1812: "To Their Constituents, on the Subject of War with Great-Britain"

Cropped view of an engraving recolored in light greyscale tones shows the USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon on the water

The Federalists in the House of Representatives opposed the Congressional declaration of war in 1812. Before the Senate had voted for war, these dissenting members signed a public letter, explaining their position. Mostly written by John Quincy Adams (son of former President John Adams), this dissent was published in multiple editions of pamphlet forms and also printed in the majority of newspapers in America.

June 1812

Thirty-four Members of the US House of Representatives: from “An Address of the Minority to Their Constituents, on the Subject of War with Great-Britain 

The undersigned, Members of the House of Representatives, to their respective constituents: 

A Republic has for its basis the capacity and right of the people to govern themselves. A main principle of a Representative Republic is the responsibility of the Representatives to their constituents. Freedom and publicity of debate are essential to the preservation of such forms of Government. Every arbitrary abridgment of the right of speech in Representatives, is a direct infringement of the liberty of the people. Every unnecessary concealment of their proceedings, an approximation towards tyranny. When, by systematic rules, a majority takes to itself the right, at its pleasure, of limiting speech, or denying it altogether; when secret sessions multiply; and in proportion to the importance of questions, is the studious concealment of debate, a people may be assured that, such practices continuing, their freedom is but short-lived. 

Reflections, such as these, have been forced upon the attention of the undersigned, Members of the House of Representatives of the United States, by the events of the present sessions of Congress. They have witnessed a principle adopted as the law of the House, by which, under a novel application of the previous question, a power is assumed by the majority to deny the privilege of speech, at any stage, and under any circumstances of debate. And recently, by an unprecedented assumption, the right to give reasons for an original motion has been made to depend upon the will of the majority. 

Principles more hostile than these to the existence of Representative liberty, cannot easily be conceived. It is not, however, on these accounts, weighty as they are, that the undersigned have undertaken this address. A subject of higher and more immediate importance impels them to the present duty. 

The momentous question of war with Great Britain, is decided. On this topic, so vital to your interests, the right of public debate in the face of the world, and especially of their constituents, has been denied to your Representatives. They have been called into secret session, on this most interesting of all your public relations, although the circumstances of the time, and of the nation, afforded no one reason for secrecy, unless it be found in the apprehension of the effect of public debate on public opinion; or of public opinion on the result of the vote. 

Except the Message of the President of the United States, which is now before the public, nothing confidential was communicated. The Message contained no fact, not previously known. No one reason for war was intimated, but such as was of a nature public and notorious. The intention to wage war and invade Canada, had been long since openly avowed. The object of hostile menace had been ostentatiously announced. The inadequacy of both our Army and Navy, for successful invasion, and the insufficiency of the fortifications for the security of our seaboard, were everywhere known. Yet the doors of Congress were shut upon the people. They have been carefully kept in ignorance of the progress of measures, until the purposes of Administrations were consummated, and the fate of the country sealed. In a situation so extraordinary, the undersigned have deemed it their duty by no act of theirs to sanction a proceeding so novel and arbitrary. On the contrary they made every attempt in their power to attain publicity for their proceedings. All such attempts were in vain. When this momentous subject was stated as for debate, they demanded that the doors should be opened. This being refused, they declined discussion; being perfectly convinced, from indications too plain to be misunderstood, that in the House all arguments with closed doors was hopeless; and that any act, giving implied validity to so flagrant an abuse of power, would be little less than treachery to the essential rights of a free people. In the situation to which the undersigned have thus been reduced, they are compelled reluctantly to resort to this public declaration of such views of the state and relations of the country, as determined their judgment and vote upon the question of war. A measure of this kind has appeared to the undersigned to be more imperiously demanded, by the circumstance of a message and manifesto being prepared, and circulated at public expense, in which the causes for war were enumerated, and the motives for it concentrated, in a manner suited to agitate and influence the public mind. In executing this task, it will be the study of the undersigned to reconcile the duty they owe to the people, with that constitutional respect, which is due to the administrators of public concerns. 

In commencing this view of our affairs, the undersigned would fail in duty to themselves, did they refrain from recurring to the course in relations to public measures, which they adopted and have undeviatingly pursued from the commencement of this long and eventful session; in which they deliberately sacrificed every minor consideration to what they deemed the best interests of the country. 

