The War of 1812

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The War of 1812


Causes. President James Madison called Congress into early session on 4 November 1811 to report on Britains hostile inflexibility and continued trampling on rights which no independent nation can relinquish. On 1 June 1812, after the latest diplomatic dispatches revealed that Britain would not revise its policies, President Madison asked Congress to declare war. Madison cited Britains long history of abuses against the United States: impressment (over six thousand incidents between 1803 and 1812), violations of neutral trade, and incitement of Indian warfare on the western frontier. After secret debate the House of Representatives approved a declaration of war on 4 June by a vote of 7949. The Senate approved a declaration on 17 June by a vote of 1913. The vote for or against war was political. In the House 33 of the 49 opponents of war were Federalists. The 16 Republicans who voted against the war were generally anti-Madison Republicans such as John Randolph of Virginia. The West and the South strongly favored the war, leading some historians to conclude that fear of Indian warfare and expansionist designs on Canada and Florida were a cause of the war. While these may have been factors in swaying some western and southern congressmen to support the war, it is important to note that they also represented states that produced farm products for export and suffered from British restrictions on neutral commerce. Federalists wondered why the United States did not go to war against France for its violations of neutral trade, but Republicans believed that French abuses were in the past while Britain seemed intent on keeping her former colonies in a subordinate position forever. In the words of Republican Congressman John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, a war hawk and member of the Foreign Relations Committee: The period has now arrived, when the United States must support their character and station among the nations of the earth, or submit to the most shameful degradation.

An Unprepared Nation. The Republicans had come to power promising to restore limited government, reduce the army and navy, and abolish internal taxes. The fulfillment of those promises impaired the ability of the United States to wage war against Britain. Beginning in December 1811, Congress quickly moved to enlarge the army that the Republicans had worked so hard to reduce. Over the next several months Congress passed legislation to bring the regular army up to its authorized strength often thousand, enlist an additional twenty-five thousand regulars for five years service, and authorize the president to call up one hundred thousand state militia for six months service. By the time war broke out in June 1812 the strength of the regular army was still under seven thousand, and its officers were either aged Revolutionary War veterans or men who owed their commissions to political connections, not military ability. The lack of central control over recruiting meant that the regular army, volunteer army, and militias often competed for the same men. The result was that the regular army probably never exceeded thirty-five thousand men during the war. Antiwar governors in Federalist New England refused to detach their militia for federal service, upholding their constitutional interpretation that the militia was an emergency army called into temporary service to repel invasion, not an offensive army. The U.S. Navy had good officers, but when the war began it numbered only sixteen vessels to face the worlds strongest navy. The Republican Congress, living up to their partys antitax philosophy, did not authorize war taxes until the summer of 1813. Instead, Congress authorized the government to borrow $11 million in March 1812 and authorized additional loans throughout the war. The failure to recharter the National Bank in February 1811 forced the Treasury Department to rely on a decentralized system of state banks, which offered unattractive interest rates. Public response to the loans was poor, especially among New Englands moneyed men, who stood firmly against the war. It is easy to understand why a group of congressmen who opposed the war criticized the weakness and wildness of the project.

Military Events. The main American military objective was the conquest of Canada, but inept military leadership and reliance on the militia resulted in failure in 1812. In August plans to invade Canada from the Northwest ended when the timid and indecisive Gen. William Hull surrendered Detroit to the British. In October, American regulars lost the Battle of Queenston Heights in Canada when the New York militia refused to cross the Canadian border to support them. In November the refusal of militia forces to leave the United States ended Gen. Henry Dearborns planned attack on Montreal. Naval victories by the U.S.S. Constitution and U.S.S. United States in 1812 boosted morale but had no strategic importance. By 1813 the Royal Navys blockade of the American coast guaranteed Britains dominance of the seas. Under Secretary of War John Armstrong, who took office in February 1813, younger and more capable officers such as Jacob Brown, Andrew Jackson, and Winfield Scott began to receive combat commands, but military progress in 1813 was still disappointing. In April an American army under Gen. Henry Dearborn and Gen. Zebulon Pike looted and burned York (Toronto), but in the autumn Gen. Wade Hamptons retreat at the Châteauguay River and Gen. James Wilkinsons defeat at

Chryslers Farm ended hopes of taking Montreal. Fortunately, Capt. Oliver Hazard Perrys destruction of the British fleet at Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie in September, followed by Gen. William Henry Harrisons defeat of British-Indian forces at the Battle of the Thames in October, restored American control of the Northwest. In July 1814 Gen. Jacob Brown and Gen. Winfield Scott crossed the Niagara River into Canada, defeating the British at the Battle of Chippewa, and Brown fought the British to a standstill in the Battle of Lundys Lane, marking the last American attempt to conquer Canada. With Napoleon Bonapartes defeat in April 1814, Britain prepared for a final offensive. Sir George Prevosts plan to secure Canada by cutting off New England from the rest of the United States failed in September when Capt. Thomas Macdonoughs American squadron defeated the British on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh. Meanwhile, a British diversionary force occupied Washington, D.C., in August, burning the Executive Mansion and the Capitol, but successful resistance forced the British to abandon plans to capture Baltimore. The war was at a stalemate.

