Introduction for Teachers

The Background

The outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (1802-1815) enmeshed America in European political conflicts. Great Britain and France, the major belligerent powers, refused to respect American neutrality, claiming the right to board its merchant ships and confiscate their cargoes. Great Britain had a policy under The Orders in Councilof impressment, whereby British war ships could stop American vessels and search for sailors who had deserted from the Royal Navy and impress them (force them back into military service.) Sometimes they impressed American citizens, claiming them to be British deserters.

The economic warfare between Britain and France intensified after Admiral Horatio Nelson resoundingly defeated the French navy in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). The British were then able to tighten their naval blockade of the Continent, curtailing American merchants ability to ship goods to France. Napoleon replied to the British blockade with the Berlin Decree (1806) and Milan Decree (1807), known collectively as the Continental System, which banned British ships and neutral vessels that stopped in Britain from all European ports under French control. While this stoppage of trade affected the United States, many Americans, particularly those in the Northeastern states, accepted the situation because substantial trade was still being conducted with Great Britain. States in the South and the West were angered by British actions and urged the United States government to do something in response to the outrageous and high handed policies of the British.

A critical event occurred in 1807 when the British warship Leopard attacked the U.S. frigate Chesapeake, killing three and wounding eighteen men and seizing four alleged deserters. Trying to avoid war President Thomas Jefferson devised an economic policy of embargo to coerce the British into changing their policies. The Embargo of 1807 forbade American ships to leave port until Britain and France repealed their restrictions on U.S. trade and freedom of the seas. The embargo did not bring Britain to its knees; however instead it hurt American exports as they plunged from $108 million in 1806 to $22 million in 1808. Federalist merchants in New England felt that the Republican administration was jeopardizing the nations economy. The hated and ineffective embargo was repealed by President James Madison in 1809 and replaced by the Nonintercourse Act. This legislation allowed merchants to trade with all nations except France and Britain. Congress disagreed with the Presidents restrictive act and finally in 1810 passed Congressman Nathaniel Macons Bill No. 2 that again legalized trade with both countries.

The election of 1810 increased the influence of Republicans from the West and the South in Congress. Eventually known as war hawks, men such as Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina constantly beat the war drum calling for the United States to go to war with Great Britain to defend Americas rights and freedom of the seas. Some of these war hawks also fully believed it was only natural and right for the United States to include Canada and Florida as part of its territory. These expansionist tendencies of many in the West and the South also brought them into conflict with Indian tribes in the trans-Appalachin region. These conflicts gave rise to a greater resentment toward the British as it was also believed the governor-general of Canada, James Graig, was arming the Indians to better fight American settlers. The Indians themselves, upset and fearful of continued settler encroachments, 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 in 1811 to attack and defeat the Shawnee and their sacred town at Tippecanoe was burned to the ground. Tecumseh eventually joined the British in Canada in early June 1812 and fought against the Americans during the War of 1812.

The War

With the hostilities in the West and continued British harassment of American shipping on the high seas, pressure for war with Britain grew stronger. Despite opposition from Federalists in Congress, President Madison believed that he needed to be more aggressive toward the British. He demanded that they respect American territorial sovereignty in the West and neutral rights in the Atlantic. When the British failed to respond quickly, 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 decided to revoke its restrictions on American commerce on June 16 and officially passed the motion on June 23, thus eliminating one of the chief reasons for war. The war proceeded with strong support from the West and the South, but with little or no support from the Northeast and parts of the Middle Atlantic States. The election of 1812 showed the sectionalism that existed, with Madison winning 128 electoral votes, mostly from the South and the West, and Federalist candidate De Witt Clinton of New York receiving 89 electoral votes, primarily from New England and the Middle Atlantic States.

The war on land went badly for the Americans. The quick conquest of Canada promised by the War Hawks turned into defeat rather than victory. The nations new capital, Washington D.C., was burned by British troops, but a moral victory for the Americans was attained by the courageous resistance at Fort McHenry that saved Baltimore from Washingtons fate. This battle was made famous by Francis Scott Keys poem that became our national anthem. The one bright spot for the American cause was the success of the US Navy. Victories by the USS Constitution under Captain Isaac Hull over the British Frigate the Guerriere and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's defeat of the British flotilla on Lake Erie gave the Americans something about which to toast and sing songs.

The Hartford Convention

Sectional opposition to the war grew even stronger with the seeming failure of American arms on most fronts. New England states openly disapproved of the war and would not raise money to support it nor send their militias outside of their states. In October 1814, the legislature of Massachusetts called for a convention to lay the foundation for a radical reform in the National Compact, and Federalists from all the New England states gathered in December in Hartford, Connecticut. Some of the more radical delegates called for secession from the union, but the moderate majority rejected the secession idea and instead called for revisions to the United States Constitution. They sought an end to the Virginia Dynasty (all 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. The Federalists minority hoped that the war would continue to go badly and that the majority of citizens would turn against it. Yet, it was not to be. Peace was obtained with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve, 1814. The greatest American victory of the war, however, came two weeks later on January 8, 1815, when General Andrew Jacksons troops soundly defeated the British at New Orleans. These events made the Hartford Conventions call for revisions to the Constitution a moot point. In addition, it contributed to the demise of the Federalist Party. The Hartford Convention and talk of secession did however, continue to emphasize the important strand of states rights vs. national control that had arisen earlier in statements like the Kentucky and Virginia Resolves.

The end of the war in Europe and a return to normal trade with Great Britain and France allowed the new nation to move into a period of peace and prosperity described as the Era of Good Feelings.