Monday, June 10, 2013

1812 - The Road to War

When a nation goes to war, leaders often speak of unity. It is difficult for a nation which is not united in its cause to be successful in war. Yet that unity may be of a superficial nature – the nation may indeed be united in its decision to declare war, but different groups of citizens may support the war effort for different reasons.

Historian Julius Pratt explores the question of which motives drove the western part of the United States to participate in the War of 1812. The topic itself shows how early – really from the very beginnings of the republic – regional motives for national policies entered into play. One might naively think that when a nation goes to war, it is unified in its reasoning; on the contrary, it seems quite plausible to wonder if different areas within the country had different reasons for entering into the same war. Pratt is writing in response to another author, Louis Morton Hacker, who had addressed the same question. Pratt disagrees with Hacker on selected points.

What one might consider to be the “western” part of the country has changed in the last two centuries. At our present time – the year 2012 – the “western” part of the nation is perhaps the Pacific coast, or the Rockies, or the Southwest – states like New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana, and points west from there. In 1812, the “West” consisted of the territories which would later become states like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and Michigan. What were the interests of the “West” in 1812? And more specifically, what were their war interests?

According to Pratt, Hacker writes that the West wanted war because it wanted Canada; Pratt would revise Hacker’s assertion and propose that the West wanted both Canada and Florida. Pratt tells us that Spain and England were on friendly diplomatic terms at the time, and defeating England would induce Spain to surrender Florida to the United States. Pratt notes that because the “West” included territories like Alabama and Mississippi, Canada would have hardly been a strong motive for them, given the distance.

Hacker, according to Pratt, asserts that danger from attacking Indians was not a major motive in the West’s decision to endorse the War of 1812. (Throughout, we are relying on Pratt to have accurately summarized Hacker.) Hacker had considered, and rejected, the following line of reasoning: the Indians posed a threat to the West; the English were nudging or supplying the Indians; therefore, in order to be safe from the Indians, the U.S. ought to engage in war with England. Hacker rejects that logic, and points out that statistically, the Indians were not much of a threat to the West.

Pratt accuses Hacker of an “error in psychology,” inasmuch as Hacker addresses the question, “were the Indians a significant threat to the West?” whereas Pratt argues that the more relevant question should be “did the West consider the Indians to be a significant threat?” The fact that the Indians did pose a threat to edges of the West could be enough to make the entire West feel threatened; the fact that Indians did attack and kill settlers on the frontier regions of the West may have been enough to generate antipathy toward the Indians throughout the entire West. Whereas Hacker dismissed anti-Indian rhetoric (accompanied by anti-British rhetoric because the English seemingly encouraged the Indians) as a pretense to cover the West’s covetousness for Canada, Pratt takes the anti-Indian rhetoric at face value: the West felt threatened by the Indians, wanted to prevent further attacks by Indians, and wanted revenge against the Indians for those attacks already perpetrated. Pratt points out that Hacker relies generally on only one source, a Mr. John Randolph, for his argumentation, while most other sources fuel Pratt’s thesis. (John Randolph had mentioned a desire for Canadian land as a possible reason for war.) Pratt also points out that the English were, in fact, verifiably fueling Indian attacks on the West; he presents a long string of data, from the time of Washington’s stint as leader of the Continental Army, through the Federalist Papers, into the early years of the new government, all of which point to the understanding that the Indians, backed by the British, endangered the West.

While Hacker asserted that the West was eager to gain Canadian real estate, Pratt points out the lack of evidence to support this proposition. Aside from remarks by John Randolph, there is almost no data for this claim. Hacker, however, asserts that it was a silent conspiracy, that the West wanted Canada, but hid its desire behind anti-Indian rhetoric. Hacker must also explain why the West wanted Canada; his argument for this is, according to Pratt, tortured: first, the West had used up almost all available land for farms; second, the Prairie territories west of the Mississippi weren’t tempting because their soil was alleged to be weak and not good for farming; third, therefore Canada was the obvious area into which the West should expand. Pratt cites descriptions of the Ohio Valley countryside from that time which reveal that there was much land yet to be made into farmable territory, so that they were hardly running out of fresh fields.

Pratt concludes, contra Hacker, that desire for land was not a significant cause in the West’s desire to join the War of 1812.

Pratt’s article is stimulating in the more general question it raises: what are regional justifications for war, and which competing interpretations are available for them? One might ask why a certain region of the nation endorsed our entry into WWI, and assess the relative merits of conflicting explanations for that phenomenon. The discussion in Pratt’s paper is interesting, because in typical high school history classes, the only reason for the War of 1812 retained in student memories is the impressment of sailors. The average “man on the street,” if he knows or recalls anything at all about the War of 1812, will mention the impressment of American men and boys into the British navy. It is good to recall that there were various issues in the motivation to declare war. Pratt and Hacker offering tantalizing other suggestions.