Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 3: The Early Republic or, “That Time We Invaded Canada!”

Welcome back to Anti-Social Studies! Last week we rebelled against the British! And won! Who saw that one coming? 

Today we’re looking at the first generation of American history. Like I said throughout season 1, winning a war or conquering a place is the easy part; governing is way harder. What challenges did our first few presidents face? How did we actually build a country from scratch that didn’t immediately fall apart? (Not counting the Articles of Confederation period) And what the heck was the War of 1812 about? Spoiler: basically nothing.

Today’s episode is on the Early Republic or, “That time we invaded Canada!” This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time…

Act 1: Early Presidents

We can sum up the main issues of the first two US presidents in this way: domestically, they were trying to figure out how their new country was going to make money. And with foreign affairs, they were trying to figure out how to stay the heck out of the centuries-old rivalry between Britain and France. That’s it. But I mean, I guess we can talk about it a little more if you really want to.

Washington was basically forced to be president. After the war, he just wanted to retire to Virginia but to the public and the other Founding Fathers he was the only person they wanted to be the first leader of the new nation. The first presidential campaign included a massive grassroots campaign – but it wasn’t to defeat an opponent, it was to convince George to accept the job. I expect letters to start flooding my mailbox any day now convincing me that I should take over as Tsar of the World. I’ll wait.

President George Washington

Washington sighed, “I guess I’ll be the leader of a country,” and chose John Adams as his Vice President to ease sectional tensions between his southern state of Virginia and Adams’s New England. By the way, he tried to get out of a second term – saying he was tired, old and sick but his cabinet wasn’t having it. He didn’t even really have to run for president, he just never said that he wouldn’t consider a second term and everyone just kept going with their lives. George probably could have been president until he died but he understood the importance of precedent. As the first president, every decision he made would color future generations’ interpretations of what a president could and couldn’t do. So, thanks George, for being a pretty solid first president.

The biggest issue facing Washington and his successor John Adams was money. The US was in debt and couldn’t figure out the best way forward. They had just fought a revolution over taxation so direct taxes weren’t an option. Pretty much the only money they were making was from tariffs on foreign goods. And in walks Alexander Hamilton… “You rang?” I’m not going to go into Hamilton’s whole backstory because I’m not Lin Manuel Miranda, but just know that he was basically an annoying genius who believed in a strong federal government and he did his part as Secretary of the Treasury to ensure that this would be the case. 

So what did Hamilton want to do? Full disclosure: I’m terrible at economics so I’m going to explain this at surface-level, maybe, and then we’re going to move on, OK? Great. This is where it’s great to have a podcast instead of a classroom full of teenagers ready to ask me questions about tariffs that I don’t understand. Hamilton wanted a fiscally strong national state and he wanted everyone living in the US to have faith in the federal government.

At the end of the war, during the Articles period, each state had its own debts to pay and they were dealing with them separately. Hamilton proposed that the federal government should take responsibility for – or assume – all state debts. Now for the states, this probably seems great – you racked up a huge bill during the war and now some other guy is saying, “I got this.” But Anti-Federalists – people who were scared of a strong federal government – saw this as a power move. This was a way to assert that the federal government was supreme in issues related to money. Also, some states had less debt than others so those states weren’t super happy at the idea that they would now be responsible for the debts incurred by others.

But Hamilton, and Washington, understood the psychological importance of this move, too. They needed to show the U.S. that they truly were one united country instead of a bunch of loosely organized former colonies – and Hamilton used the Treasury to do that. He also redeemed promissory notes – or IOU’s – that the Continental Congress had issued during the Revolution and began issuing new federal bonds, all of which was meant to show the public that this new government was stable, intended to be around for a while, and, like the Lannisters, “always paid its debts.” Well, until now. We’re like, what? $22 trillion in debt? Sorry about that, George.

Hamilton later went on to establish the First Bank of the United States, using the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution to argue that the power to create a national bank was implied in the Constitution. I’m not going to get into it too much because *spoiler alert* the Bank of the U.S. is going to be dead by the end of this episode.

