“War Hawks” of the Twelfth U.S. Congress, 1812

“War Hawks” is a new coined phrase name for the democratic party that promises to become current in the federal papers. This is manufactured for the purpose of deceiving the people into the impression that the democrats have been desirous of provoking hostilities with England. ..Yet we are “war hawks” for maintaining those rights which we struggled for so long and so successfully, but which those peaceable lambs of federalism would have yielded at once to their much loved “mother Britain.”

The term “war hawk” has always been thought for the past century to have been coined by the prominent Virginia Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke, a staunch opponent of entry into the war in 1812, but now the ownership has been found to be in error.

The phase goes back as early as 1793 prior to the Quasi-War (1797-1800) with France. The phrase is rather an informal Americanism to describe a political position for war to be aggressive by diplomatic and ultimately military means, to improve one’s government or political party. In June 1812, as the nation prepared for a declaration of war against Britain, to was used to described members of the Twelfth U.S. Congress who advocated war against Britain and who had key positions to considerable influence in the course of congressional debates.

The phase has evolved into an informal term usually contrasted with the word dovish, alluding to a peaceful dove, and hark in modern use, describes those, like a bird of prey who seeks war. In Congress, the twenty or so members of the “war hawks” were Democratic-Republicans who had been imbued with the ideals of the American Revolution, and were primarily from southern Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio and the western territories calling for an “Onward to Canada” invasion.

Those for war were mostly Republican-Congressional members who advocated towards war for the interference of the Royal Navy in American commerce of impressment of American sailors and to cripple the American economy and prestige by the English Orders of Council. There was never an “official” list of the war harks, rather it was used to described about a dozen congressional members and no less than the U.S. Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky and John Calhoun of South Carolina, both major players in American politics. Others were Richard Johnson (KY); William Lowndes (SC), Langdon Chevers (SC), Felix Grundy (TN) and William W. Bobb (GA).

Older members of the party led by U.S. President James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallantin tried unsuccessfully to defeat the war hawks movement feeling the nation was not yet prepared for war. Yet, on June 18, 1812 by a vote of 79 to 49 in the U.S. House of Representatives, and of 19 to 13 in the U.S. Senate, war was declared.

Sources: The Maryland Republican, July 15, 1809; The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict by Donald R. Hickey (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

Published in: on April 1, 2011 at 7:35 pm  Comments Off on “War Hawks” of the Twelfth U.S. Congress, 1812  
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