Hartford Convention. Several times between 1800 and 1814 New England Federalists had called for conventions to address their grievances at the hands of Republican administrations, and in 1804 they considered secession and the formation of a northern confederacy. When Federalist delegates from the New England states assembled in Hartford, Connecticut, in December 1814, Republicans might well have believed that they were plotting disunion. After all, the New England states had obstructed the war by refusing to detach their militia for federal service, not subscribing to loans financing the war, and trading with the enemy in Canada until Congress was forced to impose an embargo in December 1813. But the delegates to the Hartford Convention defended their meeting as a necessary response to their defenseless situation, caused by a Republican administration more interested in conquering Canada than in protecting its citizens from invasion. It is clear from their report, however, that the Federalists had a broader goal: how to protect their interests and restore the political power taken away by the Republicans. In seeking a solution to the problem of protecting minority rights from the majority the delegates upheld Thomas Jefferson and James Madisons doctrine of nullification, but only as a last resort. Instead, they offered seven constitutional amendments to limit the power of the federal government and the influence of the South and the West, including a one-term limit for the presidency, a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress to admit new states, and the repeal of the three-fifths clause, which gave the South so much political power. On the same day the New England delegates reached the burned city of Washington, D.C., with their demands, news arrived that Andrew Jackson had defeated a superior British army at New Orleans, and that the United States and Britain had signed a peace treaty. The delegates, fearing that they looked like fools, or worse, traitors, quickly left the city.

The Battle of New Orleans. Andrew Jacksons performance in the Creek War earned him a major-generals commission in the regular army and command of the Seventh Military District, which included Tennessee, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Territory, in May 1814. In early December 1814 Jackson began assembling a military force made up of regular army troops; militia from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana; free African American volunteers; Choctaw Indians; and Jean Laffites pirates. He also began building entrenchments in preparation for a British assault on New Orleans. On 1 January 1815 American artillerists and riflemen held off an assault by a British army under Sir Edward Pakenham. One week later Pakenhams reinforced army of six thousand men launched a frontal assault. Jackson directed a devastating combination of artillery and rifle fire that inflicted more than two thousand British casualties, including Pakenham and two other British generals. The Americans suffered only twenty-one casualties. Neither Jackson nor the rest of the nation knew that a peace treaty had been signed two weeks earlier, so it could be argued that the Battle of New Orleans was a wasted effort. But in a war that was short of resounding victories, Americans celebrated the Battle of New Orleans as a glorious defense of American honor.

The Treaty of Ghent. Neither nation had achieved the decisive military victory that would have allowed it to press all its demands during peace negotiations, but American commissioners John Quincy Adams, Albert Gallatin, Henry Clay, and James Bayard deserve credit for their achievements in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent. The treaty stipulations affirmed the status quo ante bellum (the state of affairs before the war). By December 1814, when the treaty was signed, the repeal of the British orders-in-council had solved the problem of neutral trade and the European peace had solved the problem of impressment, making it unnecessary for the American diplomats to force those issues in negotiations. However, they would not give in to British demands for the creation of an Indian buffer state in the Northwest, territorial cessions in Maine and New York, and the right of navigation on the Mississippi River. The United States had ended hostilities without losing any territory and asserted its status as an independent nation that would no longer stand for the violation of its neutral rights or the humiliation of impressment. Perhaps the best measure of the impact of the war is how Americans learned from the experiences and mistakes of the war and applied those lessons to postwar America. After the war the United States reorganized the Army, Navy, and War Department to correct the defects revealed during the War of 1812. In his message to Congress in December 1815 President Madison acknowledged the financial difficulties caused by the lack of a national bank and the supply problems caused by the poor conditions of American roads, and he recognized the value of American domestic manufacturing, stimulated by the trade disruptions of the war. Madisons recommendations that Congress approve a national bank, federal support for transportation and internal improvements, and protective tariffs were all enacted in the years immediately following the War of 1812. Americans also emerged from the war with a message to the world that their experiment in republicanism had been proven successful.


James M. Banner Jr., To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 17891815 (New York: Knopf, 1970);

Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965);

Marshall Smelser, The Democratic Republic, 18011815 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968);

J. C. A. Stagg, Mr. Madisons War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 17831830 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).