Essay: DIVIDED WE STAND: The Unpopularity of U.S. Wars

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Dissent, to be sure, did not go unpunished. A popular saying of the day held that "a Tory is a thing whose head is in England and its body in America, and its neck ought to be stretched." Schoolmasters, physicians and merchants whose only offense was their adherence to Tory principles were all harassed; some were tarred and feathered, others found their homes and property confiscated. Some 100,000 American loyalists fled to Britain or other exile havens. As one group of them departed, General Washington dryly noted that "one or two have done what a great number ought to have done long ago—committed suicide."

War of 1812

But even after the British were defeated, there were still tens of thousands of British sympathizers left along the Eastern Seaboard. And they were still around three decades later when the U.S. indignantly went to war to put an end to Britain's interference with U.S. trade with France, to stop the British navy from kidnaping American sailors and forcing them to serve in the war against Napoleon.

From the very start of the War of 1812, New Englanders made clear that they would have nothing to do with it. They were overwhelmingly hostile to the Southern and Western leaders anxious to retaliate against Britain by marching on Canada. New Englanders not only refused to subscribe heavily to President Madison's war loans, but they invested freely in Britain. They were attracted by the war slogan "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights"—only they forgot about the sailors and concentrated on trade. Thousands of tons of provisions that Britain needed to support Wellington's army were shipped by American merchants in American bottoms from American ports.

A White House visitor during the war described President Madison as looking "miserably shattered and woebegone; his mind is full of the New England sedition." With the British assault on Washington, Madison and his wife were forced to flee the burning capital—an ignominious departure that his political enemies looked upon as the just deserts of his political folly.

Mexican War

Madison became a laughingstock, but after all, his war was a failure. In 1846, President James K. Polk suffered similar humiliation, even though he could claim victory in the end. Egged on by land-hungry Southern planters, he looked for reasons to attack Mexico, in the process pushed the American frontier to the Pacific Ocean. While it raged, Folk's war was the most unpopular in U.S. history.

Throughout most of the country, the prevailing mood was bitterly against the war. Kentucky's Henry Clay, who had fanned the flames of war three decades earlier, now found himself on the side of peace. Said he: "This is no war of defense, but one of unnecessary and offensive aggression." Daniel Webster suggested Folk's impeachment for involving the U.S. in war without congressional consent. It was, Webster insisted, "a war of pretexts"—a pretext that Mexico had invaded U.S. territory, a pretext that Mexico had declined to receive a U.S. emissary, a pretext that Mexico had refused to pay just U.S. claims.

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