War of 1812: A Quiet Bicentennial


President James Madison’s proclamation of war against Great Britain. (Library of Congress. Click for larger image.)

I’m not hearing a lot about the 200th anniversary, on Friday, of President James Madison asking Congress to declare war on Great Britain, opening the way to the War of 1812. The president’s message outlined the provocations that led to war, and it reads like a musty reminder of junior high history class: impressment of American sailors into British service; British interference with American commerce and a naval blockade of U.S. ports; Britain’s insistence that the United States repudiate its diplomatic and commercial detente with France; and British support for Indian raids on the American frontier. The president concluded on what today is a foreign-sounding note:

“Whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations and these accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the Almighty Disposer of Events … is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government. In recommending it to their early deliberations I am happy in the assurance that the decision will be worthy the enlightened and patriotic councils of a virtuous, a free, and a powerful nation.”

“Foreign-sounding” because—well, when’s the last time a president treated the legislative branch as if it had a real role in deliberating whether the nation goes to war or not? That’s despite living in an era of one war (or conflict, or police action, or retaliation, or high-level drug bust) after another. Since the last time a president deigned to go before Congress, we’ve fought in Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, Laos, Grenada, Libya (Reagan edition), Panama, Iraq, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya (Obama edition). The only question is who’s next.

Oh, yes: Congress is still a convenient fig leaf for a determined chief executive. A recent president, addressing the nation on the need to go to war to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in a foreign land ruled by a former ally, noted that “recognizing the threat to our country, the United States Congress voted overwhelmingly … to support the use of force.” The president didn’t see fit to mention the campaign of lies and half-truths he and his underlings waged to persuade the legislators and the people that the danger was imminent. That wouldn’t become universally understood until later. But the president left no doubt about his view about where the sole responsibility for committing the nation’s blood and treasure lay:

“Before the day of horror can come, before it is too late to act, this danger will be removed. The United States of America has the sovereign authority to use force in assuring its own national security. That duty falls to me as commander in chief by the oath I have sworn, by the oath I will keep.”

In Madison’s case, asking Congress for a declaration of war was more than a gesture undertaken by an executive who took it for granted he could do whatever he pleased. Congress had never considered such a request before. And it took nearly three weeks before they approved. When they did, it was with plenty of opposition: the House passed the resolution 79-49, the Senate went along, 19-13.

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