Home / Robert Farley / The First Neocon War?

The First Neocon War?


Jefferson Morley:

The War of 1812 matters because it was America’s first war of choice. The United States did not have to declare war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, to survive as a nation and indeed President James Madison did not want to. The newly founded United States was growing westward but the “war hawks” in Congress pressed for a conflict with America’s former colonial masters in the hopes of gaining even more territory to the north. The term “hawk” was coined in the run-up to the War of 1812 and the hawks of U.S. foreign policy have been with us ever since.

The War of 1812 was America’s first neocon war. With an audacity that would become familiar, the war hawks appealed to a combination of personal pride — the British navy was forcibly conscripting Americans — and the prospect of material gain — the absorption of British Canada — wrapped up in love of country. No one said the conquest of Canada would be a “cakewalk,” but the hawks were confident the Americans would be greeted as liberators.

Like future neoconservative wars, the War of 1812 did not go so well. Neither the citizenry nor the army was quite as ready as the hawks imagined. The Americans did destroy Indian tribes that had allied with the British but they underestimated the Canadians. U.S. forces attacking Canada were repeatedly repulsed in 1812-1814, giving the Canadians a quiet superiority complex that they have not entirely lost to this day.

Longtime readers will recall that I reject the “war of choice, war of necessity” dichotomy, and the usage here is a good reason why. Surely the decision to go to war in 1812 was a “choice” in the sense that the United States could have acted differently, and that the US did not plausibly face an existential threat if it chose not to go to war. But then, the same could be said of almost every war that the United States has engaged in, and indeed most wars that any country engages in. Whatever we can say about the wisdom of launching a war against Great Britain in 1812, the US had what in the 19th century was regarded as legitimate casus belli; the Royal Navy was impressing American sailors (and not in a good way), and denying American ships freedom of the seas. Morley elides this by referring to impressment as a point of “personal pride,” which is an odd way of terming the seizure of US nationals exercising free commerce on the high seas. Just wars are obviously not always wise wars, and Madison et al should have realized that the tools of defense statecraft that the British were using to fight Napoleon were not sufficiently exhausted that they wouldn’t also be able to fight the United States. Moreover, the idea that the war was launched to acquire Canada (or even that Canada should have been regarded as a significant prize at the time) is contested by many historians.

My second problem with the passage is the suggestion that neoconservatism is a kind of transhistorical American phenomenon. I’m as suspicious of conservative efforts to normalize US aggression (Robert Kagan’s Dangerous Nation leaps to mind) as I am of leftish efforts to suggest that hawkishness is somehow endemic to the US character. To be sure, the United States has engaged in a thoroughly expansionist policy for most of its history, but this hardly differentiates the United States from Russia or the colonial powers of Europe. Moreover, until the early part of the 20th century the United States was distinctly a military midget, spending far less on defense and employing far fewer soldiers that similarly positioned European countries. It can certainly be argued that the United States spent less on defense than its counterparts in the 19th century because it enjoyed favorable geopolitical conditions, but then the same conditions effectively hold today; what has changed is the US understanding of its global responsibilities, and of the role that military force plays in executing those responsibilities. The utility of drawing connections between 1812 war hawks and modern neoconservatives is exceedingly limited, both because of the transnational nature of “hawkery” and because the vast swaths of US history in which neocons did not hold sway need to be explained in some fashion.

To be sure, Morley’s account seems to be tongue-in-cheek, making any serious effort at debunking rather beside the point. Moreover, I’ve certainly used the term “neocon” in a transnational sense before (“every country has its neocons”). Nevertheless, we should take care in deploying terms outside of their proper historical context. If you only take into account 1812 and 2003, then Henry Clay may look a bit like Dick Cheney, but this is a deeply misleading approach to the history of US foreign policy.

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  • Paul Gottlieb

    One thing’s for damn sure: If we had managed to conquer Canada, we’d all have decent health insurance today.

    • I for one am still angry about our failures in 1813 to do this very thing.

      • rea

        Or if Montgomery and Arnold had been a bit luckier on December 31, 1775 . . .

    • No, had you conquered us in 1812 WE would have crappy health insurance…

      • And it’s more than you savages would have deserved.