In return for accepting Hamilton’s federalist economic plan, Jefferson and Madison got the new capital located in the south on the Potomac River. This was the Compromise of 1790 that was hammered out in “the room where it happens” according to Burr/Lin Manuel Miranda. Side note: George Washington never served as president in Washington, D.C. He was inaugurated in New York City and he oversaw the building of the brand new city – basically in a swamp, built from scratch by slaves – that would be named after him. I know that some of us probably don’t think today of D.C. as “the south” but it is – it’s below the Mason-Dixon Line and is settled in nicely between Maryland and Virginia. 

Washington faced other domestic issues as well, but they were pretty much all related to the government trying to make money. They still needed to make some money fast so they did begin some direct taxes, most notably a tax on all distilled spirits. Man, don’t piss off drunk people, George – they’re the most likely to rebel. The so-called whiskey tax disproportionately hurt farmers on the frontier (right now the frontier is in western Pennsylvania – weird right?) especially because during the war many of them hadn’t been able to sell their grain so they distilled it into whiskey to preserve their wealth. Washington quickly suppressed the rebellion, establishing that federal law is the supreme law of the land. Remember – up until about 3 years ago Americans were either completely separate colonies that ran their own show or they were loosely connected states under the Articles of Confederation. George’s main job was to unite the states under his leadership and through Hamilton’s economic plans and ending the Whiskey Rebellion he did just that. 

Outside the U.S., the French Revolution had begun. Our guy Lafayette was over in Paris righting the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen and you would think that his old buddies – now the leaders of the new nation – would jump to support another democratic revolution against a tyrannical monarch, right? Eh… not so much. I mean, we did send France money to help them suppress a slave revolt in their colony of Haiti… We were like, we’re all for democracy and fighting for freedom and liberty against an oppressive Mother Country… unless you’re black, I guess. 

As for the French Revolution, George stayed out of it, believing that the U.S. was too weak and unstable to fight a war right now. Remember that France was also fighting against a lot of other major European powers at the same time, so it was definitely too much for us to take on. After a brief kerfuffle with Citizen Genet – a Frenchman who was trying to stir up pro-French support in the form of men and ships – Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality. 

President John Adams

OK. So Adams takes over in 1797 and he has the same problems as George: How to make money and how to stay out of the British-French rivalry? For the money, he issued the first direct tax on property which led to rebellions – man Americans really hate taxes. As a result of those rebellions Congress passed the fairly-problematic Alien and Sedition Acts that 1) made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen, 2) allowed the president to imprison and deport non-citizens who were deemed dangerous and 3) put people in prison for making false statements that were critical of the federal government. Uh, chill Adams. It’s called the First Amendment. You should know it because you were literally there when it was written. These laws made Adams a fairly unpopular president and they were repealed under Jefferson but they show us a few things: first, just how tenuous the government’s control over the people was in the early years and also how easily we could have strayed into dictatorship-land, like what happened in France with Napoleon. The Founding Fathers had plenty of flaws but, all things considered – and by this I mean, you know, slavery and the patriarchy and general elitism, as far as political minds and a good faith effort to compromise for the good of the nation, we kind of hit the jackpot on Enlightened men who would steer our country in the direct of democracy. 

Conflict between France and Britain was growing and the US – who was just trying to be neutral and trade with whoever who trade with us – was getting caught in the middle. More specifically, our ships were getting caught – literally – by both British and French ships who didn’t want goods going to their enemy. Adams sent delegates to France to negotiate for our ships back but the French diplomats bribed the Americans before they would even meet with them. We were like, “Um… you can’t do that. We’re America.” which didn’t really work yet because America was a super weak brand new country that no one else thought would last, so instead we just publicly shamed them and that did the trick. President Adams exposed the scandal – he named the three French delegates as X, Y, and Z so it became known as the “XYZ Affair.” In addition, Adams told American ships that they could harass French ships if they didn’t back off – we expanded the Navy (at the time it was literally just one boat), Adams put Washington in charge of the new navy who was like, “OMG can I please just go home?” Washington made Hamilton his second-in-command and basically just let Hamilton run the navy and everyone else was like, “OMG why is Hamilton always here?” But when Napoleon took over in France, he had bigger fish to fry – namely, all of Europe to conquer – and so he negotiated peace with the US and turned his attention eastward. Good luck invading Russia in the winter!

