In 1812, with questionable justification and inadequate preparation, the newly united States of America declare war on Great Britain, the most powerful nation on earth. In Backlash, five young Americans wage a war that drastically changes their life—and the history of the world.
Award-winning author Mike Klaassen began writing fiction when his sons were teenagers. His first two books were young-adult action-adventure novels influenced by his experience as a Kansas farm boy and as a Scoutmaster. A visit to the site of the Battle for New Orleans led Mike to write Backlash: A War of 1812 Novel, featuring five young Americans in the fight of their life. Ongoing research encouraged Mike to write books about the craft of writing fiction. The use of folktales as examples in his nonfiction books inspired him to begin Klaassen's Classic Folktales, a collection of ancient stories retold as novellas.
In 1812, the Federalists were the political party in opposition to President Madison and the Democratic-Republicans. To tell the Federalist side of the story, I chose a female character.
NOVEMBER 1811, WASHINGTON CITY
The carriage creaked and swayed as it slowed. Twenty-year-old Rachel Thurston grabbed the leather armrest and peeked out the window. Evening dew mixed with smoke from fireplaces already well stoked against the autumn chill. The lantern-lit, columned porch of the president’s mansion came into view. The devil’s lair, she figured. The enemy’s inner sanctum.
She glanced at her father, seated across from her in his forest-green suit. Mordecai Thurston had a reputation for being an intelligent and powerful businessman in Gloucester, and he had been chosen by merchants and bankers throughout Massachusetts to lobby the federal government on their behalf. Rachel was confident that his capabilities were more than a match for President Madison and his bumpkin friends.
Rachel was sure that, as a woman, she would never wield such influence. Still, she shared her father’s desires to defeat the Madisons’ plans. She welcomed the chance to meet President and Mrs. Madison, figuring that it was wise to know one’s enemies.
The carriage eased to a stop under the towering portico, and Rachel noted the brightness of the lanterns. A sense of pride flowed through her when she realized the lamps were most likely fueled by the best whale oil from Massachusetts, probably Nantucket or New Bedford. No doubt, the candles inside the mansion were made from another whaling product, spermaceti.
A smartly clad young black man opened the carriage door. Rachel’s father stepped to the cobblestones, then offered his hand as she eased down the steps. Rachel hesitated, resenting the implication that as a female she was incapable of stepping out of a carriage without assistance. Her father glared at her, daring her to resist his help and risk tripping in her floor-length gown. She forced herself to smile and accepted his hand. The black man latched the door, and the carriage pulled away.
Since arriving in Washington City, Rachel had marveled at the presence of so many black people. Unlike her home state of Massachusetts, here they seemed to be everywhere. She glanced at the somber-faced black and pitied him. She wished she could do something about the plight of slaves but realized there was little a young woman could do to help.
She gazed at the huge columns on either side of the entrance to the mansion. Although it was nothing compared to the homes she had visited the year before in England, the building was impressive.
Movement in the driveway caught her attention. Around the curve flew a team of four white horses pulling a gleaming globe. Two brightly clad coachmen stood solemn as sentinels at the rear. Gold-painted sides shimmered in the lantern light as the carriage glided to a stop at the mansion entrance.
Diamonds sparkled from the surface of the carriage door as it swung wide. Out stepped a flamboyantly dressed gentleman and a woman in a flowing gown. Although Rachel had been in Washington City for only a few days, she had heard of the carriage belonging to the French ministry.
Without a word Rachel’s father offered her his arm and led her up the mansion’s steps. They both despised the French and their notions about self-government.
In the foyer, more black servants directed them past a broad staircase. A well-dressed black man stood in the wide hallway. As they approached, he bowed slightly and spoke with a French accent. “Good evening, Mr. and Miss Thurston.”
Rachel wondered how the man knew their names. Then she realized his job was to know and greet each of the guests.
The black man extended an arm toward a noisy room across the hallway. “President and Mrs. Madison invite you to join them in the drawing room.”
As Rachel and her father headed toward a large room bustling with the conversation of several dozen guests, the well-dressed black man in the hallway welcomed the French minister and his wife in their native language.
At first Rachel had been confused by the greeting because there was no receiving line. Then she recalled her mother complaining that Thomas Jefferson had been a backwoods hick, thumbing his nose at established etiquette and turning the president’s residence into a ramshackle barn. Jefferson envisioned the new nation as egalitarian, where no man held higher status than another. Even prominent guests at Jefferson’s dinner table found themselves seated with backwoodsmen. Rachel’s mother had predicted that as Jefferson’s handpicked successor and fellow Virginian, Madison would be little better.
