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 States.

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 emotionally overwhelming.

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 Plattsburg Bay.

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 survived—in 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.