President Thomas Jefferson

So when Jefferson came into office, everyone in Europe had turned their attention toward Napoleon and the US was able to take a deep breath and have a brief existential crisis. The first two presidents had basically been Federalists (although George transcended political parties he tended to side with the Federalist argument) but now Jefferson was in charge and he had a different idea. His philosophy would come to be known as Jeffersonian Democracy. He saw the U.S. as a large agrarian nation, with a small national government that mostly stayed out of the lives of its citizens, whom would be mostly small farmers. In Jefferson’s vision, all white men were to be politically equal. It’s easy – and important – to highlight just how many people that left out (Hey ladies, and enslaved Africans, and Native Americans, and Hispanic and Latino people, who according to the 1790 Census already numbered 20,000 in the U.S.) but it’s also important to point out that this idea of total political equality for all white men, regardless of wealth, was actually pretty progressive for the time. During his presidency, he pushed for states to eliminate property requirements for voting and he mobilized individuals outside of the traditional elite to become government officials. 

As president, Jefferson acted on his vision of a large agrarian nation by buying Louisiana from Napoleon, who needed the money to not by winter coats for his soldiers as they marched toward Russia. Remember that by “Louisiana” we mean from New Orleans to Montana and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Not knowing whether he had just bought a gold mine or a money pit – spoiler: it was, literally, a gold mine – he sent off Lewis and Clark to explore and report back whether it had been a good deal (again, it was an amazing deal.) 

A few other things that happened during Jefferson’s presidency: he founded a national military university, mostly to create an officer engineering corps that could help build the new nation; this became the US Military Academy at West Point, founded in 1802. The slave trade was abolished (although that didn’t do anything for the millions of enslaved Africans already here) but we’ll go into more detail on that next episode. And the 12th Amendment was passed so that the President and the Vice President were elected together, because it had been super awkward having your former opponent now be your VP. And Jefferson was anxious to be able to choose his VP because his first Vice President literally murdered Alexander Hamilton, so…

A quick ode to Aaron Burr: Oh Leslie Odom, Jr., I mean, Aaron Burr. You hated that you were never in the rooms where it happened. First, Jefferson drops you from the 1804 ticket so you run for governor. But then Hamilton spoke out against you during your election so you dueled him, as you do. But you accidentally murdered one of our Founding Fathers so you had to go west. When you got there, you apparently tried to rally Appalachia to secede from the U.S. and create a new western empire? Or some reports said that you wanted to raise a force to conquer Mexico? Whatever your goal, you recruited men, stocked weapons, and built boats and Jefferson was like, “OK I guess I can’t ignore this guy.” You were arrested in New Orleans, put on trial for treason and Jefferson and other Founding Fathers refused to speak on your behalf. Although you were acquitted, you resigned in disgrace and lived out the rest of your life on Staten Island, having to watch politics go by without you for another 30 years.

Before we move on, I have to mention that the most interesting foreign issue we had to deal with in our early years as a country was…pirates! So our merchant ships had always been protected before because we were a colony of the most powerful empire on Earth. This is one of those examples of things you don’t think about when you rebel against the Mother Country – “Leave us alone! But also, can you still guard our ships, please? Thanks!” Now that we were independent, our ships were alone in the open waters and pirates descended, especially in the Mediterranean and Atlantic waters around North Africa. Because of this, Washington requested that Congress establish a standing navy to protect merchant ships, which Adams fulfilled. But Jefferson took it a step further and actually went to war. Weeks before he took office, Tripoli began attacking merchant ships and demanding tribute, or ransom. Jefferson ordered the new US Navy into the Mediterranean Sea, beginning the Barbary Wars. Our navy broke up the alliance between Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, and bombarded Tripoli, which is where that line in the Marines’ Hymn comes from “From the Halls of Montezuma To the shores of Tripoli