For a succession of years, the undersigned have from principle disapproved a series of restrictions upon commerce, according to their estimation, inefficient as respected foreign nations, and injurious chiefly to ourselves. Success, in the system, had become identified with the pride, the character, and the hope of our Cabinet. As is natural with men, who have a great stake depending on the success of a favorite theory, pertinacity seemed to increase as its hopelessness became apparent. As the inefficiency of this system could not be admitted, by its advocates, without insuring its abandonment, ill success was carefully attributed to the influence of opposition.  

To this cause the people were taught to charge is successive failures, and not its intrinsic imbecility. In this state of things, the undersigned deemed it proper to take away all apology for adherence to this oppressive system. They were desirous, at a period so critical in public affairs, as far as was consistent with the independence of opinion, to contribute to the restoration of harmony in the public councils, and concord among the people. And if any advantage could be thus obtained in our foreign relations, the undersigned, being engaged in no purpose of personal or party advancement, would rejoice in such an occurrence.  

The course of public measures also, at the opening of the session, gave hope that an enlarged and enlightened system of defence, with provision for security of our maritime rights, was about to be commenced; a purpose, which wherever found, they deemed it their duty to foster by giving into any system of measures, thus comprehensive, as unobstructed a course as was consistent with their general sense of public duty. After a course of policy thus liberal and conciliatory, it was cause of regret that a communication should have been purchased by an unprecedented expenditure of secret service money, and used by the Chief Magistrate to disseminate suspicion and jealousy; and to excite resentment among the citizens, by suggesting imputations against a portion of them, as unmerited by their patriotism, as unwarranted by evidence. 

It has always been the opinion of the undersigned, that a system of peace was the policy, which most comported with the character, condition, and interest of the United States; that their remoteness from the theatre of contest in Europe was their peculiar felicity, and that nothing but a necessity, absolutely imperious, should induce them to enter as parties into wars, in which every consideration of virtue and policy seems to be forgotten, under the overbearing sway of rapacity and ambition. There is a new era in human affairs.  The European world is convulsed. The advantages of our own situation are peculiar. “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?” 

In addition to the many moral and prudential considerations, which should deter thoughtful men from hastening into the perils of such a war, there were some peculiar to the United States, resulting from the texture of Government and the political relations of the people. A form of government in no small degree experimental, composed of powerful and independent sovereignties, associated in relations, some of which are critical, as well as novel, should not be hastily precipitated into situations, calculated to put to trial the strength of the moral bond, by which they are united. Of all states, that of war is most likely to call into activity the passions, which are hostile and dangerous to such a form of government. Time is yet important to our country to settle and mature its recent institutions. Above all, it appeared to the undersigned, from signs not to be mistaken, that if we entered upon this war, we did it as a divided people; not only from a sense of the inadequacy of our means to success, but from moral and political objections of great weight and very general influence.  

It appears to the undersigned, that the wrongs, of which the United States have to complain, although in some aspects very grievous to our interests, and in many humiliating to our pride, were yet of a nature which, in the present state of the world, either would not justify war, or which war would not remedy. Thus, for instance, the hovering of British vessels upon our coasts, and the occasional insults to our ports, imperiously demanded such a systematic application of harbor and seacoast defence, as would repel such aggression, but, in no light can they be considered as making a resort to war, at the present time, on the part of the United States, either necessary or expedient. So, also, with respect to the Indian war, of the origin of which but very imperfect information has yet been given to the public. Without any express act of Congress, an expedition was, last year, set on foot and prosecuted into the Indian Territory, which had been relinquished by treaty, on the part of the United States. And now we are told about agency of British traders, as to Indian hostilities. It deserves consideration, which there has been such provident attention, as would have been proper to remove any cause of complaint, either real or imaginary, which the Indians might allege, and to secure their friendship. With all the sympathy and anxiety by the state of that frontier, important as it may be, to apply adequate means of protection against the Indians, how is its safety insured by a declaration of war, which adds the British to the number of enemies? 

