War of 1812

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2015
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 2,321 words

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War of 1812

The War of 1812, which lasted from that year until 1815, was officially fought between the United States and Great Britain over Britain's allegedly unlawful treatment of U.S. merchant ships and seamen. More generally, however, the United States waged war on Britain in 1812 to assert its further independence from its former colonial occupier. The War of 1812 ended without either side achieving clear concessions from the other. Owing to its uncertain causes and ambiguous end, the War of 1812 is one of the most ambiguous wars in U.S. history. Some historians regard it as a minor sidelight to the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) in Europe, while others see it as a continuation of the struggle that began with the American Revolution (1775–83). Most agree, however, that the war had its origins in the economic problems facing the young republic in the early nineteenth century. Although it created massive debt and exacerbated financial uncertainty for a short period of time, the United States emerged from the War of 1812 capable of resolving its financial issues and improving its long-term economic growth.

When the United States declared war on Britain in 1812, the ostensible aim was to end British impressment (forced drafting) of U.S. sailors and British disruption of the country's trade with France. While British interference with U.S. commercial vessels was a major source of outrage in the country in the early nineteenth century, the reasons that President James Madison (in office 1809–17) declared war were much more complex. Unresolved issues from the American Revolution, the British presence in Canada, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and political maneuvering between the United States' most prominent parties, the Republicans and Federalists, all contributed to the outbreak of hostilities.

The United States had been dealing with the problem of European interference in its trade activities since the American Revolution. This interference stemmed in large part from mounting tension between the two most significant U.S. trading partners, England and France, which were in constant conflict during the French Revolution (1789–95) and the Napoleonic period (1799–1815). As a means of undermining one another's power, the British and French sought to choke off each other's access to foreign trade.

In 1806 the French emperor Napoleon I (1769–1821) issued the Berlin Decrees, which forbade the importation of British goods into Europe and authorized attacks on ships that violated this order. In 1807 Great Britain formally established its intention to seize goods carried on all ships intended for French ports. Although Britain had been inhibiting U.S. shipping and trade for more than a decade, the British harassment and seizure of U.S. ships and goods increased greatly after this order was issued. This fueled longstanding U.S. resentment of Britain as well as the perception that Britain did not respect the country's independence.

After 1807, British impressment of U.S. sailors also increased. When the British warship HMS Leopard boarded the USS Chesapeake in 1807 and impressed four sailors who had allegedly deserted from the British navy, the public demanded the United States respond with force. President Thomas Jefferson (1801–09), however,

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Some items from the War of 1812, including a sword and Indian weapons, are shown here. Indian tribes from the Great Lakes area battled U.S. forces during this war.

Some items from the War of 1812, including a sword and Indian weapons, are shown here. Indian tribes from the Great Lakes area battled U.S. forces during this war. MARILYN ANGEL WYNN/GETTY IMAGES

sought a diplomatic solution to the Chesapeake-Leopold affair, as it was known. In 1807 Jefferson oversaw passage of the Embargo Act, which prohibited almost all U.S. foreign trade. Although designed to harm Britain and other hostile European nations by preventing access to U.S. goods and markets, the Embargo Act hurt the United States far more than it did its intended targets.

In 1809, with passage of the Non-Intercourse Act, Congress reopened trade with foreign nations—except for Britain and France. This act also stated that trade with Britain and France would resume if they agreed to stop interfering with U.S. shipping. Even this could not repair the faltering U.S. economy or compel the French or British to change their policies toward U.S. trade, and in 1810 it was replaced with Macon's Bill No. 2. Macon's Bill No. 2 opened trade with both France and England, with the stipulation that trade would be cutoff with either country if the other agreed to drop its restrictions on U.S. trade. Napoleon quickly took advantage of the opportunity to hurt the British. When France resumed trading with the United States without restrictions in 1811, President James Madison (in office 1809–17) cut off trade with England. Although the British government repealed the Orders in Council in response in June of 1812, it was too late: Madison had already asked Congress for a declaration of war. Madison received support from his fellow Republicans and, in particular, from a faction known as the War Hawks.

The War Hawks not only were offended by British trade policy but also hoped to counteract what they saw as British Canada's efforts to stall U.S. expansion in the Great Lakes region, then known as the Old Northwest. Since the Northwest Indian War, or Little Turtle's War (1791–94), which was fought to allow white settlement of land north of the Ohio River, the Old Northwest had been the site of almost constant conflict between Native Americans and U.S. settlers. After the Treaty of Greenville (1795) awarded much of what is now Ohio to the U.S. government, most Native Americans left the area. Among them was the Shawnee leader Tecumseh (1768–1813). Exiled from his homeland, Tecumseh put together an intertribal confederacy to resist further U.S. incursions onto Indian lands. Although the confederacy suffered a

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On the issue of the war are staked our national sovereignty on the high seas and the security of an important class of citizens, whose occupations give the proper value to those of every other class. Not to contend for such a stake is to surrender our equality with other powers on the element common to all and to violate the sacred title which every member of the society has to its protection. I need not call into view the unlawfulness of the practice by which our mariners are forced at the will of every cruising officer from their own vessels into foreign ones, nor paint the outrages inseparable from it. The proofs are in the records of each successive Administration of our Government, and the cruel sufferings of that portion of the American people have found their way to every bosom not dead to the sympathies of human nature.