Jefferson, like all early president, did still have to deal with the tension between Britain and France. Both sides had resumed stopping all of our ships coming across the Atlantic and he got so fed up he embargoed BOTH of them. Jefferson was like the mom that yelled, “I swear I’ll turn this car around if you don’t stop it!” But then Britain and France called his bluff and kept taking our ships and he was like, “Dang it. I actually can’t turn this car around I really need to go to the store.” Jefferson’s Embargo backfired and hurt the US because, you know, now we couldn’t trade with either Britain or France so that wasn’t great. Although we tried our best, the U.S. couldn’t just stay neutral and get the benefits of trading with both sides. This tension would escalate under our fourth president, James Madison. He a lot of things as president, I’m sure, but honestly we have to get moving so I’m only going to talk about one thing…

Act 2: The War of 1812

Ah the War of 1812. So many know nothing about you and normally I’m totally OK with that. I’ll be honest, when a full-grown adult asks me about the War of 1812 I shrug it off and tell them, “You’ve made it this long without knowing about it. It’s clearly not important.” But today, we do need to understand the War of 1812 because although it doesn’t have a huge impact on the 21st century US,  it does have a big impact on 19th century American history.

The war was caused by two things. Or, more accurately, the war was caused by one thing but was justified by another, as is so often the case. So what was the actual cause of the war? Well, we should be noticing a continuity in US history, which I’m going to call: Americans be expanding. Since we pushed back against the Proclamation of 1763 – heck, since the earliest settlers crossed the Atlantic – we have had an urge to keep moving westward. And with the Louisiana Purchase, that should have been an easy thing to do except for those pesky Native Americans. Ugh, are they still mad? I’m kidding, it’s terrible. 

In the early years of the 1800s the US was constantly fending off attacks from Native Americans along the frontier and we suspected, accurately, that the British were secretly supporting some of these tribes, possibly hoping to keep the new U.S. from taking over all of the wealth and resources from the continent. But, for a second, let’s look at this from the Native American perspective, because from their point of view the early 19th century, culminating in the War of 1812 could have been the War of Indian Independence. 

As their land was bought and sold by white men and explorers started traipsing through the new territory, the Native Americans saw the writing on the wall. Many groups joined together in the hopes of defending this land and creating an independent Native American nation under British protection. For them, the battles we’ll mention and the War of 1812 was one of the last serious opportunities for the indigenous people of this continent to carve out some true independence and avoid being swallowed up by the growing U.S.

Tecumseh and the Prophet

To understand this, let’s look at a badass named Tecumseh. Side note: I was looking for good YouTube videos that could introduce and go over the life of Tecumseh, and all I found were advertisements for electronic equipment or air compressors or lawn mowers or something because there’s a technology company named Tecumseh, which seems just about perfect as far as reflecting our society’s ignorance on great Native American legacies, but whatever. 


So who was Tecumseh? He was born into the Shawnee tribe in modern-day Ohio on the eve of the American Revolution, so he grew up during the war and his father was killed by American frontiersman after crossing into Indian territory in violation of a recent treaty. Sounds about right. During the Revolution, his tribe allied with the British, since they had at least been willing to sign treaties and protect indigenous land from encroachment from American settlers. After the Revolution, he continued to fight with almost any native group who was resisting American expansion into tribal lands – known collectively as the Northwest Indian War. 

Tecumseh grew to be a leader, aided by the popularity of his younger brother who was nicknamed “The Prophet.” He preached about the need for native people to reject Western ways and attempts by the US to assimilate natives or buy any more land. His prophecy was that a coming apocalypse would destroy the white settlers – something that will keep coming up throughout 19th century Native American history. It’s really more of a wish than a prophecy, but it did unite many natives together – inspired by The Prophet’s message and led by Tecumseh’s military prowess – to form a substantial resistance movement based in their new town of Prophetstown in modern-day Indiana. Btw, now would be a great time to go back and watch that Parks and Rec episode where they talk about all the terrible murals in Pawnee. It would be hilarious if it weren’t way too close to the truth. 

