Origins of the War of 1812

An on going series.

By Jennifer Williams, Contributor, US Daily Review.

The War of 1812 is tucked in between the American Revolution and the American Civil War. I consider myself knowledgeable on the war; after all, I teach American History. But there are many scholars on the topic and they have a unique perspective on their particular field of study within the context of war. More than a war, many scholars define the war as the second war for independence, given that we were fighting our former colonial power. The declaration was, given the lack of military experience and adequate supplies at the time, fool hardy and dangerous to the future of the United States. But it was a war for sovereign recognition, a war for freedom to pursue economic independence, a war to secure the shape of America to come. Historians like to ponder “what if” questions. What if Madison never asked for the war declaration? What if we had not won the Battle of Lake Erie? What if Fort McHenry had fallen? What if the British troops continued to occupy Washington, DC and use it as a base to retake their former colonial possession? But the reality gives us an opportunity to learn – what were the reasons that lead to the declaration of war against Great Britain?

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain. Frustrated by British predations on the U.S. merchant fleet and other naval encounters, impediments to free trade, and the British support of their Native allies attacking the frontier, the United States entered in what many historians refer as the second war for independence. These two charges, along with  violations of the Treaty of Ghent of 1783 that ended the American Revolution, the war hawks who concerned over the sovereignty of the states utilized these issues to force the declaration. London paid little real attention to the United States after the conclusion of the Revolution and concentrated its efforts on building Canada into a new North American colony and dealing with a new rising military threat on the Continent. Diplomatic relations were not hostile, especially during Washington’s administration, but there were not warm either. The Leopard – Chesapeake Affair of 1807and the President – Little Belt skirmish in 1811 added to the frostiness between the two countries.

One of the first points of order for the United States was the issue of impressment. Impressment was nothing more than kidnapping. American merchant and naval vessels were being stopped and boarded by the British Royal Navy, ostensibly to look for stowaway British citizens and impress (take against their will) into the navy. Many American citizens found themselves unfairly taken into the British navy without recourse. The burden of proof of citizenship was then placed on friends and family members, many who were hard pressed to do so. Some were deserters; as Carl Benn states that American men who were down on their luck often joined the British navy, only to jump ship later. Not only were citizens liable to impressment but former British citizens who came to the United States were vulnerable. Why did Britain need men? It was waging a war with France and naval ships were woefully undermanned in many cases.

The two minor naval battles in a historic sense but huge for the fledging nation prior to the war declaration fueled the issues between the countries. The United States was trying to maintain neutrality between Great Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars. That neutrality was absolutely necessary to the economic stability of the new nation. On June 22, 1807, the Leopard fired on the Chesapeake, its deck piled high with civilian luggage and sick men were on the spar deck when she left out and she was hardly ready for battle. While the United States acknowledged there were deserters on board, the situation could have gotten out of control. Boarding merchant vessels was one thing; attacking a man-of-war bound for the Mediterranean was another thing entirely. Britain eventually punished the officers involved but it escalated the antagonism between the two countries at sea as impressment of men from merchant ships continued. In 1811, the USS President fired on the small sloop Little Belt, having mistaken it for a larger ship that was involved in impressment. The action killed 32 aboard the sloop. The captain of the President was exonerated and Great Britain did not demand further action since its attention were being called off by the continuing threat from Napoleon.

Throughout the War of 1812, naval challenges would continue to threaten free trade, mostly effectively the eastern seaboard. American merchant ships could not be adequately protected and British raids along the coastline were a constant threat, even before the war. In the next article, I will examine the free trade issues and how both countries handled the tense situation before and during hostilities.

Jennifer Williams is adjunct faculty in American History at Ashland (OH) University and the American Public University System. She is also the teaching chef for the New Day Family Resource Center in Sandusky, Ohio. Her interests are photography and curling. She lives with her family in Norwalk, Ohio.

All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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