        Think of all the oil we could drill if we owned you. ‘Merica forever!

      • To the contrary. Think about the political consequences of Canada in the Union from 1813 on – the South would have been outnumbered decisively in the House and Senate (and thus the Electoral College as well) from very early on.

        So, eliding the larger questions about when slavery would be abolished and whether and when the Civil War would have happened, at the very least, there’s no Southern veto over national policy, which among other things means that the Wagner National Health Act of 1939 might have passed.

        • Now this is a good counterfactual!

          • I’m sure there have been some done already on ah-com.

            Incidentally, had it passed, the Wagner National Health Act would have established compulsory health insurance including physician’s services, hospital services, and prescription drug coverage on a very similar model to UI for most workers and their dependents.

            That by itself is a huge counterfactual. (nigh)Universal health care would have greatly shifted the terms of what counts as left and right in the U.S, the Great Society would have been completely different in terms of where its spending was allocated, our historical perception of the New Deal would be greatly altered, etc.

        • LeeEsq

          OTOH, wasn’t Canada a fairly conservative place culturally and politically until the 1960s with Toronto the Good, Orange Lodges, and the rest? It was no where close to the South but it wasn’t a liberal haven either. This means that a counter-factual where the United States conquers Canada might have more moderate changes in terms of passed legislation than we might thing.

        • One of the Blue

          I’m wondering. If we had indeed succeeded in occupying large parts of Canada by mid-1814, would not the Brits, once they had packed the good Mr. Bonaparte off to Elba, have put a great deal more effort into the war against the United States (much larger armies, much greater commitment of naval forces) than they in fact did in the situation that actually occured.

          I think one major reason Great Britain was willing upon the conclusion of the Napoleonic War to make an equitable peace with the United States had a great deal to do with the successful defense by Canadians of Canadian territory against the United States, this in addition leading directly to the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and the Oregon Compromise.

  • Regarding the neocon thing, surely Jefferson’s embargo, which led to mass unemployment and grass growing on the streets of Boston, must count as one of the most extreme acts ever taken to avoid conflict, no?

    • Simon

      On the other hand, Jefferson may have seen cratering Boston’s commerce as an added bonus. He’ll make those seafaring yankees into yeoman farmers, by hook or by crook!

    • I’ve always viewed that as one of the boldest moves by any President of our nation to preserve peace. Jefferson knew it would be painful, but I don’t think anyone realized how painful until it was too late.

      It’s a very important history lesson though, the same may very well apply today from the perspective of China and the US – noting that the impact of cutting off trade between the US and China today could have very similar effects on one, or potentially both nations.

      Great post Rob.

  • rickhavoc

    No one said the conquest of Canada would be a “cakewalk,”

    “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent.” — Thomas Jefferson

    The War of 1812 was an uncomplicated affair…grab British North America while Albion are bogged down in Spain and hope no one notices. Grabbing anything of value (read: the West Indies) will definitely draw a response, but maybe the future Canada will be let go. In the end, all it took was 4000 men and a few boats. If, as they say, in every conflict at least one side has made a mistake, it was over here.

  • James E. Powell

    I think the idea that acquiring Canada would have given us more and nicer white people, and thus a nicer nation, are fantasy.

    • bobbyp

      Yes. Imagine ice hockey as the national past-time.

      • Ice hockey subsidies in Florida are JOB CREATING.

      • greylocks

        If only it were true.

    • Probably true, but it certainly would have had some impact on the debates leading up to the Civil War.

  • Desert Rat

    Wow. I’d never heard anybody make the case for the War of 1812 being one of choice in the neocon sense.

    It was a war that we probably would have been wise to avoid, in the sense that Britain had the warmaking capacity to spare, particularly with Napoleon making his ill-fated dash into Russia, and that we were in no way equipped to fight a war with Britain, but there was a legitimate casus belli.

    If one really wants to stretch the concept of neocon wars into the 19th Century (which is tenuous at best, one could probably make a better case with the Mexican-American War, in my opinion.

    • rickhavoc

      “Impressment” was largely of British deserters, with the dispute largely over whether the U.S. could naturalize them. Interference on the high seas and all that revolved, largely, around the amount of stuff we were selling to the French. Superpowers have a funny habit of looking after themselves, and are not above punking the punks when they get out of line.