Prophetstown became something of a Mecca for Native Americans looking to resist white Americans, eventually amassing about 3,000 inhabitants from various tribes. His main adversary was the Governor of the Indiana Territory and somehow future president – William Henry Harrison. They had been circling each other for years now – both fighting on opposite sides of the Northwest Indian Wars of the late 1700s. Tecumseh met with Harrison multiple times to ask that he rescind the treaty that ended that war and granted white settlers so much native land. Not getting anywhere with Harrison, Tecumseh reached out to the British and began negotiating an alliance. At the same time, Tecumseh traveled south to try to organize a pan-Native American alliance but it was met with mixed reactions: the Choctaw refused but the Creek Indians rose up only to be split apart and turned against each other by a little-known general from Tennessee named Andrew Jackson. Hearing that Tecumseh was away from Prophetstown, Harrison and his soldiers closed in and the two sides met at the Battle of Tippecanoe. The U.S. won the battle, burned down Prophetstown and broke apart the confederacy that Tecumseh had built. Tecumseh heard of the loss and took his followers northward to Canada just in time for the U.S. to decide to invade Canada. Sorry Tecumseh.

So we’ll get back to him in a minute, but now we’re at 1812 and so there’s gotta be a war! So the main reason why some Americans – especially those in the South and West – wanted to go to war with Britain was because they were frustrated that they were still lurking around secretly supporting Native Americans and stopping them from expanding westward. Also, we had had our eye on Canada for a while. But this alone wasn’t enough to rally enough support for a war and so “War Hawks” – or those who believed we should go to war – instead looked eastward to the Atlantic Ocean for an easy topic to justify the war, and boy did they find one. 

Causes of the War of 1812

Remember how the British and French had been fighting with each other for – like – ever and we kept getting caught in the middle? Of course you do. I talked about it 10 minutes ago. Well, the British had taken it one step further and were impressing our sailors. No, they weren’t dazzling them with a song and dance – although that would be impressive – they were literally kidnapping American sailors and forcing them to fight against the French. That’s… not allowed, right? We kept telling them to stop it but they wouldn’t and so we declared war. One complication: most of these “American” sailors were actually British people who were supposed to be fighting for their home country but instead were making money on American merchant ships. So, most of the sailors who were kidnapped were – from the British view – essentially soldiers who had gone AWOL and the British were just bringing them back to fulfill their duty to the Crown. That’s fine I guess, but they were still literally grabbing men off ships and forcing them to fight a war which seems… bad?

So, as Harrison and others are fighting Native Americans – backed by the British – in the West and American merchant ships are being attacked by the British to the east, most of the country decided that the British needed a little reminder that the U.S. was, in fact, an independent nation. It should be noted that the decision to go to war was pretty split down party – and geographic – lines because, again, the U.S. was really like 2-3 different countries wrapped into one. Federalists – mostly merchants and business owners from New England – did not want a war to disrupt trade so they tended to vote against the war, which would be the cause of their party’s downfall afterward. But southerners and westerners won out and the War of 1812 began in, well, 1812.  

Major battles. Hmm… full disclosure: in my outline I had a section for battles and then I wrote a note to myself asking, “Do we care about the battles?” and I answered my own question with another note, “I don’t think so.” So let me just hit the highlights so that we can move on to the important consequences of the war:

