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The War of 1812: Jefferson's Mad, Mad War

The Upper Canada Assembly called the attack "an act of such astonishing folly and desperation as to be altogether incredible. That a government professing to be the friend of man and the great supporter of his liberty and independence should light the torch of war exhibited a degree of madness altogether incomprehensible."

AT FIRST GLANCE, THE WAR OF 1812 seems ridiculous. It appears to have accomplished nothing, as the Treaty of Ghent merely restored the status quo ante. But this 1,000-day war was a special project of the Jeffersonians, the political party of Virginia, allied with a faction of New York land promoters who together had the electoral clout to run the U.S. for 30 years until the coming of Jacksonian democracy.

The main cause of this war, in the end, was Jefferson's hatred of Britain and his slavish attachment to pre- and post-revolutionary France.

This eloquent drafter of the Declaration of Independence was the son of a slave-owner and tobacco-exporter. A romantic francophile of the first order, he served as Ambassador to France from 1785-89, witnessing the revolution on both sides of the fence: first as a friend of Madame de Stael, salon-keeper and daughter of Louis XVI's finance Minster Jacques Necker, and then as one of its philosophes.

During his five years in France the monarchy was imploding, due in large part to the king's support of the Thirteen Colonies: There were more French troops at Yorktown than American. Jefferson witnessed first hand the bankruptcy of France and the breakdown of the national order. Indeed, he gloried in it and he helped push it to the brink. In 1789, he helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the 17 commandments of the French Revolution, while his friend Joel Barlow wrote pamphlets urging the French to overthrow the monarchy.

Returning home in 1790, Jefferson served as first U.S. Secretary of State under George Washington, whom he increasingly regarded as a stodgy anglophone. Jefferson resigned in 1793, and for the next 20 years, he and his friend and protégé James Madison worked to undermine Washington and his successors -- John Adams of Massachusetts and Alexander Hamilton of New York.

Madison first founded the Republican party, pulling together state and local leaders mainly from New York and the South. He and his chief propagandist, John Beckley, published pamphlets and newspapers criticizing "Hamiltonianism," praising the small American farmer, glorifying the French Revolution, and demonizing Great Britain. Jefferson argued that Jay's Treaty with the British violated the French alliance of 1778 and betrayed a glorious ally. Behind all this lobbying, he and Madison were backed by Edmond-Charles "Citizen" Genêt, the new French Ambassador, who mobilized pro-French sentiment, urged Americans to support France's First Coalition, and outfitted US privateers under the French flag to attack British shipping.

In 1796, the Jeffersonian pamphlet war turned on the Father of the Country himself. Beckley, writing anonymously as "A Calm Observer," directly charged President Washington with stealing public funds. A weary Washington was preparing to resign anyway, appalled by the politics that were being spawned. In his farewell address he warned the Jeffersonians against foreign entanglements. A few months after his death, Jefferson was elected president in what he himself called the Revolution of 1800...

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