Pro-War Sermons in 1812 New England

The War of 1812 often gets brushed past in a general study of American History, which is unfortunate, because it is not only a fascinating period but also a formative one in the United States’ development as a nation. Anytime a complex event has to be simplified for brevity’s sake, generalizations abound. 

One generalization you may commonly hear as the War of 1812 whizzes by is that the New England states stood firmly against the war. While it is true that anti-war Federalists held a clear majority in New England, the region’s opposition to Mr. Madison’s War was not unanimous. Even in the Congressional vote for war, the only delegations that were unanimous in their opposition to war were Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island. Six representatives from Massachusetts as well as the majorities of both Vermont and New Hampshire voted in favor of war.
Some years ago, while trying to figure out a topic for a research paper for a course on religion in American history, I stumbled across a sermon by a Rev. John H. Stevens of Stoneham, Massachusetts, delivered on a fast day in 1813. The sermon was called The Duty of Union in a Just War, and I was amazed, considering the New England setting (and believing the above generalization), to find that Stevens passionately supported the war, and sharply criticized the Federalists who opposed or even refused to help the war effort.
Believing Stevens’s support for the war must have been some sort of outlier, I searched for evidence that he had been reprimanded, threatened, or even dramatically run out of town (complete in my imagination with torches and pitchforks) for his sermon. I was somewhat disappointed to find no such evidence. The response from his congregation seems to have been positive, and he served the church for another 14 years.
Pro-war ministers were in the majority nationally, but, as William Gribbin explains, Federalist ministers held a literary advantage: Congregationalists and Presbyterians, denominations dominated by Federalists, had more literate audiences and more theological journals and publishing outlets than the more pro-war denominations. Thus the majority of homiletic evidence bequeathed to later generations falsely indicates an anti-war majority behind American pulpits.
The main text Stevens used was from Judges chapters four and five, in which Israel fights back against an oppressive Canaanite king. While all of the tribes and communities were asked to send men to war, but one city, Meroz, refused. Judges 5:23 records a curse proclaimed on the city for it’s refusal to help. The application was clear: if the United States was justified in going to war, it was the duty of the whole nation to unite against their enemy. The Federalists’ Meroz-like refusal displeased God.
Another pastor, John Giles of Newburyport, Massachusetts, delivered (and later published) a pair of sermons in 1812 on the subject of the war. His first sermon contrasted the United States and Britain, criticizing the latter’s monarchy (“It requires some talentst o be a common mechanic, but to be a king requires only the animal figure of a man, a sort of breathing automation.”), aristocracy, and state church. The second sermon denounced those who opposed the war and the president. He compared them to Satan, “who would rather reign in hell, than be subordinate in heaven,” and especially lamented that they sought to “loose the bond of union.”
Although I could not find any instances of a pro-war minister being run out of town, Gribbin does give some examples of Federalist ministers who were criticized for their anti-war sermons. One congregation in Dalton, Massachusetts threatened to withhold support from their minister after his Federalist sermon. Another minister in Walpole, New Hampshire was forced to produce a written retraction and apology after an ill-received anti-war message. A third minister, one Timothy Flint of Lunenburg, Massachusetts, was suspected by his congregation of “disloyalty to the government” because of his Federalist beliefs. After leaving his church in 1814, he included politics among the reasons. “The mania of democracy always ran high here. It rendered the last years of my residence here very uncomfortable.”
Both pro- and anti-war sermons make for interesting reads and offer a unique perspective on the War of 1812. Hopefully this brief analysis taught you at least one thing: while generalizations may sometimes be necessary, for brevity’s sake, they should never be taken as Gospel truth.


Currier, John J. History of Newburyport, Mass.: 1764-1905. Newburyport, MA: Published by the Author, 1906.
Dean, Silas. A Brief History of the Town of Stoneham, Mass, From its First Settlement to the Year 1843, With an Account of the Murder of Jacob Gould, On the Evening of Nov. 25, 1819. Stoneham: Sentinel Press, H. C. Gray, 1870.
Giles, John. Two Discourses, Delivered to the Second Presbyterian Society in Newburyport, August 20, 1812, The Day Recommended By the President of the United States, for National Humiliation and Prayer. Haverhill: W. B. & H. G. Allen, 1812.
Gribbin, William. The Churches Militant: The War of 1812 and American Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.
Kirkpatrick, John E. Timothy Flint: Pioneer, Missionary, Author, Editor, 1780-1840. Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1911.
Stevens, John H. The Duty of Union in a Just War: A Discourse, Delivered in Stoneham, (Mass.) April 6, 1813, Being the Day of the State Fast. New York: E. Conrad, 1813.
Stevens, William B. History of Stoneham, Massachusetts. Stoneham, MA: F. L. & W. E. Whittier, 1891.