      • jefft452

        Also too…
        It’s not like 18th century sailors carried modern passports,
        have you ever seen an Americans sailing papers from the period?
        “Billy Yank, eyes brown, hair dark, medium height”
        Yep, that’s me alright, American citizen, forget that Johnny Tar, the deserter you’re looking for, has a tattoo just like mine, in the same place, and the same scar that I have

      • Lurker

        In fact, the question whether a belligrent country can ban neutral merchantmen from entering its enemy’s ports was undecided in the international law of early 19th century. This was, in fact, a burningly important question, as Britain had several times blockaded enemy ports and intercepted neutral commerce directed to them. As a countermeasure, continental countries that were neutral in such wars had, several times, pledged to protect their commerce with armed force, unsing protected commercial conveys to reach the ports. So, the international consensus of late 18th century was pointing towards the illegitimacy of blockades. The current international law allows intercepting neutral vessels only on the territorial waters of the enemy, not on high seas, regardless of the destination of the neutral merchantman.

        • stickler

          Would this be the same international law that applied to the period 1914-18? Because Britain flouted it pretty spectacularly during that period. Germany sent a few sternly-worded letters to London about it. So did Woodrow Wilson. And then the Germans delivered their protests via U-Boat.

          • Lurker

            It’s the same international law that didn’t allow the Israeli troops to board and seize a Turkish merchantman enroute to Gaza on international waters. (They should have waited until the Gaza territorial waters.)

            Yes, the law of war on the high seas is a mess, mainly dependent on the will of the major naval powers. As there is but a single major naval power at the moment, the international maritime law is mainly what the US Navy says it is. However, in 1812, this was not the case, and the British rule of seas was contested by several other nations. In the contemporary world view, US had a legitimate casus belli, and even today, you could make a serious case that stopping and seizing neutral merchantmen on high seas is a legitimate reason to invoke the right to national self-defense.

    • rea

      Britain had the warmaking capacity to spare, particularly with Napoleon making his ill-fated dash into Russia

      Now, here speaks hindsight.

      June 18, 1812–US declares war. In Spain, Wellington is manouvering against Marmont in the vicinity of Salamanca. On June 24, Napoleon invades Russia. So, (1) US policymakers could not have known of the invasion of Russia before war was declared, (2) people at the time did not know that Napoleon’s invasion would turn out to be “ill-fated”–it looked like he could win, and (3) the British, far from having warmaking capacity to spare, were in the middle of an enormous ground war in Spain.

      • greylocks

        Britain, however, did have considerable naval capacity to spare, which was, not coincidentally, why she was so successful at harassing US merchant shipping.

        • Desert Rat

          Points in both articles.

          Greylocks hits the main point well enough. By 1812, whatever their commitments on land, Trafalgar had pretty much eliminated any real threat to Britain’s total domination of the sea. This limited US prospects for any real victory tremendously, as Britain could strike anywhere along the East Coast with near-total impunity (as Madison and Congress found out when Washington was put to the torch).

          As for the land war in North America, the US had no standing army worth mentioning in 1812, and Britain’s army commitments to protect Canada and harass the US coastlines were a trifle compared to their commitments to Spain (though I would argue that the Spanish played as big or bigger role in Napoleon’s eventual defeat than Wellington did). Britain’s army was about as big as it was ever going to get prior to WWI in 1812, and they could afford to commit a portion of it to North America, if not all of it, as hindsight proved.

    • jefft452

      I’m of 2 minds on this statement
      On one hand, Britain had money, lots of it, and a huge navy (since they shot Admiral Byng, a highly professional one at that), but the army was tiny, and mostly crap*

      On the other hand, ours was even smaller, and mostly crappier

      *yeah, yeah, the iron duke and Salamanca and all that – Spain was not the series of unbroken British victories that English language popular histories paint it – and they were fighting against the French farm team for most of it

      • jefft452

        This statement:
        “in the sense that Britain had the warmaking capacity to spare”

  • wengler

    The vote to go to war against Britain makes the most sense if you view it as a political power play by southern and western congressmen against the Northeast. The South was able to discredit Northern politicians who hated the war, especially after the Hartford Convention, and the West got the military attention its politicians had been clamoring for to promote settlement and increase political power and influence.

