On this day 200 years ago President James Madison declared war on Great Britain, commencing the War of 1812, a conflict that must have meant very different things to different people. I imagine that Canadians viewed the War as an attempted land grab by upstart Americans and I know that the British viewed it as an annoyance by pesky Americans occurring when the far greater threat, Napoleon, deserved all of their attention. As an English historian, I never really gave the War of 1812 much consideration, but living here in Salem one can’t help but see its lasting impact. The people of Salem in particular, and coastal New England in general, were bitterly opposed to the War, nearly to the point of secession. They believed that it would spell the end of their commercial ascendancy, and they were right.
Salem and other ports up and down the Eastern seaboard had already suffered from the policies of the preceding Jefferson administration, most notably the Embargo Act of 1807, and Madison’s war was seen as a continuation of these anti-commercial (and anti-American?) policies. One of the most often-cited causes of the War, the impressment of thousands of American seamen by the British Navy, apparently did not rally Salem to the cause, if this 1813 Salem Gazette article is any indication.
I’ve cropped a much larger document from the Library of Congress; it’s difficult to read from the scan, but this article consists of two comparative columns regarding the fates of “Impressed Seamen from Salem” (their parentheses, not mine): the official story and then “the facts”, which seem to conclude that the seamen in question were simply deserters or otherwise unaccounted for. This article is implicitly (explicitly?) accusing the US government of perpetuating a hoax on its citizenry in order to rationalize war with Britain, an accusation that doesn’t seem very extreme if you examine the words and deeds of Salem’s opposition Federalist party over the previous decade. Salem’s leading Federalist was the eminent Timothy Pickering (1745-1829), former Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Senator and current Congressman, pictured below in a contemporary caricature of the Hartford Convention, comprising the New England opposition to the War. Kneeling before King George III in the center, Pickering is given the words: I, strongly and most fervently pray for the success of this great leap which will change my vulgar name into that of my Lord of Essex. God Save the King. No wonder that he and his associates were accused of being “Blue-Light Federalists”, traitors who signalled to British ships with blue lights from the New England shores. The Federalist Party would never recover from that accusation, in Salem or elsewhere.
Besides political opposition, the other major role played by Salemites during the War of 1812 was that of more proactive privateering. Captain George Coggeshall’s History of the American Privateers and Letters-of-Marque during our War with England in the Years 1812, ’13, and ’14 (1844) is full of the exploits of Salem privateering vessels, including the Polly, the Snowbird, the Buckskin, the Montgomery, the John, the Revenge, the Dolphin, and the justly-famous Fame. I particularly liked this passage about the Dolphin which Coggeshall culled from the Salem Gazette: the privateer Dolphin, after a successful cruise of 20 days, returned to Salem on the 23rd of July. The Dolphin has taken six prizes without receiving the smallest injury. She was reportedly chased by the English at one time for 24 hours, but finally escaped. She has treated her prisoners with the greatest kindness. In rowing away from men-of-war, she found great aid from their voluntary assistance. The prisoners said they had much rather go to America than return aboard a British man-of-war.” The Fame had similar success before her shipwreck in 1814, and a reproduction Fame has been embarking on cruises around Salem Harbor for nearly a decade. Her Captain, Michael Rutstein, has recently published an illustrated history of Salem privateers entitled The Privateering Stroke: Salem’s Privateers in the War of 1812.
Ultimately what become known as the War of 1812 ended in a draw in 1814, with lessons learned on both sides. For the Americans, I think the most important lesson was: it’s not enough to just grow or sell things, we’ve got to MAKE things (like Great Britain). So Salem’s commercial heyday was over, but its industrial era was just about to begin.