Domestic Politics

In the face of a looming war between the United States and the great naval power of Britain, the American republic was deeply divided over the War of 1812.  The country’s two parties – Federalists and Democratic-Republicans – were at the forefront of this divide.  The Federalists were most concentrated in the Northeast because they backed commercial and industrial development, while the South and West were dominated by an agricultural economy.  In addition, Federalists called for a strong central government, with a closer relationship to Britain (a source of investment capital for the development they desired).  In opposition, the Democratic-Republican Party backed a weak central government, a split from Britain in favor of close ties to the French, and speedy western expansion.  By 1812, the Democratic-Republican Party under President James Madison commanded a large majority in Congress.

Certainly, the two parties’ opposing ideas about Britain led to their different takes on the war.  In response to the repeated violation of neutrality claimed by the United States during the Napoleonic Wars, the seizing of goods, and the impressment of Americans from merchant ships, the Republican Party called for war against Britain.  Another catalyst for this Republican call to action was to push westward expansion by fighting Native Americans and the British Canadians thought to be supplying them.  There was talk of threatening Britain by invading Canada.

Federalists were starkly opposed to the invasion of Canada.  They thought it a cruel endeavor that was unwarranted, because in their opinion, Canada had done nothing to offend the United States to warrant an invasion.  Doing so would make the conflict more offensive than defensive, and the Federalists were opposed to an offensive war because New England was more economically dependent on shipping that the British could constrict or seize.  In addition many Federalists were convinced that Britain would never bother attempting to regain Canada in lieu of their maritime rights.  They were afraid that the addition of the province would make American territory too vast, potentially compromising the small northeastern states by countering them with larger western states.

Despite the opposition to Canadian annexation and a land war, Federalists did support a war at sea with Britain.  As Donald Hickey, author of “The Federalists and the Coming of the War, 1811-1812,” writes, Federalists believed the nation’s rights could best be defended on the high seas, and they had long advocated expanding the navy and arming merchantmen.  They were willing to support a maritime war, but it had to be free of commercial restrictions and territorial ambitions, thus protecting Federalists merchant concerns and opposing the annexation of Canada.  Other advantages argued on behalf of a maritime war by the Federalists were that it would be less costly than invading Canada, the American coast would be spared from blockade, and that war could be brought to an easy end by executive order, rather than numerous negotiations.  It should be noted that there was a divide among Federalists over a land war with Britain.  Middle and Southern state Federalists often supported funding for the army and a land war with Britain because that the country should be prepared to defend itself not only on the sea, but the land as well.  Oftentimes this defense of the nation masked the underlying motive to conquer others for the claim of more land.  While the defense was portrayed as a virtuous motive, there were many whose real goal was the accumulation of said land.

Staunch advocates of the Republican’s aim for war were called the “War Hawks”.  Ronald Hatzenbuehler, author of “The War Hawks and the Question of Congressional Leadership in 1812”, admits that although there are many possible definitions of a War Hawk, the single, best criterion would seem to be a consistent voting pattern in support of war legislation.  In this sense, War Hawks were Congressmen who pressed for Congressional votes in favor of all sorts of armed conflict: in the West, in Canada, and on the high seas.  They stood in stark contrast to the New England Federalists who supported only a narrowly-defined maritime conflict.

The Republican majority eventually won out.  On June 1, 1812 headway was made towards a declaration of war.  President Madison sent a message to Congress reiterating what grievances America had with Britain.  After deliberation, Congress came back in a vote of 79-49 in favor of declaring war.  Mr. Madison’s war formally commenced on June 18, 1812, much to the dismay of the Federalist Party.  Of the 39 Feds present at the Congressional vote, not one voted in favor of the war.

Not only did the nation find itself at war in the year 1812, but it also was engrossed in a presidential election.  The Federalist candidate was Dewitt Clinton, while the Republican choice was Madison (running for reelection).  With a majority in New England, the Federalist Party needed the support of the middling states.  Unfortunately for Federalists, Madison won the election due to interests in Westward expansion.  While Clinton had much of the support of the Northeast who were less inclined toward expansion, Madison had the support of the West, South, the developing Mid-West, and Pennsylvania, whose representatives greatly favored the idea because their state reached far enough west to be part of the Ohio River system.

Throughout the war, patriotism and political achievements of the Republican Party found favor with the American public, causing the Federalist Party to grow weaker.  They continued to oppose the war in the midst of the strong patriotic support Republicans were receiving from citizens who favored the war.  Consequently, as patriotism and support for the war spread, Federalists found less and less public backing.  These factors contributed to the decline of the Federalist Party.  In the 1820 election, they did not elect a candidate for presidency, and by 1824 the party ceased to exist.


“Democratic-Republican Party.” Encyclopedia Britannica’s Guide to American Presidents. 2012. Web <>.

Hatzenbuehler, Ronald L. “The War Hawks and the Question of Congressional Leadership in 1812.” The Pacific Historical Review 45.1 (1976): 1-22. JSTOR. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.

Hickey, Donald R. “The Federalists and the Coming of the War, 1811-1812.” Indiana Magazine of History 1979th ser. 75.1. Web.

Hickey, Donald R. “Federalist Party Unity and the War of 1812.” Journal of American Studies 12.1 (1978): 23-39. Web.

Horsman, Reginald. “Who Were the War Hawks.” Indiana Magazine of History 60.2 (1964): 121-36. JSTOR. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.

Stagg, J.C.A. “James Madison and the “Malcontents”: The Political Origins of the War of 1812.” The William and Mary Quarterly 33.4 (1976): 557-85. Print.

Strum, Harvey. “New York Federalists and Opposition to the War of 1812.” World Affairs 142.3 (1980): 169-87. JSTOR. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.

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