We left Europe in turmoil following the French Revolution, and now we’ll see how the effects rippled outward, all across the world. In the United States, attitudes to the French Revolution generally split along party lines. Thomas Jefferson and his Democrat-Republicans were fine with killing a king occasionally, and they were still grateful to America’s old ally France for helping free them from the British. Jefferson served as the American envoy to France during the French Revolution and he had helped Lafayette write the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
The Federalists, on the other hand, held a businessman’s fear of revolution by the masses, and they appreciated America’s traditional roots in (and profitable trade with) Great Britain. While Federalists like George Washington and John Adams were in charge, the United States was decidedly pro-British and anti-Jacobin. In fact, during the French Revolution, the United States stopped paying its war debt to France, arguing that the debt was owed to the king (deceased) and the crown (toppled) and not to the hooligans who had taken control of the French nation.
In 1794, a controversial treaty negotiated by special envoy John Jay patched up America’s disputes with Great Britain, but angrily divided American public opinion. Protests erupted. Effigies of Jay were hanged and burned all across the United States. The debate grew so heated that, after Frederick Muhlenberg, America’s first Speaker of the House, cast the tie-breaking vote as chairman of the House committee that ratified the treaty, his brother-in-law stabbed him while arguing with him about it later.
Since the Jay Treaty settled America’s differences with the British amicably, the French decided that this made the Americans allies of Britain and fair game for a trade war. The French broke diplomatic relations with the United States and authorized their privateers to seize American commercial shipping. The US started retaliating in July 1798 and for the next couple of years, France and America regularly hijacked each other’s civilian shipping and blasted each other’s warships. It was called the Quasi War because it was never formally declared, planned or coordinated. At least 2000 ships changed hands and 300 men were killed and wounded in ship-to-ship broadsides before everyone got tired of it and agreed to stop in September 1800.ⓐ
in all, this did not bode well for the future relations
between democracies. In 1798, there were only two democracies
in the world, thousands of miles apart, yet somehow they had
gotten into a war with each other. Not a great selling point
for a new, untested form of government.
But hang on. Does Revolutionary France even count as a democracy?
In one sense, it was democratic by definition. For the next hundred years, whenever people used the word “democracy”, they specifically meant a society like Revolutionary France with all the baggage that carried -- noisy debate, universal voting rights and popular sovereignty of course, but also mob rule, obnoxiously defamatory press and the guillotine – much the same way we mean the Soviet Union and not the idealized society envisioned by Karl Marx when we say “communist”.
And they were sort of right. Between the fall of King Louis XVI and the rise of Napoleon, all the forms of democratic governing were in place, even if they didn’t always function as well as we might hope. In fact, for some of those years, Revolutionary France briefly settled into levels of democratic governance that compared favorably to anything else the world would see before the 20th Century. From the Constitution of 1791 until the sans-culottes took over the Convention by force (that is, from September 1791 to June 1793) the country functioned rather democratically, as it did again from August 1795 to September 1797 under the Constitution of Year III until the Coup of 18 Fructidor when the Directory decided to nullify elections that didn’t go their way.
On the other hand, France during the Revolution was definitely not democratic by today’s standards. Aside from gender and taxpaying qualifications for voting rights, and rampant capital punishment for political crimes, the nation was too shaky and volatile to establish stable democratic rule for very long.
In 1801 Thomas Jefferson became president of the United States, which shifted the United States from the pro-British to the pro-French side of the field. The most immediately visible result of this was that Napoleon sold Louisiana to Jefferson in order to raise some quick cash and to unload a vast territory that was useless to him as long as the British navy kept him from properly exploiting it. This instantly doubled the size of the United States.
As we saw with the Quasi War, America had difficulty staying out of the European wars because both France and Britain used blockades and embargoes to weaken their enemies. America had the largest neutral merchant fleet and was trading profitably with both sides, much to the annoyance of the great powers. On the high seas and along the coasts of continental Europe, the British tried to bully the Americans into doing what they were told and not undermining the British war effort.
