When the United States declared war against Britain in June 1812, the vote on the declaration of war in the Congress was fairly close, reflecting how unpopular the war was to large segments of the American public.
Though one of the main reasons for the war had to do with the rights of sailors on the high seas and the protection of American shipping, the senators and representatives from the maritine states of New England tended to vote against the war.
Sentiment for war was perhaps strongest in the western states and territories, where a faction known as the War Hawks believed that the United States could invade present day Canada and seize territory from the British.
The debate about the war had been going on for many months, with newspapers, which tended to be highly partisan in that era, proclaiming pro-war or anti-war positions.
The declaration of war was signed by President James Madison on June 18, 1812, but for many that did not settle the matter.
Opposition to the war continued. Newspapers blasted the Madison administration, and some state governments went so far as to essentially obstruct the war effort.
In some cases opponents to the war engaged in protests, and in one noteworthy incident, a mob in Baltimore attacked a group which opposed the war. One of the victims of the mob violence in Baltimore, who suffered serious injuries from which he never fully recovered, was the father of Robert E. Lee.
Newspapers Attacked the Madison Administration Move Toward War
The War of 1812 began against a backdrop of intense political battling within the United States. The Federalists of New England were opposed to the idea of war, and the Jeffersonian Republicans, including President James Madison, were very suspicious of them.
A huge controversy broke out when it was revealed that the Madison administration had paid a former British agent for information on Federalists and their suspected connections to the British government.
The information provided by the spy, a shady character named John Henry, never amounted to anything that could be proven. But the bad feelings engendered by Madison and members of his administration influenced partisan newspapers early in 1812.
Northeastern newspapers regularly denounced Madison as corrupt and venal. There was a strong suspicion among the Federalists that Madison and his political allies wanted to go to war with Britain to bring the United States closer to the France of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Newspapers on the other side of the argument argued that the Federalists were an "English party" in the United States that wanted to splinter the nation and somehow return it to British rule.
Debate over the war — even after it had been declared — dominated the summer of 1812. At a public gathering for the Fourth of July in New Hampshire, a young New England attorney, Daniel Webster, gave an oration which was quickly printed and circulated.
Webster, who had not yet run for public office, denounced the war, but made a legal point: "It is now the law of the land, and as such we are bound to regard it."
State Governments Opposed the War Effort
One of the arguments against the war was that the United States was simply not prepared, as it had a very small army. There was an assumption that state militias would bolster the regular forces, but as the war began the governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts refused to comply with the federal request for militia troops.
The position of the New England state governors was that the president of the United States could only requisition the state militia to defend the nation in the event of an invasion, and no invasion of the country was imminent.
The state legislature in New Jersey passed a resolution condemning the declaration of war, terming it "inexpedient, ill-timed, and most dangerously impolitic, sacrificing at once countless blessings." The legislature in Pennsylvania took the opposite approach, and passed a resolution condemning the New England governors who were opposing the war effort.
Other state governments issued resolutions taking sides. And it is clear that in the summer of 1812 the United States was going to war despite a large split in the country.
A Mob in Baltimore Attacked Opponents of the War
In Baltimore, a thriving seaport at the beginning of the war, public opinion generally tended to favor the declaration of war. In fact, privateers from Baltimore were already setting sail to raid British shipping in the summer of 1812, and the city would eventually become, two years later, the focus of a British attack.
On June 20, 1812, two days after war was declared, a Baltimore newspaper, the Federal Republican, published a blistering editorial denouncing the war and the Madison administration. The article angered many citizens of the city, and two days later, on June 22, a mob descended on the newspaper's office and destroyed its printing press.
The publisher of the Federal Republican, Alexander C. Hanson, fled the city for Rockville, Maryland. But Hanson was determined to return and continue publishing his attacks on the federal government.
With a group of supporters, including two notable veterans of the Revolutionary War, James Lingan and General Henry Lee (the father of Robert E. Lee), Hanson arrived back in Baltimore a month later, on July 26, 1812. Hanson and his associates moved into a brick house in the city. The men were armed, and they essentially fortified the house, fully expecting another visit from an angry mob.
A group of boys gathered outside the house, shouting taunts and throwing stones. Guns, presumably loaded with blank cartridges, were fired from an upper floor of the house to disperse the growing crowd outside. The stone throwing became more intense, and windows of the house were shattered.
The men in the house began shooting live ammunition, and a number of people in the street were wounded. A local doctor was killed by a musket ball. The mob was driven to a frenzy.
Responding to the scene, the authorities negotiated the surrender of the men in the house. About 20 men were escorted to the local jail, where they were housed for their own protection.
A mob assembled outside the jail on the night of July 28, 1812, forced its way inside, and attacked the prisoners. Most of the men were severely beaten, and James Lingan, an elderly veteran of the American Revolution, was killed, reportedly by being struck in the head with a hammer.
General Henry Lee was beaten senseless, and his injuries probably contributed to his death two years later. Hanson, the publisher of the Federal Republican, survived, but was also severely beaten. One of Hanson's associates, John Thompson, was beaten by the mob, dragged through the streets, and tarred and feathered.
Lurid accounts of the Baltimore riot were printed in American newspapers. People were particularly shocked by the killing of James Lingam, who had been wounded while serving as an officer in the Revolutionary War and had been a friend of George Washington.
Following the riot, tempers cooled in Baltimore. Alexander Hanson moved to Georgetown, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where he continued to publish a newspaper denouncing the war and mocking the government.
Opposition to the war continued in some parts of the country. But over time the debate cooled off and more patriotic concerns, and a desire to defeat the British, took precedence.
At the end of the war, Albert Gallatin, the nation's treasury secretary, expressed a belief that the war had unified the nation in many ways, and had lessened a focus on purely local or regional interests. Of the American people at the end of the war, Gallatin wrote:
"They are more Americans; they feel and act more as a nation; and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured."
Regional differences, of course, would remain a permanent part of American life, and events such as the Nullification Crisis, the prolonged debates about slavery in America, the secession crisis, and the Civil War would prove that. But Gallatin's larger point, that the debate over the war ultimately bound the country together, had some validity.