War hawk

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Origins of
the War of 1812
ChesapeakeLeopard Affair
Orders in Council (1807)
Embargo Act of 1807
Non-Intercourse Act (1809)
Macon's Bill Number 2
Tecumseh's War
Henry letters
War Hawks
Rule of 1756
Monroe–Pinkney Treaty
Little Belt Affair

A war hawk, or simply hawk, is a term used in politics for someone favoring war in a debate over whether to go to war, or whether to continue or escalate an existing war. War hawks are the opposite of doves. The terms are derived by analogy with the birds of the same name: hawks are predators that attack and eat other animals, whereas doves mostly eat seeds and fruit and are historically a symbol of peace.

Historical group[edit]

The term originated in the run-up to the War of 1812 with the "War Hawks", who consisted of Democratic-Republicans and were primarily from southern and western states. (The American West then consisted of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, as well as territories in the Northwest Territory that did not yet have votes in Congress.) Largely from the older block of the Congress and encompassing most Republicans,[1] the War Hawks advocated going to war against Britain for reasons related to the interference of the Royal Navy in American shipping, which the War Hawks believed hurt the American economy and injured American prestige, although that did not directly affect the land-locked states. Of more direct concern to them, War Hawks from the western states also believed that the British were instigating American Indians on the frontier to attack American settlements, and so the War Hawks called for an invasion of British Canada to punish the British and end this threat.[2]

Henry Clay, one of the most significant members of the War Hawks.[3]

The term "War Hawk" was coined by the prominent Virginia Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke, a staunch opponent of entry into the war. There was, therefore, never any "official" roster of War Hawks; as historian Donald Hickey notes, "Scholars differ over who (if anyone) ought to be classified as a War Hawk."[4] One scholar believes the term "no longer seems appropriate".[5] However, most historians use the term to describe about a dozen members of the Twelfth Congress. The leader of this group was Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was another notable War Hawk. Both of these men became major players in American politics for decades. Other men traditionally identified as War Hawks include Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, William Lowndes of South Carolina, Langdon Cheves of South Carolina, Felix Grundy of Tennessee, and William W. Bibb of Georgia.[3]

The notion that this loose faction of congressional War Hawks pressured President James Madison to pursue armed conflict with Great Britain is both enduring and dubious. Historians such as Clement Eaton claim that Madison and Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin felt that the United States was unprepared for war and unsuccessfully attempted to defeat the War Hawk movement.[3] However, as J.C.A. Stagg notes, this is unlikely due to the relationship between the legislative and executive branches in the early Republic. Congress was loosely organized and rarely took policymaking initiative. The President set the legislative agenda for Congress, providing committees in the House of Representatives with policy recommendations to be introduced as bills on the House floor.[6]

Variations of the term[edit]

In modern American usage "hawk" means a fierce advocate for a cause or policy, such as "deficit hawk" or "privacy hawk".

The term also created the term "chicken hawk", referring to a war hawk who avoided military service.

The term liberal hawk is a derivation of the traditional phrase, in the sense that it denotes an individual with "socially liberal" inclinations coupled with an aggressive outlook on foreign policy.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Roger H. Brown, "The War Hawks of 1812: An Historical Myth" in Indiana Magazine of History[1], Vol LX (June 1964), 137-151.
  2. ^ Reginald Horsman, The Causes of the War of 1832 (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1962), ch. 13.
  3. ^ a b c Eaton, Clement (1957). Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. p. 25. 
  4. ^ Donald Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 334n.8.
  5. ^ Daniel M. Smith, The American Diplomatic Experience (Boston, 1972) p.60
  6. ^ Stagg, J.C.A. (1976), "James Madison and the "Malcontents": The Political Origins of the War of 1812", The William and Mary Quarterly 33 (4): 557–585, doi:10.2307/1921716