Federalists, Republicans, and
Slavery during the War of 1812
THE PARTISAN USE of slavery in the early republic reached its peak during the War of 1812. It entered partisan politics well before the war, of course, and the wartime uses of slavery had an impact on the postwar scene. But the New England Federalists' sectionalist strategy and bitter wartime grievances ensured that no period until the 1850s matched the war years in this regard. Between 1812 and 1815, American slavery surfaced in several debates between Federalists and Republicans that on their face bore no relationship to chattel bondage. Some Americans fretted about the introduction of the highly charged issue of slavery into a situation in which the Union was already tenuous. But their concerns only demonstrated just how effective this weapon was. That so many participants in wartime debates, from clergymen to editors to elected officials, resorted to the rhetorical and political firepower of slavery also demonstrates how divisive the War of 1812 was. American slavery was not the central issue of the day—the war was. But those contending over the war capitalized fully on the political value of slavery.
Of course, political manipulation of sectional divisions over slavery was hardly new to the American scene in 1812. Yet the war years, which marked the apex of the struggle between America's first two parties, brought sectionalism and partisanship together in an unprecedented way. The political combatants during the War of 1812 thus pioneered tactics that would surface in later disputes involving slavery. New England Federalists demonstrated the full power of slavery as a political tool in their wartime appeal to Northerners' latent hostility to slaveholders and their power. In turn, Republicans experimented with techniques for parrying the Federalists' sectionalist blows. Their dialectic further attached slavery to North-South sectionalism and began the elevation of that divide over that between the East and the West.