As the war was just in its origin and necessary and noble in its objects, we can reflect with a proud satisfaction that in carrying it on no principle of justice or honor, no usage of civilized nations, no precept of courtesy or humanity, have been infringed. The war has been waged on our part with scrupulous regard to all these obligations, and in a spirit of liberality which was never surpassed.

How little has been the effect of this example on the conduct of the enemy!

They have retained as prisoners of war citizens of the United States not liable to be so considered under the usages of war.

They have refused to consider as prisoners of war, and threatened to punish as traitors and deserters, persons emigrating without restraint to the United States, incorporated by naturalization into our political family, and fighting under the authority of their adopted country in open and honorable war for the maintenance of its rights and safety.…

They have not, it is true, taken into their own hands the hatchet and the knife, devoted to indiscriminate massacre, but they have let loose the savages armed with these cruel instruments; have allured them into their service, and carried them to battle by their sides, eager to glut their savage thirst with the blood of the vanquished and to finish the work of torture and death on maimed and defenseless captives.…

Our nation is, in number, more than half that of the British isles. It is composed of a brave, a free, a virtuous, and an intelligent people. Our country abounds in the necessaries, the arts, and the comforts of life. A general prosperity is visible in the public countenance. The means employed by the British Cabinet to undermine it, have recoiled on themselves; have given to our national faculties a more rapid development; and draining or diverting the precious metals from British circulation and British vaults, have poured them into those of the United States.

SOURCE: Madison, James. “The Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1813.” The Writings of James Madison. Vol. 8. Ed. Gaillard Hunt. New York: Putnam, 1908.

major defeat by the U.S. Army at the Battle of Tippecanoe (1811) in what is now Indiana, Tecumseh and the tribes under his leadership quickly found support from British forces in Canada and renewed their resistance to U.S. encroachment on their land.

Anger over British impressment, trade interference, and support for Native Americans led to congressional approval of war in June 1812, despite vehement resistance from the Federalist Party, which decried it as wasteful and unnecessary. The war began badly for the United States. In August 1812, Tecumseh and the British seized Detroit from U.S. general William Hull (1753–1825). Also in 1812, an attempt by the United States to invade Canada from upstate New York failed. In 1813, however, the country's fortunes began to turn. In Ohio, the United States defeated invading British and Indian forces. On Lake Erie, a U.S. fleet defeated British naval forces. In the Battle of the Thames, fought in Ontario, Canada, U.S. forces won a decisive victory, killing Tecumseh and effectively ending Indian resistance to white settlement in the Old Northwest.

The British responded in 1814 with an invasion of Washington, D.C., launching a rocket attack on the capital that was memorialized in the “Star-Spangled Banner” and that burned down the White House along with other government buildings. British forces then regrouped in the Caribbean and launched an attack on New Orleans in January 1815. Although forces under General Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) soundly defeated the British there, the war was already officially over. Unbeknownst to the warring armies, a peace treaty, the Treaty of Ghent, had been signed on December 24, 1914.

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Before, during, and after the two-year war, the United States struggled with how to finance it. These struggles began when Congress—after making a declaration of war, increasing pay for its soldiers, and spending money to encourage enlistment—adjourned without voting to collect taxes to fund these expenditures. The result was enormous debt and great difficulty in paying for the war effort. In addition, the same Congress that had authorized war with Great Britain had refused to renew the charter of the first Bank of the United States in 1811. As a result, the U.S. government was compelled to return large sums of money to bank investors just as the nation was on the verge of war.

In March of 1813, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin (1761–1849) issued bonds (certificates promising to repay borrowed money at a fixed rate of interest) in a last-ditch effort to raise money to fund the government and the war. Stephen Girard (1750–1831), a Philadelphia shipping magnate, together with fur trader John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) and a syndicate of wealthy businessmen, underwrote most of the needed loans. The nation's economic struggles created a push for the establishment of a new national bank. The Federalists, however, undermined these efforts. The ensuing financial uncertainty was blamed for the government's failure to provide for the defense of Washington, D.C., in 1814.

While the Treaty of Ghent achieved none of Madison's war aims and merely restored the state of affairs that had existed before the war began, most citizens considered the war a success, as the United States had effectively stood up to Britain and demonstrated the permanence of its independence. In the wake of the war, popular anger turned against the Federalist Party, which was viewed as having obstructed the U.S. effort. This negative perception was confirmed when a group of Federalists met in Hartford, Connecticut, between December 1814 and January 1815, just as the war was ending, and published a list of grievances against the federal government. The Federalists never recovered from this blow to their reputation, and the party soon disappeared.

Although the United States had incurred large war debts and was in financial disarray after the war's end, the military victory and the demise of the Federalist Party led to a period of political unity that allowed for economic recovery. In 1817, during the so-called Era of Good Feelings (1815–25), the second Bank of the United States was formed. It created a national currency and a well-regulated system of credit. It also helped stabilize and expand the U.S. economy for the next two decades, during which time the federal government was able to pay off its debts from the War of 1812.


Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War that Forged a Nation. New York: Harper, 2005. Print.

Brown, Roger H. The Republic in Peril: 1812. New York: Columbia UP, 1964. Print.

Buel, Richard, Jr. America on the Brink: How the Political Struggle over the War of 1812 Almost Destroyed the Young Republic. New York: Palgrave, 2005. Print.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989. Print.

Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1962. Print.

Stagg, J. C. A. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983. Print.

Wilson, George. Stephen Girard: America's First Tycoon. Conshohocken: Combined, 1995. Print.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3611000972