MHS for the Media

MR. MADISON’S WAR: THE CONTROVERSIAL WAR OF 1812

In 1812, Massachusetts was bitterly divided along partisan political lines and a wave of popular protests greeted the declaration of war on 18 June. The Massachusetts Historical Society is commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with an exhibition that examines the controversial nature of the war in Massachusetts and the struggles between the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans.  Open 18 June  through 8 September, Mr. Madison’s War: The Controversial War of 1812 showcases a number of letters, broadsides, artifacts, and images from the Society's rich collections including a midshipman's log of the USS Constitution describing the ship's first great victory, letters written by John Quincy Adams to his mother while serving as the American minister to Russia, and a brass cannon captured from the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

In Massachusetts there was strong opposition to the war, which had a profound effect on the region’s maritime economy. Seaports had suffered through a financially disastrous trade embargo during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, and now Jeffersonian Republicans, under Pres. James Madison, had started a war with the world’s most powerful navy. The development of the controversial political strategy of gerrymandering added to the strife within Massachusetts. Federalists coined the term “Gerrymander” to describe the Republican attempt in Massachusetts to retain power through redistricting, a scheme they attributed to Republican Gov. Elbridge Gerry. A political carton of the salamander-shaped Essex County will be featured in the exhibition.

The failure of the American invasion of Canada in 1812 was offset by dramatic victories at sea by the tiny United States Navy.  Midshipman Frederic Baury served on the frigate Constitution during victorious cruises early in the war, and in 1814 sailed to glory—and into legend—on the sloop Wasp.  Among the many treasures on display is a log from the Constitution kept by Baury describing the ship’s first great victory on 19 August 1812.
 
When the British raided the coast of Massachusetts in the summer of 1814, Gov. Caleb Strong called a special session of the Massachusetts legislature. Antiwar sentiment was so strong that the Union appeared to be in danger. Massachusetts invited the other New England states to send delegates to a meeting in Hartford on 15 December, to draft constitutional amendments that would protect New England interests. Supporters of the war suspected that the convention, meeting in secret, was a secessionist plot. However, a number of the delegates to the convention were political moderates who hoped to forestall the secessionist movement by obtaining concessions from the U.S. Congress. After the Convention adjourned, Governor Strong sent a committee to Washington in an attempt to obtain federal funds for the defense of Massachusetts. The delegation was ridiculed in a Republican cartoon that will be on display. The cartoon depicts the three men sailing to Washington in a vessel resembling a chamber pot.
   
Almost from the moment that war began, President Madison attempted to end hostilities through diplomacy, but both sides were reluctant to make concessions until after they suffered military setbacks. Great Britain rejected a Russian offer to mediate in 1813, but early in 1814 both sides agreed to send envoys to Ghent in Belgium. John Quincy Adams led the team of delegates from the U. S. Although the negotiators were unable to fully resolve any of the issues that had led to war, a preliminary peace treaty was signed on Christmas Eve 1814. Visitors will be able to examine a letter Adams wrote to his mother on the very same day informing her of the end of the war.
   
Because of the slow pace of communications in the early 19th century, the conflict continued into 1815, with the American victory at New Orleans on 8 January and the last naval engagement in the East Indies on 30 June.