Why New England Almost Seceded Over The War Of 1812

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Defensive cannons from the War of 1812 in front of the Barnstable County Courthouse (Adam Raguesa/WBUR)
Defensive cannons from the War of 1812 in front of the Barnstable County Courthouse (Adam Raguesa/WBUR)

This coming Monday marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and when we think of that war, we usually picture events to our south — the burning of Washington, D.C., or Francis Scott Key composing the national anthem in the Chesapeake. But New England has its own War of 1812 history.

Despite having led the charge in the Revolution, New Englanders were vehemently opposed to America's second war with the British. So much so, that serious politicians openly discussed seceding from the Union.

At the start of the 19th century, Europe was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars. France and Britain were at each other's throats, the United States traded with both of them, and neither was happy about that. They started to harass American merchant vessels, Britain in particular, to the point of literally kidnapping sailors off U.S. ships and drafting them into the Royal Navy. In euphemistic Brit-speak that was called "impressment."

"Probably in the neighborhood of 6,000 Americans were impressed by the British leading up to the war of 1812," estimates James Ellis, author of "A Ruinous, Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812." "This was a real sore point."

Ellis says following a particularly bad incident in 1807, the States were so united in their anger against the British that they probably would have marched to war in lockstep. But instead, then-President Thomas Jefferson slapped on a controversial Band-Aid — a self-imposed embargo, blocking U.S. ships from doing any business with foreign lands.

"The embargo was a means of restricting this vulnerable American merchant service to their home ports, thereby removing them from all danger," Ellis says.

And it worked, in the sense that decapitation is an effective treatment for headache.

"It decimated the economy," Ellis says of Jefferson's embargo. "As many as half of the working men in the New England coastal communities were unemployed. Poor houses were overflowed, banks failed."

But that might not have mattered so much to Jefferson, who was from Virginia. His Democratic-Republican Party had its base in southern agricultural states, where the embargo didn't hurt as bad at it did up north.

Ellis quotes a letter written by Massachusetts Sen. Timothy Pickering: "Those states who's farms are on the ocean, and who's harvests are gathered in every sea, should immediately and seriously consider how to preserve them."

Seafarers had the most to at stake in the building conflict. But Jefferson's embargo had the remarkable effect of redirecting New England's angst away from Britain and toward Washington, D.C. When Jefferson's successor, James Madison, took office and pushed Congress to finally declare war on June 18th 1812, the action was roundly condemned by New England's political leadership, particularly Massachusetts Gov. Caleb Strong.

"When the war began and the Madison administration asked for troops, asked for the Massachusetts militia to be summoned, Strong refused," explains Suffolk University historian Robert Allison. "He said he wouldn't send the militia out of state. Now, Madison took this as an act of unpatriotism, that Strong was defying the war effort."

And in response, Madison sent no ground forces to protect New England.

Strolling through Brophy Park in East Boston, Allison explains that this is where Massachusetts built Fort Strong in the fall of 1812, to protect the city from a British invasion. "Gov. Strong had said that the federal government has abandoned us, and so we have to do this ourselves, and within a month the citizens of Boston and surrounding towns had built a fort here," Allison said.

But Fort Strong was weak — an irony in name that Allison says Gov. Strong intended. He was so anti-war that his battle preparations were farcical. He positioned cannons on Boston Common, which then as now offered a less-than-direct line of fire to the harbor.

The Nimrod restaurant in Falmouth has preserved the cannon ball hole in the men's room wall behind a small wooden door, from when it was struck in 1814 (Courtesy)
The Nimrod restaurant in Falmouth has preserved the cannon ball hole in the men's room wall behind a small wooden door, from when it was struck in 1814 (Courtesy)

Fortunately, the British never attacked Boston, but many other coastal towns suffered the Royal Navy's wrath, including Falmouth on Cape Cod, where today the Nimrod restaurant still bears a scar. In 1814 it was struck by cannon fire from the HMS Nimrod. Current owner Jim Murray has preserved the cannon ball hole in the men's room wall behind a small wooden door.

On top of the Royal Navy's coastal bombardment, they managed to stop and burn half of Nantucket's whaling fleet. Peace-loving Quakers on the island took the extraordinary step of forging their own neutrality agreement with the British. And the whole region continued to suffer economically from the war's stranglehold on maritime trade.

"British policy makers thought what they would do is induce New Englanders to secede from the union, to break away from the United States," Allison says.

And it almost worked. Strong made his own overtures to the British, offering to negotiate a separate peace. Meanwhile, leaders from across New England convened in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss their grievances with the federal government and produce a list of demands on which their continued participation in the union would be conditional. But a funny thing happened on their way to present the document to Washington — President Madison won the war.

"So these guys put their pamphlet in their pocket and went back to Boston, and here we are," Allison says.

It may sound a bit anticlimactic, but the War of 1812 did have two lasting affects on New England. One was political. The anti-war Federalist Party, which had been dominant in New England, fell from popularity. Jefferson and Madison's Democratic-Republican Party expanded its influence northward, making a big impact on what was then known as the Massachusetts District of Maine.

"The Democratic-Republican Party was behind the statehood movement in Maine," Ellis says. "And one of the arguments used to gain statehood was the fact that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was incapable of protecting Maine during the latter months of the war."

And then there's this. The war forced New Englanders to look inland for their livelihood. Cut off from the sea, they began to develop the first river-powered mills, hastening America's industrial revolution, and redefining New England life for the next century.

This segment aired on June 15, 2012.


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