With the retirement of the USS Simpson, the two century old USS Constitution, is the only active US Navy ship to have sunk an enemy vessel. “Old Ironsides” sank several pirate ships in the First Barbary War and six British vessels in the War of 1812.
Archive for the War of 1812 Category
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.
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
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
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.
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.
4. From Lexington to Baghdad, p. 264-265.
5. Ibid, 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.
7. From Lexington to Baghdad, p. 270.
8. Ibid, p. 270-271.
It is frequently said today that American was founded as a Christian nation. While that was true to some extent, there were those at the time who vehemently decried the godlessness of the founding. One of these was Timothy Dwight, grandson of the great preacher Jonathan Edwards. Dwight was a preacher and president of Yale College. He said this in a sermon on a day of fasting, appointed for the declaration of the War of 1812 against Great Britain:
Notwithstanding the prevalence of Religion, … the irreligion, and the wickedness, of our land are such, as to furnish a most painful and melancholy prospect to a serious mind. We formed our Constitution without any acknowledgment of God ; without any recognition of his mercies to us, as a people, of his government, or even of his existence. The Convention, by which it was formed, never asked, even once, his direction, or his blessing upon their labours. Thus we commenced our national existence under the present system, without God. I wish I could say, that a disposition to render him the reverence, due to his great Name, and the gratitude, demanded by his innumerable mercies, had been more public, visible, uniform, and fervent.1
1. A Discourse, in Two Parts, Delivered July 23, 1812 on the Public Fast, in the Chapel of Yale College by Timothy Dwight (New Haven, Howe and Deforest, 1812) p. 46.
Since the adoption of the United States Constitution twenty-seven amendments have been passed, and thousands more have been proposed. It may seem that it would be clear what exactly is the governing document of the United States, but some people argue that there is another “lost” amendment that was passed and is really part of the Constitution today. The missing amendment would have been the 13th, and it is called the Titles of Nobility Amendment.
The early 1800s, when this amendment was proposed in Congress, was a tumultuous time in American history. The nation was unstable, as it had just been reorganized under the Constitution. There were fears of a foreign intervention, and it wouldn’t be long until the War of 1812 broke out. It was these fears that prompted Democrat-Republican Senator Philip Reed of Maryland to propose this amendment:
If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain, any title of nobility or honor, or shall, without the consent of Congress, accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument, of any kind whatever, from any person, King, Prince or foreign Power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States, and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.1
The Constitution already banned any member of Congress from holding another office in the government. This amendment would expand this provision to prohibit any citizen from receiving any present, office or title from a foreign nation, and would punish them by stripping them of their citizenship. The Senate voted 19-5 to pass the amendment on April 26, 1810. Just a few days later, on May 1, the House approved it 87-3.
As the amendment had been passed by both houses of Congress, it could move on to the next step of the process – ratification by three quarters of the states, 13 of the 17 at the time. It is here that historical interpretations diverge. Everyone agrees that it was ratified by 12 states – Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It is also clear that it was rejected by three states – New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The debate is over whether the amendment was ratified by Virginia and South Carolina. If it was approved by either of them, that would make 13 states for ratification. Both of these states took action on the amendment. The South Carolina Senate voted to ratify it on November 28, 1811, but the House of Representatives rejected it years later, on December 21, 1814. Virginia’s House of Delegates voted for it on February 2, 1811, but the Senate rejected it on February 14.
Although there are no records today of these states passing the amendment in both houses, rumors began to spread at the time that the necessary 13 states had ratified it. Some records that may have clarified the issue were lost because the War of 1812 had begun. In 1814 the British captured Washington, DC, burning the White House, the Library of Congress, and other government buildings. Documents relating to the status of the amendment were lost forever. The government itself became confused. In 1817, the U.S. House of Representatives asked President James Monroe to inquire into the status of the amendment’s ratification. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams investigated the matter and reported that 12 states had voted for the amendment and two against it. Letters were sent to the governors of Virginia, Connecticut and South Carolina asking about the status of the amendment in their states. In 1818 Adams reported that he received a letter from the governor of South Carolina that his state had rejected the amendment.
This leaves only Virginia in question, and on its response would hang the entire question of the amendment. There are no records of a passage of the amendment by the Virginia legislature, or even correspondence between the governor and Adams. It would seem that the amendment had died one state short of ratification. But then on March 10, 1819, the Virginia legislature passed an act for the printing of the state’s laws, including the Constitution of the United States. In that printing of the Constitution is the 13th amendment, which from the records had not been ratified. But Virginia wasn’t the only state to print the 13th Amendment. Many 19th century printings of the Constitution contain the contested amendment. It can even be found in a printing by the Federal government of the Laws of the United States. On the other hand, in many printings it is missing. There was clearly confusion on the issue at the time.
Some argue that Virginia’s printing of the 13th Amendment in 1819 constituted a ratification. It is likely that the amendment’s inclusion was simply a clerical mistake, and that the Virginia legislature didn’t check the document carefully to ensure it was accurate. But even if the legislators intended the printing to be a ratification, a new problem is encountered. Between the passage of the amendment by Congress and the supposed ratification by Virginia in 1819, four more states had joined the Union, increasing the number of states necessary for ratification to 16. Although the Constitution is silent as to whether states who join during the ratification process participate in the vote, they always have been counted. The votes of new states were counted even for the ratification of the first amendments, the Bill of Rights. So even if Virginia had approved the amendment in 1819, three more states would have been necessary.
Although the argument that this 13th Amendment really is missing from the Constitution does not hold up to scrutiny with the evidence available today, its ratification is still possible. No expiration date was specified when the bill was passed by Congress. If a total of 38 states ratify the amendment today, it will become part of the Constitution.
One of the greatest battles of the War of 1812 was the Battle of Queenston Heights, in which the British forces turned back the American invasion of Canada. However this victory came the cost of their commander, Sir Issac Brock. One history of Canada recorded his death in this way:
General Brock had, as was his custom, risen before day-break; and hearing the cannonading, had summoned his aides Major Glegg and Lt.-Col. Macdonell, of the militia; and hastened towards the scene of action, arriving at the battery just as the Americans, under Captain Wool, had reached the heights in its rear. General Brock and his two officers had not time to remount, but were obliged to retire hastily with the twelve men who had been stationed in the battery, which was now immediately occupied by the enemy. Orders were now sent to Major-General Sheaffe to hasten up, from Fort George ; and also that a fire should be maintained from that point upon Fort Niagara opposite. Retiring, the British general met Captain Dennis’ party, and, placing himself at its head, advanced on foot to dislodge the Americans, who were keeping up a brisk fire of musketry. Conspicuous by his dress, his height, and the enthusiasm with which he animated his little band, General Brock furnished a ready mark for the enemy’s riflemen. He had not advanced far before he fell mortally wounded by a shot through his chest. As he fell he gave the order, “Push on, brave York Volunteers.” One of the men running to him, asked “Are you much hurt, sir?” but his only reply was, as he pressed his hand on his side, “Push on ; don’t mind me.”