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National Elections of 1812

National Elections of 1812


War Hawks. In the congressional elections of 1810 a younger generation of Republicans from the South and West entered Congress determined to defend the nations honor against impressment, trade restrictions, and other policies designed to assert Britains dominance over her former colonies. Thirty-four-year-old Henry Clay of Kentucky, chosen Speaker of the House, filled important committee posts in the Twelfth Congress (18111813) with fellow War Hawks, as the Federalists called them, who pushed Congress to pass measures strengthening the army and navy in preparation for war. President James Madisons third Annual Message to Congress in November 1811, reporting the failure of diplomacy and urging Congress to pass legislation for military preparedness, indicates that Madison was moving closer to war. In April 1812 Congress, at Madisons request, approved an embargo in the hope that last-minute diplomatic developments might prevent war and to allow American ships to return home in case war was declared. The following month the Republican congressional caucus, controlled by the war hawks, unanimously renominated Madison for president. With the death of Vice President George Clinton in April, the caucus turned to Elbridge Gerry, recently defeated for reelection as governor of Massachusetts, as their vice-presidential nominee. In June, Congress declared war against Great Britain. After a series of military disasters in this first year of the War of 1812, Madison sought re-election, opposed by a member of his own party.

Federalist Challenge. As they had in 1808, the Young Federalists decided that national organization was necessary to challenge the Republicans. Federalists from eleven states met in New York in September 1812. Massachusetts Federalists, led by Harrison Gray Otis, supported DeWitt Clinton of New York, nephew of George Clinton and an antiadministration Republican who hoped to draw support from both Republicans and Federalists. New York Federalists, led by Rufus King, opposed an alliance with Clinton and recommended a separate Federalist ticket. Southern Federalists favored Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall of Virginia. The convention endorsed Otiss resolution against nominating a Federalist candidate but did not formally nominate Clinton. Instead, the delegates adjourned with the understanding that Clinton would get some Federalist support in each state, and that a formal nomination would be left to Federalists in the key state of Pennsylvania. The convention nominated Jared Ingersoll, a moderate Pennsylvania Federalist, for vice president. Clinton, hoping to gain votes from Federalists and Republicans, criticized the war to Federalists and criticized Madisons handling of the war to Republicans.

Madison Survives. The Young Federalists succeeded in making the presidential election of 1812 closer than the elections of 1804 and 1808, but their decision to support a Republican candidate was ultimately unsuccessful.

Madison won with 128 electoral votes to Clintons 89. Clinton carried New York, New Jersey, Delaware, all of New England except Vermont, and 5 of Marylands 11 electoral votes, but he failed to draw enough votes in Pennsylvania. The Federalists did much better in congressional elections, nearly doubling their representation in the Thirteenth Congress (18131815), and on the local level, where Federalist candidates won legislative and gubernatorial elections in more states than Clinton carried. Opposition to the War of 1812 and the military failures of the conflict increased Federalist unity and resulted in greater state electoral victories in 1813 and 1814. But the Federalists were still very much a minority party with little chance of challenging the policies of the Madison administration or defending their interests against the growing political influence of the new western states. By 1814 New England Federalists were reviving the idea of secession and the formation of a northern confederacy as one option to protect their interests.


David Hackett Fischer, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965);

Eugene H. Roseboom and Alfred E. Eckes Jr., A History of Presidential Elections, fourth edition (New York: Collier, 1979);

Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic, 18011815 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968).

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