The Splendid Little War

This is a short little essay I had to do discussing what I thought Ambassador hays meant when he referred to the Spanish American War as a “ splendid little war.”  I personally thought this was rather a silly topic to write on, as his meaning seems quite clear if you know anything about the war, but it gave me a good opportunity to give a brief synopsis of the war for anyone who doesn’t know about this minor war.

The Splendid Little War

            The famous quote by American Ambassador John Hay that the Spanish American War was a “splendid little war,” was a comprehensive statement.  In our day and age such a statement might be looked on with some disdain, as it seems to revel in a bloody conflict, as all wars are.  But whether this phrase was truly a statement of enjoyment or merely a statement of fact, it was from an American perspective, entirely accurate.  All of America’s stated political objectives were met, and it received several colonies in addition.  In this essay, Ambassador Hay’s words will be treated as a statement of fact.

A brief summary of the events of the Spanish American War will help us to illustrate exactly what the Ambassador meant by his exuberant quote.  The explosion of the battleship Maine on February 15, 1898, was merely the catalyst that pushed Americans over the brink to declare war on the Spanish.  The Spanish colony of Cuba had long been the soft spot for the American sensibilities of independence and freedom from oppression.  Beyond this, however, were added economic considerations.  Continued Cuban rebellions against their oppressive Spanish masters was bad for American business there, and the Americans had much interest in the island for this reason as well.  Now, with the sinking of the Maine as a rallying cry, public sentiment at last was empowered and overcame the reluctant President McKinley.  America declared war on Spain.

           USS Maine

The American Navy was the first branch to take action, quickly blockading Cuba.   The Asiatic squadron under the command of Commodore Dewey also sailed for Manila Bay to attack the Spanish fleet there.  This battle of Manila Bay was the first example of the “splendid little war.”  The Spanish fleet was utterly destroyed and the American fleet only suffered nine casualties.  A more ideal outcome to a naval conflict could hardly be imagined.  It was certainly “splendid” news for the nervous President.  Back in the East, the Navy once again had a Spanish Fleet trapped in a harbor.  The Spanish Admiral Cervera had sailed his ships from the Cape Verde Islands to Santiago, where he was summarily confined by Rear Admiral William Sampson.  The army was somewhat slower, but by mid-June, Major General William Shafter had 17,000 men ready to sail for Cuba.  When they arrived, however, the disembarkation of the troops and supplies was anything but ideal.  It took four days before all the men were ashore.  If part of the war wasn’t providing “splendid” news it was the army’s logistical troubles and miscommunications with the Navy.  But even here, while the operations weren’t going smoothly, neither were they being opposed by the enemy, which is certainly “splendid news to any commander who is having difficulty getting his men deployed and his supplies ashore.

With his troops ashore, Shafter marched on Santiago and soon forced the Spanish back to their inner defenses.  With the Americans approaching by land, Admiral Cervera decided to brave the American blockade on 3 July and attempted to break out of the harbor.  Once again the American fleet devastated the Spanish, taking even fewer casualties than they had in the Battle of Manila Bay.  The Spanish garrison soon surrendered the city and Cuba came under American control.  On July 25, General Miles landed on Puerto Rico and advanced across the island with almost no opposition.  Peace came before the capture of San Juan could even be made.

 Roosevelt's Rough Riders

In conclusion, the Spanish American war was indeed “a splendid little war” for America.  From the opening shots at Manila Bay, to the end of hostilities, the Spanish American War lasted just over three months.  All the political objectives that were decided upon were accomplished.  The extra bonus of additional territories was above and beyond the political expectations for the war.  The war could not have been more successful.


Civil Disobedience

This essay should have a little bit of an introduction.  It was written to discuss whether the possibility of Thoreau’s philosophy as laid out in his work, Civil Disobedience, is actually reasonable.


            For those of you who may not be aware, Henry David Thoreau was a political theorist and philosopher.  His work, Civil Disobedience was published in 1849, and was a direct response to the Mexican War.