On top of their blockades, tariffs, fees, searches and long lists of contraband, the British practice of impressment was especially nettlesome to the Americans. To keep their warships fully staffed in times of crisis, the British navy sent press gangs to fill personnel gaps by rudely seizing trained seamen anywhere they found them – inns, docks, pubs and the street. Since navy pay was lower and discipline stricter than on merchant ships, few would do it voluntarily. The navy only wanted experienced crews and British subjects, so landsmen and foreigners were theoretically immune from impressment. Most commonly, however, ships of the Royal Navy needing to restaff would simply draft skilled British crewmen off whatever merchant ships they encountered on the high seas.
A problem arose over the legal status of American crewmen born in Britain. The American government considered British-Americans serving on American ships to be under American jurisdiction and exempt from impressment, but the British government considered them to be British subjects required to serve the King when called. The manpower hunger caused by the Napoleonic Wars had resulted in the Royal Navy taking some 9,000 sailors of disputed citizenship from American merchant ships.
On June 1, 1812 in a speech to Congress, President James Madison, a Democrat-Republican, poured out all the grievances that America had accumulated against Britain. Although he did not specifically call for war, the House of Representatives went into closed session and emerged four days later with a close vote declaring war against Britain. The Senate followed on June 17 with its own close vote for war. The next day, Madison signed the declaration.① The Federalists however were firmly against war with Britain. None had voted for it, and riots broke out in Baltimore, where pro-war mobs attacked a Federalist newspaper that wrote against the war.
Unrelated to the unfolding crisis, British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated on May 11 by a crazy man who was angry at the prime minister for ignoring his petitions. The replacement prime minister, Lord Liverpool, formed a new government on June 8, planning to shift to a more conciliatory path with the United States. On June 23, the British government revoked the annoying laws that prohibited American trade with enemy-occupied Europe, but because of the slow sailing across the Atlantic, the Americans didn’t know any of this. Instead, they invaded Canada.
For about a month, the British government went happily about its business, assuming that the crisis was over. Then on July 30, the American declaration of war arrived in London. This was soon followed by news that the British troops in Canada were already fighting Americans all around the Great Lakes. There was no turning back now.
For the next couple of years, poorly led American armies kept banging uselessly up against Canada, failing to make any deep dent in the British forces, while British forces were having the same weak results when attacking southward into Michigan and Ohio. A British fleet sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, scattered the local militia and sacked Washington while President Madison hid in the countryside. The British follow-up assault against Baltimore was beaten back at Fort McHenry but the president’s reputation was about as low as possible.
The disgruntled Federalist opposition organized the Hartford Convention in 1814, and met in secret for three weeks. No minutes of the meeting were kept, but some delegates openly suggested that New England secede from the Union to escape the war and the growing power of the slave-holding states. That talk went nowhere, but the Federalists were so determined to end the war that they bypassed official channels and sent their own ambassadors to negotiate peace with the British.
As it turned out, official channels succeeded in ending the war eventually. When the peace treaty was finally signed at Ghent on December 24, 1814, it was little more than an agreement to stop fighting and go back to the status quo ante-bellum. The Americans had scored enough little victories here and there to produce new patriotic songs and a fresh generation of war heroes, but overall, the result of the war was a big zero.
Then came Andrew Jackson’s stunning victory at New Orleans, the bloodiest battle of the war. At the climax of the battle on January 8, 1815, lines of advancing British were cut apart by American muskets and cannon, and the most strategic single point in North America was saved. The battle was entirely unnecessary in military terms since the peace treaty had already been signed, although news of the treaty was still traveling slowly across the ocean from the conference in the Netherlands; therefore, news of the victory at New Orleans arrived in American cities before news of the peace treaty, so it sounded like Andrew Jackson single-handedly won the war and kept the British from reconquering the young nation. In political terms, it changed the war from a pointless stalemate to a glorious victory in “The Second War of Independence”. It made the war suddenly popular in hindsight, so now the electorate turned against the defeatist traitors who had opposed the war. The Federalist Party collapsed, leaving the US a one-party state for a while.
Thus began the Era of Good Feelings, so-called because there wasn’t all that loud partisan bickering that poisons political discourse in multiparty nations. In 1820 the new Democrat-Republican president James Monroe was reelected without opposition, only one vote short of unanimous (one elector broke ranks simply because he personally disliked Monroe).
