War of 1812
The crisis between the US and Great Britain that erupted into the War of 1812
stemmed from the European wars of the French Revolution and their successors,
the Napoleonic Wars. British and French ships were attacking American ships,
and Americans viewed the violations of their neutral maritime rights by both
France and Great Britain as a serious blow to national honor . On occasion,
the Americans were willing to fight for that honor, as the brief undeclared
Quasi-War with France in 1798 demonstrated. The peace convention with
France ending the Quasi-War and the 1803 Louisiana Purchase by President
Thomas Jefferson that eliminated contiguous territorial contact between
the United States and France helped to ease tensions between those two nations.
The renewal of a vicious war between Great Britain and France in 1803, however,
not only revived tensions between the United States and France but increased
the strain with Great Britain as well.
Each of the two warring powers, Britain and France, tried to prevent the US
from supplying the needs of the other. Both countries seized American ships.
The British Orders in Council and France's Berlin Decree, Milan Decree,
and other assorted proclamations restricted American trade, but many Americans
came to see British violations as more obnoxious, especially when those violations
included the practice of impressment (forcing Americans to serve in the British
Navy). The tensions between the US and Great Britain nearly led to war in 1807
with the Chesapeake-Leopard affair. Rather than resorting to war, as many Americans
urged, Jefferson retaliated for the seizure of four sailors from the USS Chesapeake
by experimenting with economic coercion. At his urging, Congress in December
1807 passed the Embargo Act, ending most international trade for the United
The experiment failed. Not only did Americans widely evade the act, but the
embargo did more harm to American commerce than to either the British or the
French economies. Domestically, it damaged the standing and popularity of Jefferson's
Democratic-Republican Party and threatened the chances of James Madison,
Jefferson's handpicked successor, in the election of 1808. Madison fought off
the challenge of James Monroe for the party's nomination and carried the election
in the fall, but he inherited myriad problems that would prove politically and
Immediately before Madison assumed office in March 1809, Congress admitted
the failure of the embargo and replaced it with the Non-Intercourse Act (1809),
eliminating trade only with Great Britain and France. When this measure was
also ineffective, Congress passed Macon's Bill No. 2 (1810). Drafted in the
spring of 1810 with little direction from Madison, this act reopened trade with
the world with a provision to maintain trade with either belligerent if it dropped
its commercial restrictions and to resume nonintercourse with the other. Napoleon
leaped at the chance to cripple his British enemy. In the late summer of 1810,
he indicated his willingness to revoke the Berlin and Milan decrees as they
applied to the US. Though Napoleon had no intention of stopping his assault
on American trade and demonstrated as much with his actions, Madison took him
at his word and resumed nonintercourse with the British.
Throughout 1811, the US and Great Britain thus moved closer to war. The British
government refused to make any concessions to American demands regarding neutral
rights, and many Americans became convinced that the British goal was to restore
the colonial relationship of the 17th and 18th centuries in all but name.
Furthermore, western Americans (living in the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi
River Valley, which was the western boundary of the country at the time) suspected
a British role in the growing nativist movement among American Indians, particularly
those gathered around the popular Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa
(the Prophet). The origins of this movement had nothing to do with British
intrigue, but Westerners nonetheless became convinced of British involvement.
With the aim of securing the frontier, Governor William Henry Harrison of the
Indiana Territory received authorization in the fall of 1811 to march against
Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa's settlement at Prophet's Town. His expedition culminated
in the Battle of Tippecanoe and the destruction of Prophet's Town. Ironically,
it also fulfilled the prophecy of earlier rumors when it convinced the northwestern
Indians to form an alliance with the British.
Increasing pressure compelled Madison to summon the 12th Congress into session
early, on November 4, 1811. Congress was sharply divided between the Federalist
minority and a factionalized Democratic-Republican majority, but a group of
young Democratic-Republicans known as War Hawks assumed a conspicuous
and dominant role. The War Hawks urged immediate redress of American grievances
against Great Britain by declaring war. With one of their leaders, young Henry
Clay of Kentucky, elected speaker of the House, they controlled key committees
and pushed their agenda on the president.
