War Hawks Triumphant
The War of 1812 is one of those historical events nobody thinks much about nowadays. But earlier generations of American schoolchildren were taught that it was nothing less than the “second War of Independence,” righteous conflict fought because the British, at war with Napoleon and in need of sailors for the Royal Navy, insisted on boarding U.S. vessels to impress American sailors into His Majesty’s service. Actually, the U.S. declared war on Britain on June 1.9, 1812, three days after the British had agreed to stop impressing seamen. The real cause of the war was not to be found on the ocean, but in the trans-Appalachian West. In Congress, the region was represented by a group of land-hungry “War Hawks,” spearheaded by Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky.
The War Hawks saw war with Britain as an opportunity to gain relief from British-backed hostile Indians and as a chance to gain what was then called Spanish Florida—a “parcel” of land extending from Florida west to the Mississippi River. Spain, which held this land, was allied with Britain against Napoleon. War with Britain, therefore, would mean war with Spain, and victory would mean the acquisition of Spanish Florida, which would complete an unbroken territorial link from the Atlantic, through the recently purchased Louisiana Territory, clear to the Pacific.
The trouble was that President James Madison, elected to his first term in 1808, did not want war. He renewed the diplomatic and economic initiatives Jefferson had introduced, but, facing a tough reelection battle in 181.2, he at last yielded to Clay and the other leading War Hawks, John Calhoun of South Carolina and Kentucky’s Richard Mentor Johnson, President Madison asked a willing Congress for a declaration of war.