  • We invaded Canada! Yeah we didn’t like that the British were still looming over us from the north and so we sent ships across the Great Lakes and troops through northern cities to “liberate” the Canadians. We believed that the Canadians would have been inspired by our own Revolution and were just waiting for us Americans to go and free them from the oppression of the British Crown but we got there and the Canadians were like, “Thanks? But actually we’re doing fine.” 
  • Our navy fought the British navy on the Great Lakes! And my main question when I learned about this in high school was, how did they get the ships there? I was too embarrassed to ask my teacher because it seemed like a stupid question but, like, did they carry ships over land and plop them into the lakes? Turns out – Yeah kind of. Both sides just built ships on the Great Lakes since there was no real way to get ships from the Atlantic Ocean to the interior lakes. So my dumb high school question was actually a pretty good one – let that be a lesson to you teenagers listening. Ask your dumb questions! 
  • During the fighting British forces captured Washington D.C. and burned the White House and Dolly Madison saved the portrait of George Washington from being desecrated by British soldiers. Thanks Dolly! Except that the painting was actually a copy of the original, oops. But it’s the thought that counts.
  • One battle we do always learn about is Fort McHenry because during the 25-hour bombardment of the fort outside Baltimore by the British Navy, a soldier in a boat watching the flag waving to show the Americans were still fighting inside wrote a poem about it. Eventually we set it to the tune of an English drinking song and “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the national anthem. Ironically, the author Francis Scott Key had been emphatically opposed to war with the British from the outset, but that’s OK. Thanks for the cool song, anyway!

The only other fighting we really care about for our narrative is the fighting in the South. After the British left New England, they turned their attention to New Orleans – a city that was incredibly important as a port of trade to all of the Mississippi River and the western territories. As the British troops traveled around the south they were followed by an up-and-coming general who had just finished sweeping up some native resistance. Oh hey, Andrew Jackson! He famously defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans except that the battle was technically a few weeks after the peace treaty ending the war had been signed. Communication took a lot longer in those days so he hadn’t gotten the memo yet. But, he was OK with it because Jackson became the Hero of New Orleans! We’ll come back to AJ in a few episodes. 

In 1814, the two sides signed the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. Why did the two sides sign a treaty? Well, the US pretty much knew it couldn’t actually defeat the full might of the British military and the British didn’t care what the Americans did if they weren’t fighting the French anymore. So as with all things in the early 19th century, it goes back to Napoleon. When he abdicated in 1814, Europe established a new peaceful balance of power that ended much of the fighting… for a while. So the issue of trade between the US and Britain’s European enemies wasn’t really an issue anymore. And, the British had just finished convincing other European powers like Russia and Prussia that they couldn’t carve up European land taken by Napoleon for themselves. So it would be pretty awkward if the British made that argument as they were trying to take back land in the Americas. So what was in the treaty? Um, kind of nothing important. There were absolutely no changes to pre-war boundaries – neither side gained any land. Which begs the real question…

Act 3: Why do we care about the War of 1812?

Short answer: we don’t. 95% of Americans don’t know anything about the War of 1812 and they seem to be getting along just fine. I made up that fact but it feels right so I’m sticking to it. 

Americans don’t really care about the War of 1812 but you know who does? Canada. Oh hey Canada! Sorry we never learn about you. You know what they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease? Americans are just so loud and proud about our history that we force everyone to learn it. Meanwhile, y’all are up there just being nice to each other and not making anyone read books about you. So let’s give y’all a paragraph or two.

The War of 1812 was an important moment for establishing a sense of national unity amongst Canadians. They were still under the control of the British, but Canadians believed that civilian soldiers, more than British redcoats, had been mostly responsible for repelling the American invasion. In this way, this was sort of like their French and Indian War – a conflict with another power that sparks a revolutionary sentiment. Except that the Canadians were actually correct in their assessment that they had defended themselves and didn’t need the British anymore. Whereas the Americans couldn’t defend themselves from the French and Indians but then were pissed that the British taxed them to help pay for all their trouble. Now it’s not quite true that the Canadians defended themselves without the British, but no one really cares about truth when we’re fighting a war, dang it!

In the decades after 1812, the Canadians would mount – get it, like Mounties? – a continued resistance pushing for self-governance. There were some rebellions in the 1830s and the 1860s and eventually they were united into the Dominion of Canada in 1867. They were no longer a British colony and could effectively govern itself, but Canada didn’t actually become fully independent until 1982. Whoa!  Slow and steady, I guess – right Canadians?

