In a recent column in Time magazine (March 26, 2007, pp. 55 – 56), Richard Brookhiser makes a problematic comparison between current opposition to the war in Iraq by Democrats in Congress and opposition to war with Britain during the War of 1812 by Federalists in Congress.
Federalists opposed the movement to war from the beginning, and in 1814 organized a convention to oppose the war. Before their positions could be presented, the news was in of U.S. victory in the Battle of New Orleans and of a peace treaty agreeable to both sides. The Federalists, tainted by “defeatism and treason,” quickly faded into irrelevancy. Brookhiser’s concluding lesson, “The antiwar Federalists had the courage of their convictions, playing a weak hand – they were always a congressional minority – boldly. But their overthrow was a lesson in practical politics. If you stick your neck out too far, it may get broken. Today’s Democrats are wise to debate and discuss.” In other words, Democrats need to beware of speaking too strongly on Iraq lest they go the way of the Federalists in 1815.
I thank Brookhiser for writing a provocative piece. The War of 1812 is not a comparative frame I would have likely thought of on my own. But that’s largely because the comparison doesn’t fit so well. There is some commonality – both involve parties opposite the president expressing some opposition to a war started on dubious pretexts. Beyond that, though, are all the differences. As Brookhiser himself writes, the Federalists were always a minority in this period, and, as he also writes, they had been waning in power (to a far greater extent than the Democrats in the 1990s I would add) for quite some time before the start of the War of 1812.
The two wars are quite different as well. The pretext for war in Iraq seems far more questionable to many Americans today that the pretext for war in 1812 had (there had actually been some British violations of American sovereignty on the seas in that case). Currently, there is not even the remote possibility that the war in Iraq might end in conquest of the U.S. (a less than remote possibility in the War of 1812), and so it hardly seems “treasonable” to simply be opposed to continued involvement in the quagmire of Iraq. Further, in the current Iraq war there is no realistic possibility of anything that could be reasonably termed “victory” anytime soon.
In short, the comparison of the current situation with the War of 1812 doesn’t indicate any clear lessons. Brookhiser’s arguments seem to me to be an attempt to dissuade strong critique of the war (which might not be all that necessary – another difference is that many Democrats don’t have the strength of their convictions that the Federalists did) at a time when no good arguments for continuing the war remain.
At the same time, Broohiser’s column is one of several writings and commentaries I’ve encountered recently that attempt to discern lessons for the present via comparison with supposedly comparable previous set of events. (I’ll discuss another example in my next post.) This seems to reflect a feeling by many that in our current context, we’re on the verge of some significant change, with a look towards history to try to discern what such change might be.