In 1783 the United States obtained its independence with the end of the War for Independence, but less than 30 years later they would once again be engaged in war with Great Britain. The War of 1812 was very controversial at the time, and much debate persists to the present. The reasons the nation went to war were not entirely clear, and a large part of the country was opposed to it. Many mistakes were made in the prosecution of the conflict, and some of the populace was left with a mistaken view of what was achieved by the fight. In this paper we will review the causes of the war, how it was conducted, and what was achieved by it.

President James Madison

When the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 12, 1812, there was not one clear reason for the conflict. Historians have continued to debate the issue to this day. One thing frequently said, then and now, is that the War of 1812 was the Second American Revolution. Although the states had won their independence, England had not fully accepted it. This was manifested in what President James Madison called “a series of acts hostile to the United States as an independent and neutral nation.”1 Most of these involved the American maritime commerce. Britain was involved in a war with France, and the Americans conducted business with both sides. The English tried to prohibit American trade with France through the Orders in Council, and the Americans protested that these acts violated international law and their rights as a sovereign power. The British would stop American ships all over the world and forcibly search them, sometimes confiscating the ships and goods. They would impress into their navy any crew members that they believed were born in the British empire.2 The English did not think that citizenship could be transferred to a different country. They thought once a British citizen, always a British citizen. Therefore they refused to acknowledge the claims to American citizenship made by immigrants.3

Although this was the reason for which the war was declared, it soon became apparent that there were other issues involved. Just two days before the United States declared war, the British government suspended the Order in Council which had forbidden American trade with France. This removed the major stated cause of the war before it even began. But when President Madison heard about the repeal about fifty days later, he did not immediately declare victory. This was because there were other issues involved. Americans complained that the British in Canada encouraged the Indians to raid the United State’s western settlements. There was also a group in Congress called the War Hawks, who wanted to conquer Canada so that the United States would control all of North America. It was a combination of Britain’s restriction of American shipping, their impressment of American sailors, and the desire of the War Hawks to conquer Canada that caused the War of 1812.4

A Press Gang
A Press Gang

When the war began the United States was woefully unprepared. The regular army was very small and undisciplined, especially when compared with the impressive British forces. The Americans had to rely on militia, which proved time and time again to be unreliable. The United States’ strategy was to invade Canada and force Britain to end the war, but the Americans divided their forces, aiming for too many targets. The badly trained Americans were easily defeated by the Canadians, who were aided by their Indian allies and the British regulars. The fighting along the northern frontier was characterized by repeated American disasters punctuated by an occasional victory. The United States also had a difficult time combating England on the water. The British navy was huge, but the Americans did have seven frigates. The Americans won several glorious successes in single ship fights, but on a broad scale the British were able to maintain an efficient blockade on the American coast.5

This blockade only worsened the divide on the American home front. The Federalists of New England were opposed to the war, as the disagreements with Britain had been hurting their trade for years, and they had no interest in the conquest of Canada. There was even some talk of secession in the northeastern states,6 but this was put to rest when the war ended in 1815. In 1814 the British armies were freed up to concentrate on America with the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and they launched several major offensives. The new capitol of Washington was burnt, but the Americans were cheered by the successful defense of Fort McHenry.7

US Capitol, 1814
US Capitol, 1814

Although after the end of the Napoleonic wars the British had more resources to devote to the War of 1812, their people were tired of fighting. The Americans were also tired of the war, and peace delegates were sent to Ghent, Belgium. There the Treaty of Ghent was signed, essentially restoring the status quo from before the war. Although no territory changed sides, the United States came out having achieved several important things. The search and seizure of American ships was over, though that had not been affected by the war. The Americans had shown the British that they were still willing to fight for their sovereignty, and the impressment of American sailors ceased. The relationship between the two countries would improve to the point where they were fighting as allies in the World Wars.8

But the United States was also left with several unfortunate legacies from the war. After the peace treaty was signed, but before the news of it had reached America, the Battle of New Orleans was fought in Louisiana. Andrew Jackson, leading the American force, which was mostly militia, resoundingly defeated the 11,000 British soldiers. Although it had no impact on the outcome of the war, the battle was crucial in shaping the American memory. Although for most battles the service of the militia had been very disappointing, the people were left with the greatest victory of the war fresh in their minds. It seemed that the reliance on the militia as then organized was validated. The Americans continued to believe that their civilian soldiers, virtually untrained and raised just before the battle, were the ones responsible for a victory of the United States during the War of 1812.9 This would lead to the nation yet again repeating its mistakes in coming conflicts.

USS Constitution destroys the HMS Guerriere
USS Constitution destroys the HMS Guerriere

1. John Frost, The Presidents of the United States from Washington to Cleveland (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1889) p. 102.
2. Donald Snow and Dennis Drew, From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2010) 3rd ed. p. 263-254.
3. Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812 (New York: Vintage Books, 2011) p. 5.
4From Lexington to Baghdad, p. 264-265.
5Ibid, p. 267-270.
6. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004) p. 173.
7From Lexington to Baghdad, p. 270.
8Ibid, p. 270-271.

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