Have you ever made Jello? The process is pretty simple: mix jello packet with water, place in molds, let set. The setting process is critical – if you jump for the treat too soon it will lack any firmness and wiggle; you’ll basically bite into thick fruit punch. Jello is an excellent metaphor for America during the first years of its nationhood. After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, America was far from the firm consistency of Jello; there were many forces which wanted to prevent the setting process.
Domestic and international threats were constantly trying to undermine the Constitution and the office of the presidency. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, was a famous advocate for a hybrid-monarchy and wanted America to mirror components of British government. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson was constantly paranoid that a King would take over the states or that the New England colonies would secede to the Brits. We look back at those years with 20/20 hindsight but people were freaking out about the state of their “Jello-Nation.” So when did the Jello finally set?
The United States really didn’t become a unified nation until the War of 1812 – America’s Jello War; the War of 1812 is always skimmed over in History Class but it was the war that gave America its familiar consistency. To learn more about this important-congealing period, I read 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman.
In the years that led up to 1812, America was in a constant struggle with Britain over their policy of “Impressment.” Impressment was the policy of British ships stopping vessels at sea in order to search them for British citizens – the captured Brits would be forced into military service. America didn’t like being pushed around on the seas and especially didn’t like when American citizens were unjustly impressed to serve the Royal Navy – more than 10,000 by 1812. Added to these grievances, the British restricted international trade as a way to counter Napoleonic France – this was ruinous for American exports.
The seas were foaming with anger between the two countries but the problems also extended to the terra firma. America was trying to expand westward but the British were slow to exit forts which were lost during the American Revolution and were quick to help Native Americans fight for contested territory. These territory disputes were constant and many westerners were salivating for more land – Canada looked like a low hanging fruit. Everything came to a head in 1812 after impressment searches led to American vessels being militarily attacked – James Madison reluctantly declared war on Great Britain.
The war was fought on land and sea. Battles took place along Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and the western frontier. Many battles were small skirmishes that pitted a weak American militia against a veteran British regiment; Native Americans many times joined the British or fought on their own. By the end of the war America had 35,000 troops compared to nearly 50,000 British troops with casualties of 2,200 and 1,100 respectively. At the beginning of the war, many thought it would be simple to annex Canada, but after several failed attempts the American forces realized it would be much more difficult. The Americans and British kept swapping victories and the war seemed to be at a permanent stand still – the Americans were unorganized and the British were under resourced due to concurrent wars in Europe.
James Madison had in theory the power of a united nation but in reality was a bystander to a conglomerate of individual states. Men were hard to recruit and funds were no where to be found – hence, the fighting kept puttering along with each nation only putting a toe into the cold water of war. It all came to a head with the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 which saw for the first time support for the War by the New England states. This victory ended any thought of the British increasing their fleets in the Atlantic and became a rallying cry for the entire nation – Francis Scott Key would write the Star-Spangled Banner during the battle.
A peace treaty was soon signed and America was reborn in the eyes of the world as a “real” nation that could hold its own. The War of 1812 birthed the national careers of two future presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. It stopped any talk of New England succession, led the way for the Monroe Doctrine, expedited westward expansion, increased federal power, and was the catalyst for the future sale of Alaska from Russia. After the War of 1812, the Jello Nation was set and molded. Or in the words of the then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, to Thomas Jefferson…
“The people now have more general objects of attachment with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more American; they feel and act more as a nation and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby secured.”