Before we move away from Canada and possibly never talk about it again, did you know that the Canadians had their own Paul Revere during the War of 1812 and she was a woman?! Awesome! Laura Secord walked 30 km or 18 miles to warn British soldiers of an American plan to attack their outpost at Beaver Dams. Her trek to warn the British that the Americans were coming – she’s literally the bizarro Paul Revere – has made her a legend in Canadian history and a poster child for the growing sentiment that the War of 1812 was won by Canadians, which again, isn’t quite true but the Canadians felt like it was and that’s what mattered.

You know who else really cares about the War of 1812? Native Americans. It’s true that no side really won the war, but it’s clear that the Native Americans lost. Going back to Tecumseh, many indigenous allies of the British and Canadians died – including Tecumseh himself – and the war also ended any real hope of stopping American expansion into the west. For their part, the British did try to negotiate for the creation of an independent Indian Territory at the Treaty of Ghent but the Americans refused. In this way, the War of 1812 was basically the end of any large-scale self-reliance or self-determination for Native Americans in North America. 

So the U.S. doesn’t really care about the War of 1812, but news flash: we should. Although nothing really tangible came out of the war, a lot of intangibles grew from the fact that we didn’t lose – woohoo! You might say that the war sparked a new time period in American history where everyone felt really good about themselves… historians creatively call this, “The Era of Good Feelings.”

So why were Americans feeling good after 1812?

  1. Nationalism. We had sort of fended off the British and we were really proud of that! In many ways the War of 1812 was like our Second American Revolution. Up until that point most European nations were watching the U.S. just waiting for us to fall apart without a king. But after 1812, it was clear that we were an established country that might stick around for a while.

  2. After the war, Americans were able to take a deep breath and settle in to this whole “being a country” thing. Because it coincided with the end of the Napoleonic Wars, we could pay less attention to the fighting and political intrigue in Europe and just focus on ourselves for a little while. We extended this sentiment on behalf of the rest of the Americas in our Monroe Doctrine. This declaration basically told Europe to stay out of the western hemisphere – most of which had just become independent (Hey Mexico, and Haiti, and Gran Colombia, and Brazil!) from European imperialism. Now, this seems like a nice thing: on behalf of all of these new independent countries, the U.S. is asking that Europe leave us all alone and let us have some “me time.” But it also was foreshadowing for the trend of the U.S. thinking of the rest of the Americas as our own backyard. The Monroe Doctrine established a precedent that the U.S. would feel totally comfortable intervening in the rest of the Americas when we felt like it – in this case, if Europe tried to meddle in their affairs, or eventually if an elected leader said the words “land redistribution.”

  3. The last main reason why we all felt so good in the 1810s and 1820s was because we really only had one political party. The Federalist Party fell apart because it had been so decidedly anti-war and, considering the war had made us all feel so good, that seemed unpatriotic. The only party that was really left standing was the confusingly named Democratic-Republians and they ran the show. So, to be clear, everyone didn’t feel good. Former Federalists were pushed to the side and weren’t super happy about it. But the country was at peace, there wasn’t much political fighting, and we were able to turn inward and start doing things that we’d been putting off for decades as we fended off the Europeans: you know, like building roads and stuff.

So from Washington to Monroe, our first five presidents did a pretty decent job. They figured out how to make money without facing too many rebellions, they fended off the British, avoided getting involved in the chaos of the French Revolution, fought some pirates, and didn’t lose to Canada. Nicely done! But if the Era of Good Feelings at the time seemed like a permanent state of peaceful coexistence between the various factions in the U.S., that was wrong. Remember that the U.S. is still, at heart, a collection of many different groups, and viewpoints, and attitudes, that all just happened to be lumped together fighting against British taxation, and then Native American attacks, and then British impressment of sailors. The Era of Good Feelings was really just the calm before the storm because the U.S. still had deep-seated disagreements that they were failing to address in the name of compromise and peace. But it’s fine. I’m sure these issues won’t ever come up again and everyone in the U.S. will just agree to be cool and stop enslaving other people and treat women better and acknowledge that non-white people exist and there definitely won’t be a Civil War. Said no one ever.