Trinity Professor Details Connecticut's Opposition To War Of 1812
If you thought Connecticut residents disagreed about the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, the arguments were nothing compared to the War of 1812, said Trinity College history professor Eugene Leach.
"There was serious consideration of secession and Connecticut's governor disobeyed a direct federal order," Leach noted during his lecture, "America's Most Unpopular War: Dissension, Debate And The War of 1812" at the Old State House Tuesday.
"In December 1814, representatives from all the New England states met right here to talk secession," Leach recounted, gesturing around the room. "Fortunately, the Treaty of Ghent ended the war a week later."
Leach spoke Tuesday as part of the Old State House's "Conversations At Noon" series, with his lecture timed to the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812's declaration last month.
Leach contended that the fervent opposition could be explained primarily by pronounced regional differences.
"Geographically, New England was the only region unable to expand, with Canada up north and ocean to the east," Leach said. "But while New England thrived on friendly trans-Atlantic trade relations with Europe, the other regions thrived on expansion, and thus, conflict."
After the British decreed "the Orders in Council" to restrict American trade with France, President Thomas Jefferson countered with an embargo closing domestic ports to international commerce. This "economic warfare" inadvertently hurt America more than Europe. The value of American exports plummeted from $108 million to $22 million in one year, particularly affecting New England.
When war was declared, Connecticut Gov. Roger Griswold refused President James Madison's federal order to nationalize state militias. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Madison's favor, now considered a critical legal precedent regarding division of federal and state powers.
Great Britain's subsequent naval blockade of the American east coast exempted New England, likely as a reward.
"Griswold's stand was not intended as treason," Leach contended, "but as a quarantine from what was perceived as the viruses of the time."
A panel discussion afterwards featured Leach; Nancy Steenburg, assistant director of the Bachelor of General Studies program at the University of Connecticut; and former Courant columnist Susan Campbell.
"A British naval blockade right outside American shores," Steenburg said, "was like Al Qaeda right outside a subway."
Steenburg claimed that the Hartford Convention, led primarily by leaders of the state Federalist party, backfired and "ultimately killed Federalist power in Connecticut." Indeed, despite seven consecutive Federalist governors at the time, none were elected again.
Campbell referenced the Courant's hardly-impartial coverage during the era. "Their news articles were openly critical of the war," Campbell noted, "not in the opinion section, but on the front page. The idea of unbiased journalism is relatively new in American history."
"Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Connecticut dissension in the War of 1812," Leach concluded, "is that not the fringe, but the center was most vocally opposed."
Posted by John William Tuohy