John Quincy Adams in Congress

This post is the third in a three-part series on John Quincy Adams. Part One discussed the unique opportunities of Adams’s childhood and education, and Part Two covered his early career and Presidency.

After a sound defeat for a second term as president, John Quincy planned to bow out of public service entirely, resigning himself to his farm and a part-time law practice.
He reluctantly agreed to speak at Boston’s bicentennial celebration and was pleasantly surprised by a warm reception. The next day, he was asked to run for a congressional seat being vacated by retirement. He agreed, but said he would not campaign, and he made it known that he would represent neither party nor region, but the nation as a whole. He won in a landslide.
John Quincy Adams, 1846Invigorated by his new assignment, he returned to Washington more than a year before he was to take his seat, giving him an opportunity to observe the House of Representatives and make a study of both its rules and its members. On December 5, 1831, he took his seat in the House.
Fearing another presidential run, his enemies in Congress assured that he was placed on the least important committees. Despite his vast experience in diplomacy, he was left off of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and instead made chairman of the Committee on Manufactures. Despite this rebuff he threw himself into his work, studying past congressional proceedings and determining that he would never miss a session of Congress, regardless of weather or health.
John Quincy also learned all he could about manufactures, including how his committee’s area of authority overlapped with other issues, allowing him to influence foreign affairs, tariffs, and even slavery.
Slavery in particular became a signature issue of Representative Adams. Traditionally, congressmen only introduced bills related to the committees of which they were members. However, committee chairmen were permitted to read citizen petitions on any subject. On John Quincy’s first day in Congress, therefore, he shocked his colleagues by reading fifteen petitions from Pennsylvania Quakers about abolition, a subject that had been verboten since the First Congress in 1790.
Pro-slavery opponents soon introduced a resolution that “all petitions, memorials, propositions, or papers” related to slavery or abolition would be immediately and permanently tabled without discussion. He fervently tried to speak out against this violation of free speech, but the slaveholding Speaker James K. Polk refused to recognize him or any other Northern congressman. The motion was carried, to John Quincy’s disbelief and dismay. “Am I gagged or am I not,” he shouted, and the rule came to be known as the Gag Rule.
The new rule would not stop the passionate statesman, however. An expert in parliamentary law, he found ways around the reprehensible policy. For instance, he once asked for recognition to read the prayers of a group of Massachusetts women. When someone objected, citing the Gag Rule, he countered that the women were not petitioning, but only praying for the abolition of slavery. The house erupted in anger that the S-word had even been mentioned (so Adams continued to use it in his attempt to explain himself), trying to silence him before he was able to speak his piece.
The fight against slavery and the Gag Rule continued. The House received hundreds of thousands of petitions against slavery, and tens of thousands against the Gag Rule as a violation of free speech and both the Congressman’s and his constituents’ rights. Every session, when the Gag Rule was reintroduced John Quincy tried to speak up against it, but the Speaker would not allow him to debate, but only to vote. When he voiced his opinion anyway, this colleagues responded with cries of expulsion.
Perhaps one of John Quincy’s greatest post-presidential achievements, though, came not in the halls of Congress, but in the Supreme Court. In January 1840, the case of the Amistad captives came to his attention. The Spanish slave ship Amistad had captured 36 Africans and was transporting them to Cuba, when the Africans revolted, killed the captain, and ordered the crew to sail them home. Instead, the crew headed West, ending up in Connecticut. Lower courts had determined that the captives had been kidnapped in violation of Spanish and American law, and thus killed the captain in self defense.
John Quincy was asked to join the captives’ legal team, pro bono; the 76-year-old statesman agreed. He spoke for hours at a time before a majority of slave-holding justices. After days of argument, he concluded by appealing to the court’s historic past (reminding the justices that he had stood before many of their illustrious predecessors) and to the higher law to which he so passionately held, hoping that the justices would “be received at the portals of the next [world] with the approving sentence, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter though into the joy of the Lord.'” Old Man Eloquent, as he had come to be known, had persuaded almost all of the justices, with only one opposing and one abstaining. John Quincy considered the case one of the greatest moments of not only his career but his family’s history, stretching back to his forbear’s signature on the Magna Carta.
In his continued opposition of the Gag Rule, he read a petition that the Union be dissolved until slavery was eradicated, raising calls of treason, which he countered by demanding that the clerk read from the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration clearly showed that the people had the “right” and even “duty,” under certain circumstances, to “throw off” an unjust government. “There would be no such right existing,” he argued, “if the people had not the power in pursuance of it to petition for it.” The debate to censure him raged for weeks, but to no avail. John Quincy and his allies finally succeeded in abolishing the Gag Rule in 1844.
His fight in Congress brought a deluge of hate mail, but it also brought many new followers. Unger claims that “his popularity exceeded that of the President, and had he defended his beliefs as aggressively when he was President, he would certainly never have suffered the humiliation of defeat in his run for reelection.” He had captured the attention of the people and was finally successful in his attempts to communicate with them.
John Quincy also introduced the bill that established the Smithsonian Institution. He became almost as popular on the subjects of science and learning (for which he had been ridiculed as president) as he was on abolition, speaking on both subjects across the northern and middle states.
In 1846 John Quincy suffered a stroke and was considered near death. But within a month he was talking about a return to Congress, and soon after he made the twice-a-Sunday walk to church to take communion. Upon his return to Congress in 1847, he received a standing ovation from everyone present, including a lanky freshman congressman from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. The former and future presidents would be firm allies on a number of issues in their only term together.
By the end of that year, he was too weak to continue his sixty-eight-year diary and had to decline an invitation to speak at the laying of the cornerstone of the new monument to his greatest hero, Washington. He continued to serve in the House, though, until the day that President James K. Polk signed the treaty of peace with Mexico, ending a war that John Quincy had vehemently opposed. That day, the House passed a resolution to thank the American generals for their victory. A “roar of ‘ayes'” was followed by a single, obstinate “No!”, John Quincy Adams’s last word to the House of Representatives.
death of JQARising to speak on the next resolution presented, he collapsed into the arms of a concerned colleague. He was taken into the office of the Speaker, where he soon lapsed into a coma, dying two days later, February 23, 1848.
Mourned by friends and foes alike, John Quincy’s death was a loss to the nation not seen since George Washington, as Unger concludes. His congressional career made him a new man, one who never should have existed after the calamity that was his presidency. And the Congressman became the man of the people that the President never could be. His education and training were unparalleled in his generation, and prepared him for a life of service to his country. His feisty fight for abolition, freedom of speech, and education represented the best of the nation in one of its darkest periods, and his disdain for partisan politics in a period of radical polarization is something that politicians of this and every age could learn from. He is, I am convinced, one of the oft-forgotten heroes of American history.

