As we watched a crazed mob break into the Capitol Building a year ago, commentators quickly turned to the War of 1812 to attempt to contextualize the scenes of violence unfolding on our screens. In 1814, British forces occupied Washington, D.C., setting fire to public buildings that included the White House. The comparison, however, didn't hold up to scrutiny. The War of 1812 was a conflict between two sovereign nations; it was not an act of treason in which American citizens attacked their own government. The British attack in 1814 adhered to the accepted rules of war; the invasion of the Capitol was an assault on the rule of law.
A year later, the analogy looks no better, particularly when we compare the political fortunes of the GOP in 2021 and the Federalist Party after 1815. President Trump whipped up his supporters into a frenzy that led to their occupation of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. While the Federalist Party was not complicit in the British invasion of 1814, some of its members did discuss secession from the United States at the Hartford Convention to allow them to negotiate their own peace with the British Empire.
These two acts of treason, however, resulted in vastly different political outcomes. The Hartford Convention killed the Federalist Party, while the party of Trump seems to have emerged newly emboldened from the invasion of the Capitol.
The War of 1812 was a Democratic-Republican project. The party of Thomas Jefferson (and antecedent of the present-day Democratic Party) controlled the White House and Congress in 1812. Jefferson's protégé, President James Madison, asked Congress to declare war in 1812 for a smorgasbord of reasons, ranging from the British Royal Navy's impressment of American sailors to the British Empire's alleged "incitement" of Native resistance to U.S. colonization in the West.
Party politics was also part of Madison's calculation. After Jefferson's victory in the election of 1800, the Federalist Party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton had found itself in the political wilderness for over a decade. But cracks were beginning to appear in the Democratic-Republic Party. Jefferson's trade embargo, intended to force Great Britain to recognize the U.S.'s neutral trading rights during the Napoleonic Wars, was proving deeply unpopular among ordinary Americans. The Federalist Party finally began to make gains in the midterm elections of 1810, and Madison's supporters in Congress grew nervous about what would happen in 1812. Not for the last time, an American president went to war to unite his party.
Federalist opposition to the war had reached a fever pitch by the fall of 1814. The conflict had devastated the maritime economy of New England, which was the party's political base. And the humiliating occupation of Washington, D.C., underlined the incompetence of the Madison administration's conduct of the war. Something needed to be done.
New England Federalists met at Hartford, Connecticut, in December 1814 to discuss their common defense and constitutional amendments that would increase their power within the Union. But the Hartford Convention became known as a hotbed of treason, with some delegates raising the prospect of New England secession.
The timing of the Hartford Convention could not have been worse. British and American diplomats signed a peace treaty on Christmas Eve 1814, while Andrew Jackson won his famous victory at the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815. Rumors of Federalist duplicity then spread around the country at the same time that Americans were celebrating peace and Jackson's victory. It was not a good look, and the Hartford Convention dealt a death blow to the Federalist Party, which did not field a presidential candidate after 1816.
The Hartford Convention became known as a hotbed of treason, with some delegates raising the prospect of New England secession.
The implications of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection for the GOP are still unclear. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, some Republican congressional leaders did briefly distance themselves from the insurrectionists and their champion, but the power that Trump exercises over the party seems largely unchallenged a year later. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has done all that he can to stymie the House investigation into Jan. 6, while key individuals like Steve Bannon and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows have stonewalled Congress.
We won't know whether the Republican Party will pay a political price for the Jan. 6 insurrection until this November. But, so-called "moderate" Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who have recognized Trump's complicity in the insurrection, have been punished by their own party, while far-right, attention-seekers like Marjorie Taylor Greene have only grown in power. All indications are that the GOP will not go the way of the Federalist Party. ♦
Lawrence B.A. Hatter is an award-winning author and associate professor of early American history at Washington State University. These views are his own and do not reflect those of WSU.