Henry David Thoreau

On Civil Disobedience in Regards to the Mexican War

            The Mexican War was one of several controversial conflicts in the history of the United States.  At the time of the Mexican war, the controversy over slavery was dominating much of domestic politics.  Recent legislation, such as the Missouri Compromise, after the Louisiana Purchase, were all focused on the issue of the expansion of slavery.  Only a few years after the writing of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, a new wave of debate over slavery and slave territories would erupt with such infamous legislation as the Compromise of 1850, the Wilmot Proviso and the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This new wave of debates was caused by the winning of the War with Mexico and all the territory gained through the Gadsden Purchase.  It was a time of political upheaval and civil dissention.  Tempers ran hot on both sides of the issues of the day, and no less so on the issue of the Mexican War.

As mentioned earlier, the Mexican war was not a popular war.  Deep-rooted suspicions surrounded it, especially in the North.  Many of those opposed to slavery thought that the South was hoping to gain more representation in Congress for the slave states through the acquisition of the southwestern territories using the Missouri Compromise.  This idea naturally made the war less popular in the North.  There were also those who thought that personal political considerations, on the part of President Polk, were playing a significant role in the way the war was conducted. Still others saw the war as naked imperialism and considered such grasping at power and territory to be immoral.  Then there were those who supported the war.  They were the citizens who believed in what was called the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.  They considered this American expansion as the natural and right course of action.  California was already more populated by American settlers than Mexicans.  Texas was already an independent republic and was recognized by the American government as such, even if the Mexican government did not.  This free, independent republic wanted to gain entrance to the Union, as did California.  The land in between these two regions was almost entirely unpopulated and to those who held the view of Manifest Destiny, there was no reason why it should not belong to America.  It was clear to all, however, that the territories would not be given up by Mexico without a fight.

Turning to Civil Disobedience, what, in Thoreau’s words, was the purpose of the act of civil disobedience and what gain was to be had?  Furthermore, what did this perspective have to say about the period in which it was written?  We shall begin to answer these questions.  In his work, Thoreau clearly lays out the purpose for conducting civil disobedience:

“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? … Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence… if a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood.  This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible… When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.  But even suppose blood should flow.  Is there not a sort of bloodshed when the conscience is wounded?” 


The purpose for civil disobedience is to reform government to fit your agenda.  It is revolution for the cause of what you perceive as right. Early on in his essay Thoreau makes this, one of the most telling and defining statements of the work, “It is not desirable to develop a respect for the law, so much as for the right.  The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.”

For Thoreau, this worked perfectly.  He did not think that it was right to try to force Mexico to give up land.  He considered the possible expansion of slavery evil.  Therefore, according to his philosophy, he should deny the government his money, talents and resources.  He should disobey the laws and means of injustice in the government.  The trouble with this philosophy is that people’s ideas on what is right and wrong are not always the same.  For example, the Texan settlers rebelled against the Mexican government, and became an independent republic.  The majority wanted to join the United States.  It is safe to say, however, that not every single inhabitant in the region of Texas wanted to become a state in the Union.  So, who’s “right” is right?  One would naturally come to the conclusion that the larger group would be right.  This conclusion is drawn from our engrained democratic principles.  This is not what we see Thoreau argue however.  On the contrary, Thoreau makes this statement.  “I think it is enough if they have God on their side [referring to the abolition of slavery], without waiting for that other one.  Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”  Here Thoreau plays on the religious sentiment of the day by invoking God into his argument, but then immediately dismisses Him in the next sentence as not being necessary.  The question remains.  Who’s right?  Thoreau’s philosophy breaks down completely as a practical way of operating.

Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience is nice in theory, but impossible in practice both today and back when it was written.  If we use Thoreau’s philosophy to decide whether or not the Mexican War was justifiable, we soon realize that the war in question could be considered as legitimate as any other war.  If we do not, there is actually room for debate on the subject.  The same fact applies for today.  Part of the nation is in favor of some political agenda.  The other part is not.  According to Thoreau, either side becomes right as soon as the decision is made.  It only depends on what you consider to be just or beneficial.

In conclusion, the ideas expounded in Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience are based on a fundamentally flawed premise.  While many of the concepts are very true and beneficial, such as government’s power being derived from the governed, and that the government must always endeavor to keep its laws on the moral high ground and in the best interest of all affected, there must be a standard to which all these judgments are based.  Thoreau only recommends the standard of personal opinion, and that is no standard at all.  The legitimacy of any action, both at the time when Civil Disobedience was written, and now, cannot be determined conclusively and objectively by the philosophy laid out in its pages.