The Early Career & Presidency of John Quincy Adams

This post is the second in a three-part series on John Quincy Adams. In Part One we looked at the education and childhood experiences of John Quincy Adams, which gave him a unique opportunity in the fledgling American republic.

In July 1787 a twenty-year-old John Quincy Adams graduated from Harvard. The skeptical college president Reverend Joseph Willard, who had previously held up John Quincy’s admission for a semester, admitted that the young man was likely “to become a distinguished character.”

JQA 3After graduation he studied law and opened his own practice. He spent his free time, however, writing a series of political commentary. The most famous of his writings of this period were a series of essays called Letters of Publicola. John Quincy excoriated Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and his good friend Thomas Jefferson’s support of Paine’s pro-French Revolution pamphlet. The essays were reprinted throughout the nation and in Britain, bringing the author a new wave of international recognition.

John Quincy’s writings caught the eye of President Washington, who sent him as an ambassador to Holland. For seven years he served there and later in Prussia, feeding the Washington and Adams administrations important intelligence during a period of tension between the United States. and France known as the “Quazi-War.”

After his return from diplomatic service he was elected to the Massachusetts State Senate, where he soon found himself on the bad side of both Federalists and Republicans. He “attempted some reforms and aspired to check some abuses,” he later recalled, but “discovered the danger of opposing and exposing corruption.” He angered his colleagues so much that they elected him to the U.S. Senate (the only way to get rid of him without alienating his powerful family).

His experience in federal legislation was much the same as on the state level. He regularly crossed party lines, supporting, for instance, the Louisiana Purchase despite widespread Federalist and New England opposition.

During this time he was also named professor of oratory and rhetoric at Harvard, where he enthusiastically taught while the Senate was not in session.

His Senate career was productive, but his lack of party loyalty eventually cost him his seat. A furious state senate appointed his replacement a full nine months before his term would end. His political career, for which he and his parents had once held such high hopes, seemed to be over.

He revived his legal practice, which flourished and even brought him some significant cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He also continued to provide foreign policy advice to the Jefferson administration. When James Madison succeeded Jefferson, he immediately appointed John Quincy as minister plenipotentiary to Russia. He jumped at the opportunity to return to politics through what he termed an “honorable diplomatic exile.”

Adams spent four years in Russia, even turning down a nomination to the Supreme Court to remain there. He developed a solid relationship with the czar and reported back to the administration on the goings-on of Europe, including Napoleon’s movements.

treaty of ghentHe also kept abreast of America’s relationship with Britain, which soon deteriorated into the War of 1812. When Britain sent an offer to negotiate an end to the war, John Quincy was called upon to lead the negotiations, eventually culminating in the Treaty of Ghent. “I hope,” John Quincy said of the treaty, “it will be the last treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States.” Nearly two hundred years later, it still is.

His success in Ghent led to a promotion to diplomatic office in Britain, where he helped negotiate the details of the United State’s new relationship with Britain that were left out of the treaty. As in his previous diplomatic appointments, John Quincy and his wife were remarkably popular, an important part of diplomatic success.