    It was a pretty big win for the people that started it.

  • I’m always kind of weirded out by the audacity of reading neoconservatism back 100+ years ago.

    We know the explicit geneology of foreign policy neoconservatism; as a set of ideas, as a set of interlocking institutions and personalities, as a response to a specific historical context. They said what they were thinking and doing and wrote it down. We have to guess, or even make informed guesses, at very few details, relatively speaking.

    And with this veritable cornucopia of physical evidence for intellectual history, people still cast back into the misty dawn of the republic and say “well a war happened and it doesn’t seem to be a matter of win or the regime falls so verily the neoconservatives will be ever with us.”

    I know there are pressures and almost sheer intellectual delight which lure people into trying to argue this stuff, but gotdamn. It’s like someone reading the complex but fairly public and documented set of interlocking ideas and relationships among public, quasi-public, and transnational private actors which make up the modern neoliberal system into Locke or Mill or something. Stop, son, just stop.

    • Walt

      I disagree with this entirely. Neoconservativism is an ideology with some popular support (which is how Glenn Reynolds ended up with a prominent blog). It has this support because it draws on certain human impulses that democracies can give expression to. The War of 1812 is a plausible candidate example of similar impulses.

      • First, you’d probably be better served just making your own comment and taking it up with Farley, because I’m just a punk with insomnia. I don’t have anything close to the chops or the hats he does, and it seems like you disagree with him just as vehemently.

        But, I do have insomnia. So: to label those impulses neoconservatism is to abstract away everything we know about neoconservatism into a hazy mush of “impulses”. It’s like saying the neoliberal agenda has a certain popular appeal because people like to think of themselves as individuals and as the basic unit of society, so we should call Mill and Locke neoliberals. Except that’s silly.

        Once that analysis starts, where does it stop? Were the Phillipines a neoconservative venture? The subjugation of Hawaii? The Monroe Doctrine? Westward expansion? How were the “impulses” which drove those adventures different from those which governed modern neoconservative ones? Even phases of the major wars looked a lot like the basic “grab territory and intimidate perceived enemies” playbook. What foreign policy action isn’t an example of this impulse? What do we gain by lumping all this stuff together?

        Especially using “impulses”. Is it useful to lump all this stuff together using a hazy psychological concept? Who is the subject having this concept? Individual people? Elites? Certain segments of society? Even across all the shifts in the American population and political system, these “impulses” rely on the same mechanisms to manifest themselves over two hundred years?

        I think djw’s recent-ish post about the scholarship of human rights is another good analogy. The current intellectual regime of human rights and their attendant legal adoption and promotion by various institutions arguably has its roots in ideas hundreds of years old or longer, depending on how frisky you’re feeling. In the sense that the current human rights regime wouldn’t exist if those ideas hadn’t existed.

        But a strong argument can be made that today’s conceptions of human rights arose in the 40’s and ’70s. In a very real sense they didn’t exist prior to then. To call hundreds of years old ideas centered around human rights, or to read current ideas of human rights back into them, is to muddle both the current ideas and the old ones being appealed to. We lose an enormous amount of specificity and explanatory power regarding both sets of ideas. Same thing goes on here.

        Finally, and least importantly, the insistence of this term is pretty peculiar. Why do we use a term which was a specific result of “impulses” in the last few decades and project it backwards two hundred years? We use a “new” version of a political grouping which didn’t exist in the early 1800s to describe behavior in the early 1800s? Does that makes sense?

        • Not bad for a punk with insomnia.

  • Thlayli

    I have spoken to two Canadians who stated that they “won” the War of 1812 (not the British, them). I wonder if the schools up there teach it that way.

    • Dave

      They do, but just for shits and giggles; and because, in the northern theater, it’s as true as any war-story can be.

    • Yes, Canadians are taught that the War of 1812 was essentially purely a US war of aggression with Canada, which Canada decisively won.

