Mr. Madison’s War
At President James Madison’s urging, Congress declared war on Great Britain in June 1812. This marked the second time in less than 40 years that the United States went to war against the mighty British Empire. There were several reasons for declaring war, with some more noble than others.
Remnants of Anti-British Sentiments
In the first decade of 1800, war ravaged Europe as the French under Napoleon Bonaparte fought to control the Continent. Napoleon’s primary obstacle to European domination was Great Britain. Both the British and French continued trading with the U.S., but they also worked to sabotage each others’ trade, thus harming the U.S. in the process.
U.S. officials debated whether France or Britain was more to blame. The Jefferson administration (1801-1809) tended to favor France because of their historic alliance with the U.S. against the British in the War for Independence. As such, there was more anti-British sentiment in the U.S. than anti-French.
Causing further outrage in the U.S. was the British policy of impressment, in which the Royal Navy stopped U.S. ships at sea and impressed, or forced, U.S. sailors into British naval service on the grounds that they were British deserters. Americans denounced this practice, feeling that the British were infringing on their liberty just as they had before the War for Independence.
However, this anti-British sentiment was not shared by most Americans in New England, primarily because the New England states relied heavily on British imports. A series of boycotts and embargoes were imposed in the U.S., but that hurt U.S. commerce more than Britain or France, and it caused an economic downturn. It also encouraged smuggling as many New Englanders openly violated the laws by conducting an illicit trade with Britain.
The “War Hawks”
In 1811, many young congressmen from the new western states entered Congress. These “War Hawks” called for war against Britain, not so much for violations at sea since their states had no sea ports, but because they believed that the British were inciting Native American uprisings in their region. Perhaps more importantly, many of these new politicians sought to seize Canada from Britain and possibly even Florida from Spain, a British ally.
With the anti-British fervor accelerating, President James Madison delivered a war message to Congress on June 1, 1812. Madison cited British impressments and violations of free trade at sea as the primary reasons. The House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 in favor of war, and the Senate followed with a 19 to 13 vote in favor, thus declaring war on Britain. However, the divided votes were an ominous sign that not all Americans would support what critics called “Mr. Madison’s War.”
The U.S. war effort was hampered by an ill-equipped military and dissenters who openly sided with the enemy. Nevertheless, the U.S. emerged from this war more powerful than ever before.
Attempts to Conquer Canada
Almost immediately after declaring war, the U.S. began mobilizing to invade Canada. The British had most of their military units in Europe fighting Napoleon, so only thin garrisons held Canada. Even so, U.S. forces surrendered both Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) and Detroit in August 1812. The British repulsed a U.S. attack on Queenston, and an expedition on Lake Champlain failed when state militia units insisted on their constitutional right not to be sent outside their states.
On the other hand, U.S. forces managed to defeat the British at the Thames and Chippewa. Also, U.S. troops burned York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. However, a failed invasion of Montreal in late 1813 ended any U.S. aspirations to conquer Canada.
Battles at Sea
At the time, Great Britain possessed the most powerful navy in the world. Hopelessly inferior, the U.S. revived their policy from the War for Independence by hiring privateers to harass British shipping. And surprisingly, the U.S. navy won an astounding 80 percent of its battles in the war.
The most significant U.S. naval victory occurred when U.S.S. Constitution compelled the British Guerriere to surrender. Constitution’s resilient hull gave her the nickname “Old Ironsides.” Another dramatic victory occurred on Lake Erie in 1813, where U.S. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry declared, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
Conversely, the most significant British victory on water was Shannon’s defeat of U.S.S. Chesapeake off Boston on June 1, 1813. In addition, Britain nearly decimated the U.S. economy by blockading U.S. sea ports.
By 1814, the war in Europe had ended and Britain turned its full attention to North America. The British revised their strategy and began sending mass reinforcements in a three-pronged offensive at Lake Champlain, Chesapeake Bay, and New Orleans intended to split the U.S. into thirds.
The Lake Champlain offensive failed when the U.S. navy scored a spectacular victory over the British. In the Chesapeake Bay offensive, the British invaded Washington, D.C. and burned the White House and the Capitol, partly in retaliation for the U.S. burning of York. This was the only successful attack on Washington in U.S. history, and it ranks with Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001 as one of the most traumatic foreign attacks on U.S. soil.
However, the Chesapeake offensive faltered when the British failed to take Baltimore. The British bombardment of Fort McHenry outside the town inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
By the fall of 1814, the British employed the third prong of their offensive by sending a large army to invade New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico.
New England Threatens Secession
After two years of fighting, neither side had claimed an advantage, although the British blockade was slowly bankrupting the U.S. Adding to this was lack of trading with Britain, which crippled the U.S. economy, particularly in New England. Consequently, New Englanders who had opposed the war from the outset began openly clamoring for it to end.
During the war, New Englanders refused to provide state militia to the federal army and maintained communication and illegal trade with the British. This not only provided aid and comfort to the enemy, but it reduced the bargaining power of U.S. negotiators trying to reach a peace. Then in December 1814, disgruntled New England Federalists met in Hartford to discuss seceding from the Union.
The Hartford Convention marked the first major secession movement in U.S. history. The delegates ultimately voted against secession, instead proposing several amendments to the Constitution that would favor them (none were adopted). Despite secession’s defeat, the idea of even entertaining such a notion during a war outraged many Americans. This disgraced the Federalists as a result, and secession would afterwards be associated with treason.
Peace and Victory
In late 1814, U.S. and British negotiators worked in Ghent, Belgium to forge a peace. After conceding that no advantage could be gained by either side, officials of the U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814. The U.S. withdrew its two major demands–that Britain stop impressing U.S. seamen and acknowledge U.S. free trade at sea–mainly because U.S. officials knew that Britain would honor these demands anyway after having won the war in Europe. Negotiators agreed to refer other territorial disputes to commissions, where they stalled for decades.
News of this treaty had not yet reached the U.S. when the British attacked New Orleans on January 8, 1815. A 3,000-man British army attacked fortified U.S. positions commanded by General Andrew Jackson and was severely defeated. This made Jackson a national hero.
Although the Battle of New Orleans had no impact since the war had already ended, it made the “peace without victory” provisions of the Treaty of Ghent more acceptable to U.S. officials. Although nothing was gained or lost, the War of 1812 set many significant trends for the U.S.:
First, the Federalist Party ultimately dissolved, largely because their opposition to the war repulsed so many Americans. This left the Democratic-Republicans unopposed in U.S. politics until the new Democratic Party was organized in 1828.
Second, the war created the idea that secession equaled treason, as many condemned the Hartford Convention for considering secession during a war. This concept inspired future politicians to declare that the Union is indivisible and secession is illegal, which ultimately led to civil war when the federal government prohibited the southern states from seceding in 1861.
Third, the war led to the ultimate destruction of Native American power east of the Mississippi River. Without British help, Native tribes were pushed out of the Ohio River Valley, and the Creek Natives were driven out of Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. This war also laid the groundwork for the Seminole Wars that drove the Natives out of Florida and eventually moved all Natives west in the “Trail of Tears.”
Most importantly, the war showed that the U.S. could stand up to the most powerful nation in the world. This raised the U.S. to a level closer to the European powers. By earning British respect, the U.S. would be more respected by European nations in future negotiations. More than anything else, this was why the War of 1812 has sometimes been called the “Second War for Independence.”
- Haythornthwaite, Philip J.: The Napoleonic Source Book (London, England: Arms and Armour Press, 1991)
- Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Books, 2004)
- Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving, The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1975)
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