When James Monroe was elected President he chose John Quincy to succeed him as Secretary of State, largely considered to be the most powerful post besides the presidency, making him in essence the president-in-waiting. As Secretary of State he played a role in the acquisition of Florida, navigated a resolution to the Oregon boundary dispute, and helped to articulate the Monroe Doctrine, stating that European attempts to further colonize the American hemisphere would be seen as acts of aggression.

The success of Monroe’s two terms as president were partially due to John Quincy’s presence, and he was unsurprisingly nominated to succeed his boss and friend. As ever before, though, he refused to campaign for his election to office, and he faced an additional obstacle in the opposition of General Andrew Jackson, the “Hero of New Orleans” and a populist favorite. Jackson won the popular vote but failed to obtain an electoral majority, and so the election was decided by the House of Representatives. After the House elected Adams, John Quincy appointed Speaker Henry Clay to be his Secretary of State, leading to outcries that a political deal had been made.

Outcries of corruption over the alleged deal, along with John Quincy’s inability to communicate effectively with the people of the United States, led to a vastly unpopular term as president. It seemed that decades of charm and charisma in the royal courts of Europe and the halls of Harvard had ill prepared him to connect with the common man. Four years later Jackson easily defeated Adams in the presidential election.

John Quincy’s career had seen great successes, as well as some obviously low points. His presidency – which should have been the capstone – ending with a humiliating defeat at the hands of Jackson, was clearly the nadir of his career and seemed as well to be the end of it.

But it wasn’t.

Read Part Three

The Education of John Quincy Adams

Most people know John Quincy Adams as a dead US president, the only son of a former president to take the job until George W. Bush. What most people don’t know is that his presidency was actually the low point of a long and varied career in public service for which he was prepared by a rather unique upbringing.

I have been mildly interested in John Quincy Adams for years, but it was when I read David McCullough’s John Adams that I decided that I needed to read a biography on the younger Adams. Seeing what an uncommon education he had as the son of a founder, an eyewitness to the Battle of (the hill next to) Bunker Hill, a companion to his father on diplomatic missions to France and Denmark, and a secretary to the first US minister to Russia, all before entering college at Harvard, I was curious to learn more of what he accomplished when he finally got around to adulthood.

For a more in-depth look at our nation’s sixth president, I turned to Harlow Giles Unger’s John Quincy Adams, primarily because the reviews were excellent…and it was on sale.


John Quincy did indeed have a unique upbringing, his childhood coinciding with the turmoil that led to the War of Independence, and his father becoming a central figure in that struggle. Bunker Hill was one of his earliest and most indelible memories, solidifying his love for country and hate of war, tyranny, and oppression, which became clear themes of his life. His education was rigorous and thorough, including a reading proficiency in Greek by age ten. His parents believed him destined to greatness, but the boy suffered from anxiety and depression over his parents’ expectations and the legacy of his father’s accomplishments.

By age nine, he was serving as a post-rider between his hometown of Braintree and Boston, where war was in full swing. A year later, he crossed the Atlantic for the first time, joining his father on a diplomatic mission to France. At the ripe old age of eleven he gave France’s first diplomats to the United States an eight-week crash course in English.

His education continued in Paris and then at Leiden University during his Father’s mission to the Netherlands. At fourteen he left the university to serve as secretary to Francis Dana, sent to gain US recognition from Russia’s Empress Catherine II. His return journey from there to his Father in the Hague included a meandering tour of Scandinavia and Germany.

His education included mastery of five languages. In Greek and Latin he translated whole works of classic literature, sometimes into other foreign languages. His modern language repertoire included French, Dutch, and German, and at least a little Italian.

The young scholar also hobnobbed with some of the period’s greatest men. He was “treated as an equal” by men such as Jefferson and Lafayette and dined with ambassadors from around Europe, as well as the most well-to-do men and women of Paris. Unger notes that even in Paris he had seen more of Europe than most of the people around him.

He was treated as a celebrity upon his return to the United States, meeting most if not all of the most prominent men of his own nation, from Elbridge Gerry to James Madison. He bragged to his sister that he had “been introduced at different times to almost all the members of Congress,” but admitted that he was getting tired of repeatedly answering the same questions about his travels in Europe.

Despite this extensive education, exceptional resume, and a list of acquaintances as good as any American outside, perhaps, of his father and Franklin, an eighteen-year-old John Quincy was deemed unready for Harvard. College president Reverend Joseph Willard advised him to study with a tutor and reapply in the Spring. Despite the humiliation, he followed Willard’s advice and graduated second in his class less than two years later.

Such an accomplished youth must surely be destined for greatness. I mean, his pivotal role in his young nation’s future was practically inevitable at this point, right?

Find out in Part 2.