December 01, 2009

the cressman conundrum; or, freaks & geeks explains the war of 1812

It was 1979 in suburban Michigan and Allen wouldn't stop bullying Sam Weir.  Sam goes to Harris, their mentor geek, to ask for advice.

"I would recommend the Cressman Conundrum. Tom Cressman. My freshman tormentor. The ideas was, if you fight your bully, afterwards, whether you win or lose, they'll tend to leave you alone."

"Did it work?"

"He broke my tailbone.  But the results were effective."


So the British have spent a few decades being grumpy about the colonies going all independent. They took it out on America by making trading really difficult. The details are at times dull. During the Adams presidency, John Jay went to England and made a treaty with them, essentially agreeing to keep letting them oppress American shipping, bullying that was swallowed because of how unprepared America was to go to war with England 10 years into nationhood.

But it just got worse and worse. A lot of people in parliament still viewed America as a rebellious colony that would eventually collapse back into the fold, and they continually refused fair trading policies with them. Madison enacted an embargo on British trade, hoping that this would so cripple the British economy that they'd come to appreciate and respect their American trading partners. It did not, they did not. England just started trading with other people, and Federalists opponents of Madison in New England continued to smuggle goods in and out regardless of the embargo.

The embargo was kind of a disaster. It had about the effect of a 7-year-old who decides to run away from home, and therefore spends a few hours in the treehouse in the backyard. When he repents and comes back inside, his rebellion is mistaken for a normal amount of time spent outside. James Madison was made for debate, not for broad strokes on the world stage.

So the time came to face the bully. America was outmatched, unprepared, and not unified in its decision to go to war, but it seemed that Britain would never stop punishing America unless it defended itself.

Madison and Congress declared war, appointed an astounding number of incompetent weenies to run the army, and got stomped on. Stomped on for years. They basically didn't win a battle for the first two years of the war, and then Madison sat on a horse on a ridge overlooking Washington while the British flooded in and burned down the White House and the Capitol. Only after they spent some time inside the White House eating Madison's dinner.

At about this time the American commissioners in London sent home the King's offer of peace, which essentially assumed that America had been reconquered. It was a bad year for Madison.

This turn of events, although disastrous, at least accomplished what Madison had not been able to accomplish thus far - it united public opinion. After some reshuffling in the chain of command the the swift promotion of Andrew Jackson, the American army successfully expelled the British forces from Baltimore (cue the Star Spangle Banner. literally.) and New Orleans.

Having fought the bully, and gotten stomped on several times, the results, as Harris promised, were effective. The next offer of peace from Britain was that of an equal, and America had finally proven her place in what Ketcham always calls "the family of nations." Madison's reputation did a 180 from that of a indecisive cerebral to a triumphant wartime president, and he retired joyfully to Virginia while Washington was rebuilt for the incoming Monroe.

Fight the power.

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