    • Some Guy

      I’d be surprised if this hasn’t been posted already, what with all this 1812 talk of late.
      But on the off chance it hasn’t been:

      I suppose one could argue that Canada ‘won’ in the sense that it did not lose. Of course, that would require one to assume a binary outcome to a global conflict, which would be silly.
      Also, if they’re looking for a rematch, well hell, we gotta fucking do SOMETHING with all these M1A2 Abrams we’re building…

      Take a shot every time they get a historical fact wrong!

      • Lurker

        In fact, the outcome of “not losing” is considered victory in many parts of the world.

        The Vietnamese celebrate the American and French wars, in which they lost millions of people, as decisive Vietnamese victories. The Finns consider the Winter (1939-40) and Continuation Wars (1941-44) as victorious, although they lost major parts of the country to the Russians. The Georgians make the argument that the war of 2008 was a Georgian victory, even if the Russians occupied most of the country for a period and destroyed the flower of the Georgian army. The Prussians celebrated the seven years’ war (which they started) as a victory, although they actually got their asses handed to them and only got out due to a historical accident.

        For a small country, getting out of a major war with one’s capital intact and without the loss of sovereignity is always a victory.

        • jefft452

          “In fact, the outcome of “not losing” is considered victory in many parts of the world.”

          Most of the time, in fact

          “War is the extension of policy by other means”
          America’s policy was the conquest of Canada, we failed
          Canadian policy was NOT the conquest of the US, it was to avoid being conquered, they succeeded
          Ergo – they won

    • John F

      Once in School up at Buffalo, the fine arts building had a presentation of Canadian political cartoons, one that stood out for me showed 3 men in a row boat, one was rowing, one – dressed up as a 19th century Admiral, was looking out through a spyglass at a battleship (the rowboat was tethered to the battleship), and a third man, dressed in a tux was sitting down and talking to the admiral, “how do the economic indicators look?”

      The rowboat had a Canadian flag, and the name on the stern was “Canadian economy”- the Battleship had a US flag and the name on its stern was “US Economy”)

      Beneath the cartoon was a little write up from the cartoonist, “I’ve been drawing cartoons fro 15 years, to date this is the first and only one to get me death threats in response, and I had thought that we Canadian had a healthy sense of humor about ourselves”

  • Re: the british army. What the Brits had, really, was an alliance with a rather brilliant military mind: Tecumsah. The Shawnee had already handed the American army its ass at the battle of Heller’s Corner. Tecumsah, with proper British backing, could easily have made Michigan a province of Canada if the Brits hadn’t been shortsighted and pretty much betrayed their Indian allies. In which case, of course, the Canadian car industry, centered in the provincial capital of Detroit, would have made Canada the world’s greatest automobile power in the 20s and 30s.

    • Dave

      Riiiight, because of all the car-trees that grow in Detroit and nowhere else….

  • Out here in Saskatoon we had fireworks celebrating the Whitecap first nation and the alliance with the British and Canadians in the War of 1812. When the war ended, Detroit was established as American territory and the Dakota were pushed to Minnesota and finally the Canadian prairies
    One reason Canadians identify the war as a victory was because of the great number of colonial troops and natives (Joseph Brant as well as Tecumsah) who fought and won the battles of the Great Lakes. Volunteers moving from New Brunswick to to Ontario in the winter helped established a sense of connection 50 years before confederation.

  • Western Dave

    Concern trolling here: Last year, one of my 10th graders asked if rhetoric around the Fugitive Slave Law had any historical echoes to the impressment problem. I thought this was an absolutely brilliant question and was absolutely stumped. Any connections? John Quincy Adams maybe?

    • Wow.


      That’s a pretty good question. But I have no idea.

    • Lurker

      At the least, considering the limitations of technology and administration in the US, the fugitive slave act reduced every free negro in the US to a person without personal security.

      As far as I know, the question whether a negro was a fugitive slave was decided as a civil case. This means that the person claiming that a negro was a fugitive slave only needed to meet the “preponderance of evidence” standard. In front of a white jury. If the negro was carrying emancipation papers, or had lived at the location since birth, it would be possible for him to prove that he was free. However, outside his home county, he was more or less free game to anyone who was willing to produce a couple of false witnesses to swear that the negro was a fugitive.

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