In commenting on the entry of the United States into the War of 1812 Henry Adams wrote: "A less competent administrative system seldom drifted, by reason of its incompetence, into war with a superior enemy." Yet in his multi- volume biography of James Madison, Irving Brant pictures Madison as a strong executive who, despite having to deal with a narrowly partisan and at times disloyal opposition, led the United States into a second war for independence. The foregoing illustrate but one of the many differences in viewpoint which confront the student who seeks to understand the involvement of the United States in the War of 1812, a war which from beginning to end presents a series of puzzles and paradoxes. Its causes were unclear at the time and remain to this day the subject of lively dispute. The conduct of the war on land proved almost incredibly incompetent and blundering. And the conflict ended in a treaty of peace which failed to mention the chief issues which were alleged to have contributed to its beginning.
The readings in Part I of this volume provide materials from the contemporary debate: The report of The Select Committee on Foreign Relations, excerpts from speeches in the Twelfth Congress, and President Madison's war message of June 1, 1812. The student is urged to study and analyze these documents and speeches before reading further -- to weigh the evidence for himself before consulting the interpretative essays.
The great debate over entry into the war took place to a large extent in the House of Representatives rather than in the United States Senate. The House was at the time the great public forum. Its proceedings were printed more completely than were those of the Senate. Henry Clay had resigned from the Senate and taken over the speakership of the House in order to head The War Hawks, the leaders of the war party in that more important branch of the national legislature. The reader will note that all of the speeches reproduced in these readings have been taken from the proceedings of the House of Representatives. Moreover, the leaders whose speeches are included represented the Frontier or the South Atlantic States. From these two regions came not only the leading War Hawks, but their most vocal and effective opposition. The most articulate opponents of the war were dissident Republicans, men like John Randolph of Virginia and Richard Stanford of North Carolina. The Federalists also strongly opposed entry into the war and the speech by Daniel Sheffey from western Virginia provides an illustration of Federalist oratory. The main voting strength of the Federalists lay, of course, principally in the more northern states. But, for the most part, the members of this opposition did not participate in the debate. A minority party, disagreeing among themselves and without strong leaders, they sulked and plotted in their tents.
The provocations which contemporaries emphasized as causing the demand for war are easily identified from the . . .