The intractable attitude of the British government moved the US closer to war
during the winter and spring of 1812. Congress was reluctant to pay for military
increases, and considerable debate abounded as to how a war should be fought,
but Madison finally succumbed to the War Hawks' pressure by delivering a war
message to Congress on June 1, 1812. After a short debate, the House agreed,
and after a longer one, the Senate did as well. On June 18, 1812, the United
States declared war on Great Britain. Nobody in America knew that plans were
well in progress in London to repeal the Orders in Council, and although those
plans reached fruition four days after the US declaration of war, trans-Atlantic
communication would delay the news for another month.
By then, war had not only officially commenced with a documented declaration,
fighting had as well. Lacking a better way to prosecute a conflict against an
enemy several thousand miles away, the United States planned to fight the British
forces at their closest location, which was Canada. Federalists wryly noted
the inconsistency of fighting on land to protect maritime rights, but Madison
justifiably felt the country had to do something.
In any event, Westerners like Clay saw the acquisition of Canada as a legitimate
and achievable war aim. William Hull, governor of the Michigan Territory and
new commander of all American forces in the Northwest, was ordered to invade
Canada from Detroit and to seize as much of Upper Canada as practical. The resulting
campaign was a disaster. Hull's invasion failed, and he surrendered Detroit
to the British in September 1812.
The remaining campaigns of the year saw little improvement in American fortunes.
Hull's successor, the energetic Harrison, found mobilization of militia and
volunteer forces so difficult that he was unable to launch a concentrated move
into Michigan. In the northeast, Brig. Gen. Henry Dearborn, discovering that
New England militias were not only difficult to organize but frequently unwilling
to serve, ended any hopes for a campaign against Montreal in 1812. Two attempts
to invade Canada along the Niagara Frontier failed miserably.
The only salvation for American morale in the early months of the War of 1812
was the small American navy. With confident British counterparts unprepared
for the skill of American seamen, such US naval officers as Isaac Hull , Stephen
Decatur, and William Bainbridge scored impressive naval victories in the summer
and fall of 1812. By 1813, however, the British began to adjust policies to
fit circumstances. The Admiralty ordered captains to avoid individual combat
with American warships and tightened a blockade around important American ports.
Many intrepid American captains were soon bottled up in harbors while British
naval forces raided American coastlines with impunity. By 1814, American coastal
towns from Maine into Chesapeake Bay and down to Georgia were being roughly
visited by British raiding parties.
In the spring of 1813, Americans renewed their efforts to invade Canada. Dearborn
mounted a halfhearted offensive across the Niagara River at Fort George, and
the result was virtually no territorial gain. Indeed, U.S. forces suffered several
significant losses as they tried to extend their hold deeper into Upper Canada.
To the west, however, young Oliver Hazard Perry built an American fleet on Lake
Erie that succeeded in defeating an entire British squadron in September 1813.
Perry's victory opened the way for Harrison to reoccupy Detroit and from there,
to pursue and defeat British forces under Brig. Gen. Henry Procter at the Battle
of the Thames. This battle did not end the war in the northwest, but Tecumseh's
death at the Thames broke the back of his Indian confederation.
In the Northeast, Dearborn resigned in the wake of his failures. His successors
were Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson and Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton, and the War Department
planned for them to coordinate an invasion along two different routes to converge
on Montreal. It would have been a dubious plan even for congenial commanders,
but Wilkinson and Hampton feuded with one another. Finally, the indecision of
both commanders prevented either offensive from coming close to Montreal.
By 1814, younger, more vigorous officers were emerging in the American ranks
to replace elderly veterans of the American Revolution. Jacob Brown, Andrew
Jackson, George Izard, Winfield Scott, and Edmund P. Gaines prosecuted the war
with energy and imagination. In March 1814, Jackson crushed the fighting spirit
of the Red Sticks in the Mississippi Territory, effectively ending the Creek
War there. By late spring of 1814, Brown prepared to launch an invasion across
the Niagara River into Canada. After taking Fort Erie, he moved north toward
Lake Ontario in hopes of coordinating his movements with Commo. Isaac Chauncey
to secure Upper Canada.
