On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the first declaration of war in U.S. history.
On June 1, the president delivered a message to Congress outlining British transgressions against the U.S. The grievances primarily revolved around actions taken by the British navy off the U.S. coast.
“British cruisers have been in the practice also of violating the rights and the peace of our coasts. They hover over and harass our entering and departing commerce. To the most insulting pretensions they have added the most lawless proceedings in our very harbors, and have wantonly spilt American blood within the sanctuary of our territorial jurisdiction.”
Madison did not call for war, but he did conclude with a strong indictment against Great Britain.
“We behold, in fine, on the side of Great Britain, a state of war against the United States, and on the side of the United States a state of peace toward Great Britain.”
After four days of deliberation, the House voted 79-49 to declare war on Great Britain. The Senate concurred by a 19-13 vote. Madison’s signature on June 18 formally launched what is now known as the war of 1812.
Ironically, the first president to sign a declaration of war also offered one of the best arguments against war.
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the deliberate process Madison and Congress went through before going to war with Great Britain. The U.S. hasn’t even issued a declaration of war since 1941. At best, Congress today passes vague, opened-ended authorizations with little debate giving the president the authority to act at his own discretion. A lot of time, they don’t even do that. The president just sends troops off to fight on his own authority.
The Constitutional process can’t assure the U.S. won’t go to war. But it makes it much more difficult and ensures it is done with thought and deliberation.
That’s exactly how James Wilson described it during the ratification debates:
“This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress”