Introduction for Students

The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from June 1812, into the spring of 1815. Economic conflicts and national pride were the primary causes of the war. Most of the fighting occurred along the Gulf of Mexico, along the Canadian border, and in the Chesapeake Bay region. There were also several famous naval battles at sea and on the Great Lakes. Although a peace treaty ending the war was signed in December 1814, at Ghent (in modern-day Belgium), it was not ratified (fully accepted) until the spring of 1815.

Causes of the War

Great Britain and France were at war most of the time from the 1790s until 1815 (the Napoleonic Wars). The United States traded with both countries, and by remaining neutral (not siding with either one), they hoped to continue to do so. However, both Great Britain and France tried to stop America from trading with their enemy. In 1807 Great Britain enacted their Orders in Council, which channeled all neutral trade through British ports. France countered with the Milan and Berlin Decrees, closing all French held ports to British trade. Britain also established the practice of impressment. British warships stopped American vessels and seized (impressed) any sailors that they claimed were British subjects and deserters from the Royal Navy. Sometimes they even took American citizens. These actions created many hard feelings in America against the British.

At the urging of President Thomas Jefferson, the United States Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807. This act banned American ships from engaging in foreign trade, in an effort to force Great Britain and France to change their policies. This measure, along with others that followed, proved unsuccessful and instead hurt American commerce more than it did France or Britain. These economic sanctions were all eventually repealed, and Jefferson later admitted that the embargo was a mistake.

When peaceful means failed to change Britain's actions against American trade, and having suffered from an economic depression, some Americans began to call for war as the only way to redeem their national pride. The elections of 1810 increased the influence of Republicans in Congress from the West and the South, known as War Hawks. War Hawk leaders Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina almost constantly demanded that the United States go to war with Great Britain to defend Americas rights and freedom of the seas. Many War Hawks also believed that the United States had a natural right to include Canada and Florida as part of its territory.

In addition to the conflicts at sea with Britain, the desire of many Americans for more land brought them into conflict with Indian tribes beyond the Appalachian Mountains. This friction led to still greater resentment of the British, because many believed that governor-general of Canada, James Graig, was arming Indians to fight American settlers. The Indians themselves, upset and fearful of continued encroachments upon their lands, revived the old Western Confederacy under Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa , The Prophet, to defend their ancient territories. Increased hostilities with the Indians led Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison to attack the Shawnee in 1811. Harrison defeated them and burned their sacred town at Tippecanoe. In early June of 1812 Tecumseh joined the British in Canada, and later fought with them against the Americans.

The War

Despite opposition from Federalist members of Congress, President James Madison believed that America needed to be more aggressive towards Great Britain. He demanded that they respect American territorial sovereignty in the West and neutral rights to freedom of the seas. When the British failed to quickly respond, Madison asked Congress to declare war. On June 18, 1812 a sharply divided Senate voted 19 to 13 for war; the House of Representatives concurred, 79 to 49. Ironically, the British Parliament had already decided to revoke its restrictions on American commerce on June 16 (the motion officially passed on June 23), thus eliminating one of the chief reasons for war. However, communication at the time was so slow that it took weeks for the news of either action to cross the Atlantic. The war proceeded, but American opinion was divided. It had strong support in the West and South, but little or no support in the Northeast and parts of the Middle Atlantic States.

The war went badly for the Americans, especially on land. Attempts to conquer Canada failed. The nation's new capital, Washington D.C., was burned by British troops. They then tried to capture Baltimore but were forced to withdraw after they met courageous resistance from the soldiers at Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor. This battle was made famous by Francis Scott Keys poem, which was later set to music and as The Star Spangled Banner eventually became our national anthem.

One bright spot for the American cause was the successes of the U.S. Navy. For example, the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides", captured four British warships, HMS Guerriere, Java, Levant, and Cyane, and on Lake Erie Commodore Oliver Hazard Perrys fleet defeated a British flotilla.

The Hartford Convention

Opposition to the war grew after repeated American defeats on land, however. The New England states openly disapproved of the war and refused to raise money to support it or allow their militias to fight outside of their own states. In October 1814, the Massachusetts legislature called for a convention to debate the federal government's power over the states and conduct of the war. In December, Federalists from all the New England states gathered in Hartford, Connecticut (the Hartford Convention). Some of the more radical delegates called for secession from the union, but the moderate majority rejected this idea and instead called for revision of the United States Constitution. For example, they sought an end to the "Virginia Dynasty" (up to this time all of the presidents had been Virginians, except for John Adams of Massachusetts) by limiting the presidency to one four-year term and rotating the office among citizens from different states. In addition, they wanted more control over the use of economic embargoes, trade prohibitions, and declarations of war by requiring a 2/3-majority vote in the Congress. These anti-war forces hoped that the war would continue to go badly so that a majority of citizens would turn against it and agree to their resolutions.

However, peace negotiations were already underway in Europe. A treaty to end the war was signed in the city of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814. It took weeks before news of the peace treaty reached the United States, however, and so fighting continued. Americas pride was restored when the greatest American victory of the war came two weeks later. On January 8, 1815 General Andrew Jackson soundly defeated a British army at New Orleans. In light of this, many saw the Hartford Conventions call for revisions to the Constitution as treachery, and the political power of the Federalist Party was destroyed. Nonetheless, the Hartford Convention and talk of secession emphasized the continuing issue of states rights vs. national control that had arisen earlier in statements like the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves, and prepared the way for the South's later break with the union.

The end of the war, followed shortly by the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, allowed a return to normal trade with Great Britain, France, and the rest of the world. The United States entered a decade-long period of peace and prosperity called the Era of Good Feelings.