As the Americans enjoyed these successes, the British hatched plans of their
own. The defeat and abdication of Napoleon in the spring of 1814 freed British
forces in Europe for campaigning in America. By summer, British veterans were
arriving in North America to take part in offensives against several points
in the United States. One offensive was planned for the Lake Champlain route
into New York; a raid-in-force was launched in Chesapeake Bay; and another campaign
was planned for the Gulf of Mexico, its ultimate objective New Orleans.
By midsummer 1814, the first two of these plans were under way, and a promising
campaign season for the United States had taken an ominous turn. Brown, failing
to join Chauncey, pulled back to Fort Erie. In August, the British raid into
the Chesapeake put the US government to flight and resulted in the burning
of Washington's public buildings.
Yet in September, when the British assailed Baltimore, American forces
there repulsed attacks at Northpoint and on Fort McHenry, the latter battle
prompting Francis Scott Key to pen the patriotic song the "Star-Spangled
Banner" (1814). To the north, the US Army and naval forces on Lake
Champlain also proved to be up to the task on both land and lake, compelling
the British to retreat to Canada after the Battle of Plattsburg and Battle of
American victories at Baltimore and Plattsburg lifted sagging American morale,
but some parts of the country persisted in dissent. New England still chafed
under the war's effect on commerce and suffered the afflictions of British raiding
parties. In the fall of 1814, as the section's anger grew, perceptions of neglect
by the national government resulted in Massachusetts calling for a convention
of New England delegates to discuss grievances. Though moderate in tone, the
Hartford Convention of December 1814 to January 1815 would cause many in other
parts of the country to question New England's loyalty for years to come.
American and British negotiators had worked in Ghent, Belgium since August
1814 to reach an agreement ending the Anglo-American conflict. Finally, on December
24, 1814, peace commissioners signed a treaty. Negotiations had been difficult,
but there had always been the overarching American advantage that the British
had not wanted to fight the US while fighting Napoleon, and that after Napoleon
was defeated, the colossal and protracted effort of battling him had made the
British tired of war. The Treaty of Ghent resolved none of the issues
regarding maritime rights or impressment practices, but by Christmas Eve 1814,
the two countries had fought each other to a draw.
Jackson had not yet fought the British at New Orleans when the American and British commissioners signed the treaty in Ghent. When Jackson did battle the British on January 8, 1815, the crushing American victory at New Orleans would join in the American mind with the news of peace. The two events were thus popularly linked even as the treaty arrived in the capital almost simultaneously with the emissaries from the Hartford Convention, where Federalists had met to voice their adamant objections to the war. Jackson had destroyed the British at the Battle of New Orleans, and the news of that victory followed by news of peace destroyed the Federalist Party.
With the immediate and unanimous ratification by the Senate of the Treaty of
Ghent, the war ended. It would leave a mixed legacy. The celebrations that greeted
the end of the war masked the fact that the United States had achieved none
of Madison's stated goals in the War of 1812. Serious divisions within the
government had hampered the war effort, and threats of secession promulgated
at the Hartford Convention had almost divided the nation. Yet the conflict had
also spawned determination in many Americans to strengthen the nation and to
eliminate the weaknesses made apparent by the war.
The War of 1812 was a watershed. It marked the end of the Jeffersonian
insistence that a militia was the only way to defend republican liberty. It
marked the end of the first American party system with the demise of
the hapless Federalists amid charges of disloyalty and secession. It marked
the end of whatever American introversion and insecurity lingered from the faltering
days of the Confederation, and it ushered in an age of expansion and limitless
optimism. It provided the country with proof of American resilience.
Hobbled by the military ineptitude of bad generals and beset by the unshakable
indifference of the occasional patriot, the country had not only survivedin
some memorable cases, it had triumphed. Many people charged with patriotic
enthusiasm would describe the War of 1812 as a second war of independence and
would dub the period after it the Era of Good Feelings.