People do not remember the War of 1812. It was a strange war. Washington burned, the American navy outperformed the British navy, and the U.S. army invaded Canada. Since the war is not etched into the American psyche, people do not remember the cause. The young United States was besieged by the great powers of the day. In particular, the British preyed upon American ships and kidnapped its sailors. In the end, the United States felt the need to defend its national honor, its citizens, and its sovereignty against British piracy.
When France and Britain went to war, Britain wished to limit trade with France. Both countries attacked American ships. In fact, during the Wars of the French Revolution, France preyed on U.S. ships. Eventually, Napoleon overthrew the government and achieved peace with President John Adams. Despite the peace treaty, France was back at it during the Napoleonic Wars. Likewise, the British seized American ships in an attempt to stifle trade with France. Great Britain added further insult by impressing American sailors into their navy.
In 1807, the British boarded the American frigate Chesapeake. The Americans refused to stop and the HMS Leopard fired, killed three, injured 18, and forced the Chesapeake’s surrender. The British kidnapped four sailors accused of desertion. The United States was outraged, but President Thomas Jefferson had dramatically downsized the navy and could not respond militarily.
Following the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, the United States responded to the European predations on trade with the Embargo Act of 1807. Jefferson decided that the United States would not trade with anyone. The act created a depression inside America and failed to motivate Europe. Jefferson overestimated the European need for American goods. Paris and London went on business as usual while the American economy collapsed. The American government under Jefferson and his successor, James Madison, tweaked the Embargo Act in 1809 and 1810. These attempts failed as well.
British and French attacks on neutral shipping, Jefferson’s failed policies, and the depression frustrated the American government and citizenry. As President Madison sought a solution to the crisis, Indian leader Tecumseh launched a rebellion. The Americans blamed British agents for the insurrection. The British were leery of U.S. territorial expansion, so Americans believed the Indians were motivated and agitated by the British. Tensions between the two countries increased. General William Henry Harrison defeated Tecumseh at Tippecanoe in 1811. However, the Indian revolt became part of the War of 1812.
As the frontier burned, economy struggled, and casualties mounted on the high seas, a group of influential lawmakers clamored for war. These War Hawks generally came from the west and the south. Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky led this group. By 1811, the Hawks blamed Britain for Tecumseh, wanted to restore American honor, and defend American sailors and shipping rights.
While Clay and the Hawks pushed for war, President James Madison worked to avoid conflict. The British ignored his protests until Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. His successor, Lord Liverpool, was more sympathetic and realistic. Britain’s problem was France and not America. He repealed the Orders in Council which legalized British piracy. Unfortunately, Madison was unaware of British acquiescence on the oceans. He went to Congress and requested a declaration of war. The War Hawks ran the House and Senate. They granted Madison’s request in the Senate, 19-13 and in the House of Representatives, 79-49. However, every Congressional Federalist voted against the war. They called the conflict, “Mr. Madison’s War” and opposed the war in every way possible including near treason.
The War of 1812 lasted three years. Although some historians consider Madison’s declaration of war one of the greatest presidential blunders in history, the war was justified. Britain was seizing American ships on the high seas. Additionally, they kidnapped, or impressed, American sailors and forced them into the British Navy. Madison’s mistake was being unprepared for war and not the actual declaration. This unpreparedness almost led to the end of the United States a scant generation after its birth.