Two centuries ago this month, the United States of America completed a fourteen-year series of blunders by starting an unnecessary war that led to the destruction of the capital, embarrassing defeats in what is now the Midwest, a peace that solved none of the issues that started the war in the first place, and a battle (two weeks after the peace was signed) that inflicted Andrew Jackson upon the nation. The events from 1798 to 1815 are a clear-as-crystal warning from history of the dangers of geopolitical naivete, “non-intervention,” and general disinterest in foreign affairs that, sadly, still find favor in far too many classical liberals today. That their prominent political progenitors (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) were forced to jettison nearly every belief they had in limited government to justify Adams’ mistake is an irony so painful it is clearly lost on them.
Normally, when it comes to a major foreign policy decision, it is about an action taken – usually a war. This is one of those rare instances where we can examine the effects of a war not undertaken: in this case, a 1798 war with France. Much of the arguments against war (outside of the ones openly sympathetic to the tyrannical “Republic” in Paris) became “non-intervention” mainstays: the risk of state expansion, the preference for a foreign policy based on commerce only, the value of diplomacy, and the danger of lost blood and treasure. What the events after 1798 reveal is that non-intervention does not take place in a vacuum. In fact, it is quite clear that the decision not to go to war with France made the very fears aforementioned come true – and then gave us a war with France’s enemy to boot.
For example: Government power growing and danger to commerce didn’t need a war with France to rear their ugly heads. Jefferson himself, in a desperate attempt to avoid the merchant marine getting slammed by both France and Great Britain, convinced Congress to pass the hideous Embargo Act of 1807, easily the most intrusive peace-time economic measure this side of Obamacare. Commerce was ground to a halt not due to war, but ostensibly to prevent one. Ditto the expansion of government power. By contrast, Great Britain would have certainly maintained and protected US trade had we been at war with France (lest we forget, Britain herself had been at war with France since 1793).
Meanwhile, diplomacy and concern for loss of men and resources in battle is essentially laid waste by the actual War of 1812, in which we took on a much more formidable enemy (Great Britain as she defeated Napoleon) than we would have faced in 1798 (a weakened French Directorate that had sent Napoleon to Egypt). A War of 1798 would have likely meant the easy seizure of Louisiana (instead of paying $15 million five years later) as well as American possessions in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, most of the reasons for war with Britain in 1812 would have been resolved quickly years before that. London would have hardly considered Royal Navy deserters to American ships as a mortal threat if said deserters were still fighting the French (albeit under different colors). Border issues in re Canada would have been transformed from interesting geopolitics to useless distractions drawing men and arms away from the common enemy. As mentioned before, Great Britain would now consider American commerce abroad as a value to be protected, rather than a problem to be fought.
Would the War of 1798 have been unpopular in some areas? Yes, including most likely Virginia. Would it have been worse than the controversy surrounding the War of 1812? Only those with no knowledge of New England would even ask the question.
In short, the alternative to war is not always “peace.” It can often be twisted policies that surrender the very things peace was supposed to protect and a different war against the wrong adversary. In the case of War of 1798, its avoidance led America to both, the latter being the lamentable War of 1812.
Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon