house. For their part, Messieurs Madison and Monroe scrambled to find the funds to purchase the papers that would, Henry promised, give them the “power at any time, or upon any emergency, to extinguish everything worth the name of opposition to the Government.” After handing over the nation’s entire secret service fund ($50,000, in gold), Madison found the sheaf of correspondence hardly amounted to proof positive of Federalist perfidy. The letters named no names, having been, in today’s parlance, heavily redacted.

When the papers were made public, the Federalists cried foul. A bitter newspaper and pamphlet controversy ensued. A key opposition congressman from Massachusetts insisted that “the honor of New England Federalism was unsmirched.” To the embarrassment of the administration, Monroe received a letter some weeks later from the U.S. Minister to France, Joel Barlow, who advised that the so-called de Crillon, on his return to France, had been unmasked; in fact, the “Comte” was an impostor and a wanted man, sought by the French government for an attempt to swindle the Banque de France.

The momentum of events, however, was unstoppable. Madison remained confident that he understood Great Britain’s intentions, as he advised Congress in his special message of June 1, 1812. His desire was passage of a formal declaration of war, based on a litany of complaints. The essential ones were the kidnapping of 5,000 U.S. citizen-sailors from the decks of American merchant ships (“impressment”); the capture by the British of nearly a thousand ships and the confiscation of their cargo without compensation to American owners; and the British role in riling discontented American Indians in the Northwest Territory.

Also cited was the “secret agent” that the government of “His Britanic Majesty” had dispatched with the dual objects of “subversion of our Government, and dismemberment of our happy union.” Although the Federalists voted as a body, 39-0, against the war, a majority in Congress passed, and Madison signed, the declaration of war.

From the vantage of the 21st century, we understand the war that followed would not be the last war launched on the basis, at least in part, of false intelligence. In looking back upon that 32-month war, we encounter other events, as well, that reverberate as familiar and important.

The war the United States embarked upon was supposed to be an easily accomplished mission; Madison’s mentor and friend Thomas Jefferson predicted the capture of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.” But events did not unfold as predicted — the Canadian invasion in 1812 was an utter failure, and the military action in 1813 consisted of little more than minor victories and losses for both sides.

But with the end of the Napoleonic wars the following spring, the seasoned British military turned its attention to the only remaining declared enemy of the crown. When the British marched on Washington in August 1814, American militiamen charged with defending their capital fled. A small detachment of 150 British soldiers and marines then burned two iconic buildings — the undefended Capitol and the president’s house (as the White House was then known) — along with other public buildings. Their actions, given the negligible significance of the Federal City as a military target, can only be described as terrorism.

Certain events of the War of 1812 would assume the status of legend. James Lawrence, the dying captain of the USS Chesapeake, left us with the Navy motto “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” After an 18-pound cannon ball bounced off the live-oak bulwarks of the USS Constitution, the frigate became world-renowned as “Old Ironsides.” The bombardment of Baltimore from the Patapsco River produced a poem, “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” that, retitled and set the tune of a well-known drinking song of the day, became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And Dolley Madison earned great fame when, as the British prepared to sack Washington, she saved the life-size portrait of George Washington that hung in her dining room.

Later in life, James Madison would admit to puzzlement at the unfolding of “great events aris(ing) from little causes.” No doubt he had in mind more than the odd-looking man, short and bearlike with “monstrous thick legs,” whom he knew as the Comte de Crillion, or the role that handsome Capt. Henry had played in kindling what many Federalists dismissed as “Mr. Madison’s War.”

Today that war is poorly remembered; for the casual student of history, its causes and outcomes blur in a way that those of the Revolution, the Civil War, and the conflicts of the 20th century do not. Yet given how the goals of our most recent wars have devolved— the focus has become less on winning, more on going home— such forgetfulness seems strangely contemporary. The dramatic events of the War of 1812 offer both exciting reading and a means for thinking about America’s place in the world, then and now.

Hugh Howard is the author of “Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the Second War of Intelligence.” Readers may send him email at hhoward@fairpoint.net. He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

(c) 2012, The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in Nation