A nation like the United States, happy in its local relations; removed from the bloody theatre of Europe; with a maritime border, opening a vast field for enterprise; with territorial possessions exceeding every real want; its firesides safe; its altars undefiled; from invasion nothing to fear; from acquisition nothing to hope; how shall such a nation look to Heaven for its smiles, while throwing away, as though they were worthless, all the blessings and joys which peace and such a distinguished lot include? With what prayers can it address the Most High, when it prepares to pour forth its youthful rage upon a neighboring people; from whole strength it has nothing to dread, from whose devastation it has nothing to gain? 

If our ills were of a nature that war would remedy; if war would compensate any of our losses, or remove any of our complaints, there might be some alleviation of the suffering, in the charm of the prospect. But how will war upon the land protect commerce upon the ocean? What balm has Canada for wounded honor? How are our mariners benefitted by a war, which exposes those who are free, without promising release to those who are impressed? 

But it is said that war is demanded by honor. Is national honor a principle, which thirsts after vengeance, and is appeased only by blood, which, trampling on the hopes of man, and spurning the law of God, untaught by wha tis past and careless of what is to come, precipitates itself into any folly of madness, to gratify a selfish vanity or to satiate some unhallowed rage? If honor demand a war with England what opiate lulls that honor to sleep over the wrongs done us by France? On land, robberies, seizures, imprisonments, by French authority; at sea, pillage, sinkings, burnings, under French orders. These are notorious. Are they unfelt because they are French? Is any alleviation to be found in the correspondence and humiliations of the present Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to the French Court? In his communications to our Government, as before the public, where is the cause for now selecting France as the friend of our country, and England as the enemy? 

If no illusion of personal feeling, and no solicitude for elevation of place, should be permitted to misguide the public councils; if it is indeed honorable for the true statesman to consult the public welfare, to provide in truth for the public defence, and to impose no yoke of bondage; with full knowledge of the wrongs inflicted by the French, ought the Government of this country to aid the French cause, by engaging in war against the enemy of France? To supply the waste of such a war, and to meet the appropriation of millions extraordinary for the war expenditures, must our fellow-citizens, throughout the Union, be doomed to sustain the burden of war-taxes, in various forms of direct and indirect imposition? For official information, respecting the millions deemed requisite for charges of the war; for like information, respecting the nature and amount of taxes deemed requisite for drawing those millions from the community, it is here sufficient to refer to the estimates and reports made by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Committee of Ways and Means, and to the body of resolutions, passed in March last, in the House of Representatives. 

It would be some relief to our anxiety, if amends were likely to be made for the weakness and wildness of the project, by the prudence of the preparation. But in no aspect of this anomalous affair can we trace the great and distinctive properties of wisdom. There is seen a headlong rushing into difficulties, with little calculation about the means, and little concern about the consequences. With a navy comparatively nominal, we are about to enter into the lists against the greatest marine on the globe. With a commerce unprotected and spread over every ocean, we propose to make profit by privateering, and for this endanger the wealth of which we are honest proprietors. An invasion is threatened of the colonies of a Power which, without putting a new ship into commission, or taking another soldier into pay, can spread alarm and desolation along the extensive range of our seaboard. The resources of our country, in their natural state, great beyond our wants or our hopes, are impaired by the effect of artificial restraints. Before adequate fortifications are prepared for domestic defence; before men, or money, are provided for a war of attack, why hasten into the midst of that awful contest which is laying waste to Europe? It cannot be concealed, that to engage in the present war against England is to place ourselves on the side of France, and exposes us to the vassalage of States serving under the banners of the French Emperor. 

The undersigned cannot refrain from asking, what are the United States to gain by this war? Will the gratification of some privateersmen compensate the nation for that sweep of our legitimate commerce by the extended marine of our enemy, which this desperate act invites? Will Canada compensate the Middle State for New York; or the Western States for New Orleans? Let us not be deceived. A war of invasion may invite a retort of invasion. When we visit the peaceable, and as to us innocent, colonies of Great Britain with the horrors of war, can we be assured that our own coasts will not be visited with like horrors? At a crisis of the world such as the present, and under impressions such as these, the undersigned could not consider the war, in which the United States have in secret been precipitated, as necessary, or required by any moral duty, or any political expediency.  


Published in The War of 1812: Writings from America's Second War of Independence (New York: Library of America, 2013), Pages 46-53.