Tag Archives: Andrew Jackson

Politics as Usual

Southern_ChivalryI have been thinking a lot about the U.S. government in history lately. I hear and read on the news almost daily now about how bi-partisan our nation currently is and how different this is from the past. Then there was Representative Joe Wilson calling President Obama a liar during Obama’s congressional address this past week. News media and politicians on both sides reacted to this outburst, Democrats calling it disrespectful and Republicans  shaking their heads at a time when there has been such much criticism lately about the behavior of their party. But what I find interesting is how shocked we all seem to be at this behavior, that we act as though our history has been filled with polite, perfect politicians. What history are they talking about? Does anyone remember President Jackson’s relationship with Henry Clay? Much less than peaceful. Or how about the entire Republican party’s relationship with FDR during the Great Depression?

The behavior of our elected representatives is anything but new to American history. In the years leading up the Civil War, politicians were extremely ill behaved. They were disrespectful, often finding themselves caught up in shouting matches. Determining how to to handle slavery as new states entered the nation was so emotional, so difficult it led the nation into its most brutal war. So out of control were politics, that congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner (an abolitionist) of Massachusetts with his cane. The attack was so brutal that Sumner fell into unconsciousness and Brooks’ cane was broken. It took Sumner three years to recover and return to the Senate. Somehow, Wilson’s outburst last week, pales in comparison (please do not take this as condoning of either yelling or beating fellow politicians with sticks).

The point here isn’t whether Wilson should have yelled or not, or whether bi-partisanship is appropriate or not (that could be a whole other blog!). The point is, however, that this is not new behavior. Politics can be passionate and should be, its about the leadership of our nation and its future. The media and American public expects that our leaders should be quite, calm, and collected and when that doesn’t happen, they complain. They discuss this behavior as if it is a symbol of the tragic path our nation is embarking upon. However, it is not new, it is not revolutionary. The nation finds itself in a difficult time, and just as we have seen in history, this leads to extraordinary (if not always appropriate) behavior.


The Second War of Independence

war-of-1812-cartoonToday in 1812, the U.S. declared war against Great Britain.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, the U.S. experienced tumultuous relationships with both Great Britain and France. Both nations had targeted U.S. ships and made international trade for the U.S. nearly impossible. Napoleon declared that France would put aside French trade restrictions and in response, President Madison took him at his word and reimposed the ban on British trade. To retaliate, the United Kingdom began seizing more American ships and continued to impress sailors.
In response, the U.S. declared war.  Politicians in Congress were torn over the idea of war. Convinced that the war would ruin American commerce, Federalists did not support the war. Supporters wanted to seize British territory in North America. Many also believed that Great Britain never accepted the outcome of the Revolution and they saw that American independence hung in the balance. Supporters of the war also believed that victory would be easy as Great Britain was preoccupied with Napoleon in Europe.
How wrong they were! While president, Thomas Jefferson had crippled the military power in an effort to cut costs and due to his own dislike toward having a standing army. Congress tried to increase the army to 75,000 but even the most hawkish states failed to meet their quota of soldiers. Additionally, Congress remained hesitant to raise taxes to finance the war.
The War of 1812 was a two-front struggle, fighting the British and the Native Americans. For a year, pan-Native Americans led by Tecumseh held the Americans up. However, in 1813 they were defeated and Tecumseh died during the Battle of Thames. In March 1814, an army of Americans and pro-assimilation Cherokees and Creeks came under the command of future-president Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s troops defeated the hostile Creeks, known as the Red Sticks, at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Red Sticks lost 800 of their own in that battle. As a result, the U.S. gained over 23 million acres of land, more than half the Creeks’ land.
The U.S. attacked the British by invading Canada through Detroit, Niagara, and Lake Champlain, but failed dismally in 1812. In 1814, Napoleon was defeated and the British were able to focus on the U.S. They planned to attack in the northern, central, and southern parts of the country. They made their first move at Lake Champlain, but were surprisingly defeated. The British did strike a symbolic blow when they captured Washington, D.C. and burned the Capitol and the president’s home. The executive building was whitewashed to cover the burn stains, giving it the nickname White House. The British also targeted Baltimore, bombing Fort McHenry for twenty-five straight hours. Francis Scott Key saw the flag still flying above the fort at dawn and quickly wrote the Star Spangled Banner.
The final target was New Orleans where 75,000 British troops found a motley crew led by Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s troops included regular soldiers, militia members, frontiersmen, citizens from New Orleans (including several companies of free African Americans), Choctaw Native Americans, and a group of pirates. Surprising everyone, the outnumbered and ill-equipped Americans defeated the British and made Jackson an overnight hero.
Just as anti-war activists arrived in Washington armed with proposals of amendments that would hopefully move the country out of the war, Jackson’s victory was being announced. A treaty was signed in Belgium, technically ending the war. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in December 1814. It failed to restore the previous status quo. No territory changed hands and no provisions were included that would stop impressments or provide neutral shipping rights, the main causes of the war.
In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that the military weak and disunited U.S. would declare war on one of the world’s super powers. The U.S. had no way to finance the war, which bankrupted the nation. However, due to Britain’s preoccupation with European struggles, they were not able to direct all of their attention on the infant nation. Still Great Britain easily defeated the American invasions of Canada and imposed a blockade that all but destroyed American commerce. The war did launch several prominent political careers, notably that of Andrew Jackson. Finally, the war gave control to the U.S. of its regions, never again would the British or Native Americans pose a real threat to American control in North America, providing the true independence from Britain that war supporters had been demanding.


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