Mr. Madison’s War: A Handful of Princeton Perspectives

By: Amanda Pike

Today marks the bicentennial of the official declaration of the War of 1812. While the war itself had little influence on the daily experiences of Princeton students, on occasion, these students would witness soldiers passing through town on their way to the conflict. Some of these encounters were detailed in student correspondence to family members, and these letters also address the public sentiment towards the war and the tumultuous political climate that provided its impetus. A few examples of these writings are highlighted below.

The first excerpt is from a letter written by James Mercer Garnett, Jr., Class of 1814, to his mother, Mary E. Garnett of Pittsville, Virginia. Dated June 16, 1812, two days before President James Madison (a fellow Princetonian, Class of 1771) officially declared war on Great Britain, Garnett wrote his letter while traveling through Washington, D.C. on his way to Princeton. Meanwhile, Congress deliberated Madison’s grievances with England, which included British trade restrictions with France, British support of indigenous resistance to American expansionism, impressment of American soldiers in the British Royal Navy, and British seizure of American ships.

As I probably shall not have an opportunity to write, on the way between here and Princeton; I take the opportunity while my Father is writing, to let you know we have got so far safe on our journey….I have not time to say much more now, as we are going to the Cappitol (sic) in a few minutes. Tell Uncle Mercer that the recruiting business goes on very slowly here; & that in stead (sic) of the 17 thousand men that are reported in our neighbourhood to have enlisted; the Secretary at war says there are only between three and five thousand. I fancy all the reports about what the senate have done are false, their doors are still closed; I expect we shall know what they have determined on tomorrow; the general oppinion (sic) about here is that we shall have war, although they say the public sentiment seems to be much against it….
Student Writings and Correspondence Collection (AC334, Box 9)

After several days of deliberation, the House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 for a declaration of war, and the Senate agreed by a vote of 19 to 13. On June 18, 1812, Madison signed this measure into law, becoming the first U.S. President to declare war on another nation.

The following excerpt is from a letter written by Walter Kirkpatrick, Class of 1813, to his cousin, Maria Cobb of Morristown, New Jersey dated July 6, 1812. In the letter, Kirkpatrick addresses the recent declaration of war, and the anticipated effect it will have on the college. He writes:

…War is indeed declared, yet it will not have that effect on this institution which you seemed to imagine it would have, the probability is that we shall continue here as we have done as idle spectators of the scene, since no student is obliged to perform military duty while he is a member of college ….Wednesday last a company of about one hundred soldiers passed through this place on their way to New York – They had with them 12 pieces of cannon, each piece being able to carry a ball of six pounds weight, and men followed at a considerable distance by four very large baggage-wagons guarded by about twenty soldiers…

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104, Box 73)

Walter Kirkpatrick letter, envelope

Walter Kirkpatrick letter, page 1

Walter Kirkpatrick letter, page 2

Walter Kirkpatrick letter, page 2

Several months later, James Garnett writes again to his mother, describing a camp of soldiers outside of Princeton:

I received your letter of the 15th on last evening; I had just returned from looking at a body of soldiers who were encamped about a mile out of town, on the ground where the celebrated battle of Princeton was fought; I got there just as they were about to pitch their tents; after they had encamped several of the students and myself got permission to go into the camp that we might see how they were fixed – They seemed to live as comfortably as could be expected in marching, they slept on straw & there were about 400, in 80 tents; we had a long conversation with some of them concerning their fare & one said that they had a plenty of every thing but liberty, but nevertheless if he was at home again he’d warrant that they would not get him to enlist a second time; as it was, they had to coax, and make him drunk for 8 or 10 days before they got him; a second told us that he was very much averse to enlisting at first, but they persuaded him that he would be doing great service to his country & that it was his duty to fight for liberty – but let it be as it would he should not have much liberty until he got out of the army again; he said for his part he did not expect that more than one fourth of them would ever return, but he never thought much about it, for they all must die some time or other & it did not make much difference whether it was a little sooner or later.

Student Writings and Correspondence Collection (AC334, Box 9)

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are few other references to the War of 1812 within our collections. However, these brief student accounts provide insight into broader attitudes towards the war, while demonstrating the often curious nature of Princeton students. Any questions related to this material can be directed to mudd@princeton.edu.