"the real weapons the United States faced were unique and uniquely powerful, namely the Bank of England and the Royal Navy"

Given that many of the Founding Fathers were still active politicians in 1812 and that the War of Independence was first and foremost a war of Enlightenment principle, it can be reasonably claimed that America’s leadership were capable of making political decisions based on how it felt things ought to be rather than how they actually were.  This allowed for an amount of ethical naivety in how the American political class viewed the world and created an environment for a number of dangerous errors in decision making during the Republic’s early years.


Despite the clarity of thinking that allowed John Adams to state that “America is unique only in the matter of geography”[1], there was a widespread misunderstanding of America’s position in the world. Few things demonstrate this more clearly than Jefferson’s attempt to effectively blockade the rest of the western world in the Embargo Acts.


Jefferson’s Embargo Acts of 1807 were probably America’s first real attempt to impose her will through using the leverage of the economic power when they were faced with constant interference of their commerce by both French and British navies in their mutual blockade. This had driven an exasperated President Jefferson to try and reverse the position by trying to cut Europe off from American exports through the Embargo Act which banned British ships from American ports but succeeded only in devastating the US economy causing exports to fall from $108 million to only $22 million[2].


The same errors were partly echoed in Madison’s war of 1812, namely to misunderstand the nature of their enemy and the weapons they were electing to fight against. Whilst land forces and Great Lakes gunboat fleets played an essential, if fairly small part in the conflict, the real weapons the United States faced were unique and uniquely powerful, namely the Bank of England and the Royal Navy. At the time of Madison’s declaration of war the British were using their navy to effectively blockade the whole of Europe and simultaneously maintain their own level of trade and taxation to a level where they could bankroll anyone willing to fight back against French invasion and occupation.


Britain’s response to the declaration of war by America was to fall back on a standard set of strategies, namely to strangle the enemy’s seaborne economic activity, encourage smuggling and trade with the enemy to take advantage of cheap local supplies whilst simultaneously deny desperately needed tax revenue, use her relatively small army to attack targets of opportunity and wherever possible pay other people to fight for them.


The power of blockade was far from being a new concept. Alexander Hamilton, the visionary military and economic strategist had noted during the war of Independence: “all that England needs to have done is to blockade our ports”[3]

[1] John Adams book


[2] University of Virginia. Miller Center Public Affairs http://millercenter.org/academic/americanpresident/jefferson/essays/biography/5

[3] Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow, 2004 Penguin.

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