Wyatt Fairlead

War of 1812

The War of 1812

 USS Constitution vs Guerriere

            The War of 1812 is one of those strange events in history that time has dimmed into relative obscurity.  Despite the vast consequences this war had on America generally, and American trade specifically, it is only ever considered one of the minor wars in the nation’s history.  Similar to the French and Indian war 50 years earlier, the War of 1812 was a direct by product of the political and military events going on in Europe at the time.  The War of 1812 is just another example of how America is inextricably linked, both historically and culturally, to Europe.

The Napoleonic wars were in full swing on the European continent in the first decade of the 19th century.  The French and English were fighting tooth and claw, straining both of their economies and armed forces.  It was this conflict that created one of the main causes, and the only stated cause, for the War of 1812, between Great Britain and America.  This cause was the infringement by both these European powers on American maritime trade.  America, in it’s position as a neutral country, was conducting trade with both the British and the French, and neither the British nor the French were satisfied with the opposing power receiving the benefits of this commerce.  Both nations tried to influence American trade by setting restrictions on it.  America, in turn tried unsuccessfully, through political pressure, in the form of the Embargo Act and other legislation, to create a more favorable trading environment in Europe.

In addition to the restrictions placed on trade by Great Britain and France, the British Navy continued to outrage Americans by their belligerent and disdainful treatment of American shipping.  It was a common practice of the Royal Navy, stretched thin because of the fight with France, and in need of manpower, to board American vessels and press hands into His Majesty’s service.  This clear disregard for American sovereignty and international law was an act of war (Snow & Drew, 2010).

The issue of British naval harassment of American shipping was the stated cause for the War of 1812, but there were other deep-rooted mistrusts of the British that were also considerations.  Primary among these was the common belief that the British were stirring up the Indians against American settlers in the west and making westward expansion difficult.  This is partially why much of the support for the war was concentrated on the western frontier of the nation.  Support for the invasion of Canada, with the goal of unseating British power on the North American continent, also came from the West and South (Snow & Drew, 2010).

Militarily, America had what could be called mixed results at best.  All three of the prongs of the invasion of Canada failed to achieve their objectives.  General Hull’s entire command was surrendered after an ignominious retreat back to Detroit, followed by General Brock, the British commander, who, with the aid of Indian chief Techumseh, was able to convince him that he was outmatched.  American Naval victories on Lake Erie and individual ship actions off the eastern seaboard slightly brightened an otherwise bleak picture.  General Harrison was able to recapture Detroit and then engage the British in Canada, with moderate success.  While this was happening however, the British gained the victory over Bonaparte in Europe and freed many assets, which could be used against the Americans.  This new influx of soldiery and naval support enabled the British to engage in such operations as the raids in the Chesapeake Bay and the burning of Washington D.C.  After deciding that operations against Fort McHenry and Baltimore to be impracticable, they withdrew from the bay and proceeded south to prepare for their campaign against New Orleans.  As these preparations were proceeding, peace talks were already underway at Ghent.  These concluded on December 24, 1814 and the treaty of Ghent was later to be ratified by the United States on January 8, 1815.

This peace treaty concluded the war and left the two nations in relatively the same positions that they started in. However, it was during the period that immediately followed the peace that the mutual benefit of harmony between the two nations was truly recognized.  American trade with England blossomed.  American commerce was a growing and successful part of the economy.  America’s national sovereignty also came to be recognized during this post war period.  Ironically, the Royal Navy came to be one of the main protectors of American commerce worldwide as America was still without a navy to speak of.  While the performance by the American armed forces was by all standards poor, and the war generally could not be considered a military victory, the peace that followed it was a time of growth and development for the fledgling nation.

While the War of 1812 was really a conflict that dealt with American sovereignty and its relative position to the European states, its main causes can be directly traced to the political and military events of those same European nations.  The influence this conflict had on America’s international status and its implications for American trade were significant and greatly affected the growth and development of the nation.  But despite these facts, it still remains a conflict that is obscure.  Perhaps this is due to America’s poor overall performance, or perhaps it is because no significant changes in the visible sense took place.  Whatever the case, the War of 1812 was a defining event in American history.

Wyatt Fairlead