It wasn’t just North America that was being buffeted by winds from Europe. When Napoleon conquered Spain in 1808, the Spanish colonies were left to fend for themselves. They got used to it pretty quickly and were less docile when the Spanish tried to take them back after the war. Within ten years, all the Spanish colonies on the American mainland had staked out their independence.
The various wars for independence were bloody and complicated. In the province of New Granada (which included Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela), multiple independent rebel armies fought the Spanish - and sometimes each other - from 1813 to 1819. Eventually, all of the rebels lined up behind Simon Bolivar. The bright, bold, inspirational heir of a wealthy Venezuelan family, with proud Creole sideburns, Bolivar ultimately led the nation to victory and independence. The 1821 constitution of New Granada (renamed Gran Colombia) abolished slavery, stripped governmental power from the Catholic Church and the Inquisition and gave the vote to men of property. Although Bolivar believed in self-rule for his people, he did not believe that Spanish America was ready for full unsupervised democracy.
Naturally Bolivar became the first president. Rather than get bogged down actually running things, Bolivar set off to spread more revolution across Latin America, fighting new battles in Peru and getting Bolivia named after him, leaving the day-to-day governing of Gran Columbia to his vice president and revolutionary right hand Francisco de Paula Santander, often writing home to ask Santander to send more soldiers and money.
Bolivar hoped to liberate and unify all of South America into a vast continental republic even though it was difficult enough just holding Gran Colombia together. Vice President Santander suspected that Gran Colombia was too big and heading for a break-up. So was the team of Bolivar and Santander. While Bolivar was off being a hero, Santander was stuck dealing with Congress, squashing incipient counterrevolutions, and trying to build a stable government.
Santander has a decidedly mixed reputation among historians. Although hard-working, methodical and devoutly republican, Santander quickly alienated and annoyed many of his compatriots by also being “sullen, calculating, peevish and far too much in love with money”. ⓑ Without Bolivar watching over him, Santander made many mistakes, like when he panicked over conspiracy rumors and executed a whole jail full of Spanish prisoners that Bolivar had been saving to exchange for American prisoners. Santander generally found support among anti-clerical liberals in their ongoing fight against Catholic conservatives. A former law student, Santander hoped to mold Gran Colombia into a modern nation based on laws and solid democratic principles.
As Santander told the Colombians. “Weapons have given you independence, Laws will give you freedom.”
Santander wanted a federal state with powers spread out locally and clearly limited by the constitution; however, Bolivar felt that the people needed a firm hand. After returning to take charge of Gran Colombia, he constantly bickered with Santander. Finally, Bolivar declared himself dictator in August 1828 and immediately abolished the office of vice-president, stripping all authority from Santander. In September, Bolivar survived an assassination attempt, so he promptly arrested his former vice-president. Since there was no actual evidence that Santander was involved, Bolivar had to let him go and make do with exiling him. Santander later admitted he knew about the plot but wasn’t involved in it.
Towards the end of his life, Bolivar decided that “America is ungovernable… Those who have served the Revolution have plowed the sea.” Even Bolivar’s strong hand had difficulty holding the country together.
In 1830, Bolivar died and Gran Colombia crumbled into the countries we know today. Drifting back from exile, Santander was elected president of (just plain) Colombia. He left office in 1836, and retired to the Senate, but after the voters rejected his chosen successor, his influence dwindled. Santander died in 1840, his historical reputation tarnished by his continuous squabbling with Bolivar and by several bad decisions while in charge. These two contrary founding fathers would become the spiritual forerunners of the two parties that came to dominate politics in Colombia – Bolivar for the Conservatives and Santander for the Liberals.
ⓐ Casualties in the Quasi War. French: L’Insurgente, 70 K&W (Feb. 1799). Le Berceau, 52 K&W. Vengeance, 100 K&W (Feb. 1800). American: Navy: 14 KIA, 31 WIA. Marines: 6 KIA, 11 WIA. TOTAL: 62 US, 222 FR.
ⓑ Marie Arana, Bolivar: American Liberator (Simon and Schuster, 2013) p. 241
Copyright © January 2018 by Matthew White