Nathaniel Macon and the War of 1812

By: Andrew Duppstadt, Assistant Curator of Education, NC Historic Sites

During the War of 1812, no political figure stood taller and commanded more respect in North Carolina than Nathaniel Macon. A native of Warren County and veteran of the American Revolution, Macon was a firmly entrenched member of the United States Congress. He served in the House of Representatives from 1791-1815, holding the position of Speaker from 1801-1807. From 1815-1828, he served in the Senate. Just two years prior to his death, he was elected to preside over the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1835, though he strongly disagreed with the more liberal direction in which the State was moving.

Macon’s stance on the War of 1812 is curious at first glance, but becomes clearer when one takes into account his political background and firmly held Republican beliefs. Constitutionally, Macon was a strict constructionist, said to be more “Jeffersonian” than Thomas Jefferson himself. He opposed tariffs, a national bank, and federally-funded internal improvements. The true function of the government, he believed, was to preserve order, protect the life and property of its citizens, and maintain citizens’ liberty. His devotion to Republican ideals was so strong that he broke with Jefferson and James Madison, joining a faction known as the “Old Republicans” or “Quids,” led by, among others, Jefferson’s nephew John Randolph. Randolph and Macon quickly became leaders of the Quid faction in Congress.

Portrait of Nathaniel Macon

Macon was very wary of anything that might engender an abuse of power, and he especially applied that fear to the military. He consistently voted against any measures that would increase the size or power of the military during peacetime. He believed that the country could be defended by the militia, rather than a standing army and he favored privateers over a large navy. During a time of active warfare he had no problems supporting a professional army, but even then was not supportive of a regular navy. This support of militia and privateers likely came from Macon’s experience in the American Revolution, during which he served in the militia in both New Jersey and North Carolina. He also felt that a regular army and navy would simply cost more money which would put a higher tax burden on the American people.

As a strict constructionist, Macon was opposed to the Non-Intercourse Act which prohibited American trade with Britain and France. He authored what became known as Macon’s Bill Number 2, which replaced the Non-Intercourse Act in 1810. The bill stated that commerce could resume with both Britain and France, and if either of the two recognized American demands, trade with the other would immediately cease. Those American demands amounted to the repeal of various acts and decrees that had been made by both Britain and France in earlier years that hindered American trade. Though Macon authored the bill, he voted against it. The French took the deal, thus making war with Britain nearly inevitable.

Remaining true to his beliefs, Macon voted against a number of proposed measures in early 1812 that would have augmented both the army and the navy leading up to the nation’s second war with Great Britain. He first voted against a measure to increase the size of the army from 10,000 to 25,000 men, a measure which passed the House by a vote of 94 to 34. He also opposed a measure to give the President control of state militia units, arguing that the Federal government could use the militias only with the consent of the states. Macon and the Republicans were able to defeat a measure to build new frigates and increase the size of the navy. Finally, Macon voted against a number of proposed new taxes to fund the war, even though he agreed with some of them. The voting record of North Carolina’s Republicans was decidedly mixed on the issue of taxes.

Though Macon opposed almost all measures leading up to the war, he supported the war itself. Despite the fact that North Carolina had no strong grievances against the British, Macon saw the war in much the same way as he viewed the American Revolution; he believed the overriding cause of the war was to prevent oppression and maintain American rights. He saw the conflict as a war of self defense. Though not considered a “War Hawk,” when the war vote was taken in June 1812, Macon was one of six North Carolina Representatives to vote in the affirmative, while three others voted against the war and four abstained. This vote was not without its repercussions for Macon. By voting for the war he lost his long-standing and truest friend in the Congress, John Randolph of Virginia, who had voted in opposition. The decision to vote for the war did not have a negative impact on his political career however; in 1815, the last year of the war, Macon transitioned from the House to the Senate and served North Carolina there for another thirteen years.