Rachel’s father guided her through the crowd, and soon her attention was drawn to a woman with hair piled high and wrapped in a turban of green silk. Around her neck hung a string of pearls, and the low-cut neckline of her dress revealed ample cleavage. Below a high-fitting bodice, the flimsy white fabric of her gown flowed as freely as that of a Grecian goddess. Given the large number of people clustered around the woman, Rachel had no doubt this was the she-devil herself, Mrs. Madison.
Around the room other women wore turbans, some decorated with bright feathers. Several also wore the high-bodice dresses championed in Europe by Emperor Napoleon’s former wife, Josephine. Rachel recalled that Mrs. Madison, herself a renowned dressmaker, had adapted Josephine’s style to her own tastes, moderating the plunge of the neckline and rejecting the nearly transparent fabric popular in Paris. Mrs. Madison’s styles were emulated throughout the States.
Her father eased her forward again, and Rachel was reminded why the president’s wife was widely regarded as a woman of beauty. Her features included everything men regarded with favor—a plump, well-endowed figure with a lovely, rounded face.
Mrs. Madison glanced at Rachel, then at her father. With a smile of recognition, she said, “Mr. Thurston, how nice to see you again.”
“Thank you, madam. May I introduce my daughter, Rachel?”
“My dear,” said Mrs. Madison, “it is my great pleasure to meet you.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Please, call me Dolley.” The president’s wife smiled warmly. “I had the great pleasure of meeting your mother several years ago. My compliments. You’ve certainly inherited her beauty.”
Before Rachel could say anything, Dolley continued.
“Let me also say how sorry I was to hear of the loss of your mother. I do look forward to visiting with you later. But let me assure you, if you need anything while you’re in Washington City, just let me know.”
From behind her, Rachel could hear the French ambassador. Dolley’s attention switched to the approaching couple, but she patted Rachel’s hand lightly as her father led her away.
Rachel’s father guided her through the crowd again. They stopped in front of a short, frail man dressed in black. Her father stepped forward, and President Madison extended his hand. Although he was barely as tall as Rachel, Madison looked distinguished in his white-powdered wig and black suit.
Rachel thought the man’s breeches, stockings, and silver-buckled shoes terribly old-fashioned. With skin as pale as parchment, the president appeared to be nearly fifty, although his wife seemed many years younger. Despite herself, Rachel felt goose bumps at the sight of the man often referred to as the Father of the Constitution.
Madison smiled warmly with a mischievous glint to his eyes. “How very nice of you to join us, Mr. Thurston. I do look forward to chatting with you later this evening.”
Mordecai Thurston nodded slightly. “It is always a pleasure, Mr. President.”
Rachel thought the title “Mr. President” a little odd but figured it was less presumptuous than “Your Excellency,” as President Washington had been addressed.
“May I present my daughter, Rachel?”
“Certainly.” The president turned to her and extended his hand. “Welcome to Washington City, young lady.”
She curtsied slightly and offered her hand. He clutched it warmly, bent at the waist, and kissed her fingers lightly.
“Thank you—Mr. President. It’s an honor to meet you.”
Madison shifted position slightly, as if he were at a loss for further conversation. But then he said, “My dear, I understand that you have only recently arrived in Washington City. What do you think of our nation’s capital so far?”
She recalled her disappointment upon arrival. Compared to London or even Boston, Washington City was a backwater village. Other than a handful of government buildings, the capital was little more than a town surrounded by dense forest and swamp. “I’m sure it will be beautiful,” she said, “when it is complete.”
Madison chuckled. His blue eyes sparkled in the lantern light. “I assure you that it is quite magnificent—at least on paper.”
Her father led her back into the crowd. She hadn’t expected to like either the president or his wife, but she had to admit they were both charming.
In Gloucester, her mother had railed against the mob that had rebelled against Great Britain, damning the rebels and their presumption to break with the nation that had given birth to the colonies and nurtured their growth.
Rachel acknowledged that Great Britain had treated her American colonies unfairly, and she accepted the need for the colonies to break away. But the direction the new government was taking seemed all wrong and would surely lead to disaster.
Rachel noticed the beautiful red-velvet drapery framing the ceiling-high windows. A life-size portrait of George Washington dominated one wall. The room sparkled with candles and lanterns and mirrors. A faint aroma of spices mixed with smoke from the fireplaces.
Her father struck up a conversation with several well-dressed gentlemen, and Rachel eased over to a group of women. She hoped for an opportunity to introduce herself, but the conversation stopped abruptly and all eyes turned to someone behind her.
Rachel recognized the voice and turned. President Madison had approached her.
He bowed slightly. “Would you do me the honor of accompanying me to dinner?” He extended his arm. The whole room fell silent as the crowd looked in her direction.
Madison smiled and slipped her arm into the crook of his elbow. “Come along, my dear. I do believe Dolley has prepared something special this evening.”
With nerves tingling, Rachel clutched the president’s arm as he led her into the hallway and then through a doublewide door to a huge room filled with tables.