War of 1812

This first major war waged by the United States under its new Constitution was militarily inconclusive, but it tested the republic’s sovereignty and generated a sense of nationalism.

Summary of Event

The War of 1812 was an outgrowth of events in the Napoleonic Wars Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);and War of 1812[War of 1812] in Europe that occurred during the first decade of the nineteenth century. After war broke out between France and Great Britain in 1793, the United States tried, with some success, to follow a policy of neutrality toward both belligerents. It avoided a struggle with Great Britain through Jay’s Treaty of 1794 Jay’s Treaty of 1794[Jays Treaty of 1794] and ended a war crisis with France in 1800 through the Convention of Mortefontaine Mortefontaine, Convention of (1800) . In 1805, however, the Napoleonic Wars took a new turn, placing U.S. neutrality on a precarious basis. With Napoleon dominating the European continent and the British controlling the seas, the struggle turned into an economic squeeze, with the United States in the middle. War of 1812 (1812-1814)
Great Britain;and United States[United States]
Madison, James
[p]Madison, James;and War of 1812[War of 1812]
[kw]War of 1812 (June 18, 1812-Dec. 24, 1814)
[kw]1812, War of (June 18, 1812-Dec. 24, 1814)
War of 1812 (1812-1814)
Great Britain;and United States[United States]
Madison, James
[p]Madison, James;and War of 1812[War of 1812]
[g]Canada;June 18, 1812-Dec. 24, 1814: War of 1812[0570]
[g]Great Britain;June 18, 1812-Dec. 24, 1814: War of 1812[0570]
[g]United States;June 18, 1812-Dec. 24, 1814: War of 1812[0570]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 18, 1812-Dec. 24, 1814: War of 1812[0570]
Adams, John Quincy
[p]Adams, John Quincy;and War of 1812[War of 1812]
Canning, George
Clay, Henry
[p]Clay, Henry;and War of 1812[War of 1812]
Erskine, George
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and War of 1812[War of 1812]
Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and War of 1812[War of 1812]

The U.S. frigate Constitution (foreground) defeating the British frigate HMS Guerriere off the coast of Canada on August 19, 1812. The British ship was so badly damaged that it was scuttled the next day, after its crewmen were safely removed.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

In an attempt to starve the other into submission, each side began to harass and seize U.S. ships. By the Order in Council of 1806, Great Britain declared a paper blockade of the European coast from Denmark Denmark;blockade of to Brittany and required U.S. ships to be searched for contraband. France countered with the Berlin Decree Berlin Decree (1806) , which authorized the seizure of all ships going to England before landing at continental ports. When Great Britain responded by issuing a second order in council requiring neutral vessels destined for continental ports to stop in England first, Napoleon Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and War of 1812[War of 1812] issued the Milan Decree Milan Decree , ordering the seizure of any neutral vessel that submitted to British search.

Because the British dominated the seas, their restrictions on U.S. shipping were more effective than those of France. Moreover, the British practice of impressing seamen sailing under the U.S. flag, claiming they were deserters from the Royal Navy Royal Navy;and War of 1812[War of 1812] , was an affront to the honor of the United States and a challenge to its sovereignty. As a result, war almost erupted between the United States and Great Britain in the spring of 1807, when British seamen from HMS Leopard boarded the USS Chesapeake
Chesapeake, USS , after firing a broadside, and seized the alleged deserters on board. Outraged, President Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;embargo of British
Embargo Act of 1807 barred British ships from U.S. waters and obtained another embargo, confining all U.S. shipping to port. By thus withholding needed supplies from the belligerents, he hoped to gain their recognition of U.S. neutrality.

Jefferson’s embargo was the first of a series of coercive economic measures adopted by the United States in an attempt to avoid war. Because the embargo seriously depressed the economy, which was dependent on the export trade, it was replaced in 1809 by the Non-Intercourse Act, which cut off shipping with Great Britain and France only. This measure was superceded the following year by Macon’s Bill Number Two, restoring complete freedom of trade but providing that if the belligerent nations should recognize the neutral rights of the United States, nonintercourse would be revived against the other belligerent. When Napoleon Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and War of 1812[War of 1812] pretended to revoke the Berlin Berlin Decree (1806) and Milan Decrees, President James Madison revived the policy of nonintercourse against Great Britain.

Despite U.S. efforts at economic coercion, the British refused to change their maritime policies. In 1809, an agreement was worked out between the British minister to the United States, George Erskine, Erskine, George and Secretary of State James Madison, whereby Great Britain would abandon its orders in council and the United States would suspend nonintercourse. However, Erskine was recalled from his post by George Canning Canning, George , the foreign secretary of Great Britain, who pursued a hard line toward the United States. As a result of this diplomatic fiasco, relations between Great Britain and the United States deteriorated, with each side believing that it had been deceived by the other.

The failure of the Erskine agreement placed the United States firmly on the road to war. In 1810, a new Congress was elected. When it took office at the end of 1811, it brought into positions of leadership a group of young Republicans who were impatient with pacific responses to humiliation abroad. Angered by the British challenge on the seas to their country’s sovereignty, these War Hawks, as they were known, also were incensed by news of secret British aid to the American Native Americans;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Indians in the Northwest. After naming Henry Clay Clay, Henry
[p]Clay, Henry;and War of 1812[War of 1812] as Speaker of the House, the War Hawks passed a series of resolutions to enlarge the Army and Navy Navy, U.S.;War of 1812 and arm the militia. In April, 1812, the Madison administration boosted war sentiment in Congress by requesting a thirty-day embargo on U.S. shipping as a prelude to war. In June, Madison asked Congress to declare war against Great Britain. In a close vote that revealed sharp opposition to war, especially in the Northeast, Congress responded affirmatively on June 18.

In Great Britain, opposition to the orders in council had mounted sharply. Two days before the United States declared war, the British government announced its intention to repeal the orders. Even so, Madison refused to end the struggle as long as the issue of impressment of sailors remained unresolved.

Despite their bellicosity, the Jeffersonian Republicans Republican Party (old);and War of 1812[War of 1812] had neglected their army and militia forces, which were unprepared for military operations. The war itself proved indecisive, and neither side was able to inflict a mortal blow on the other. The United States was able to control the northern Great Lakes Great Lakes region;and War of 1812[War of 1812] and Northwest through most of the war, but its strategy of invading Upper Canada Canada;and War of 1812[War of 1812] proved a dismal failure. An army under General Stephen Van Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, Stephen was forced to surrender to the British at Queenston Heights in 1812. The United States did invade Canada the following year, burning the provincial capital of York (now Toronto) Toronto;in War of 1812[War of 1812] and defeating a combined Indian and British force at the Battle of the Thames Thames, Battle of the (1813) in 1813. However, U.S. forces never established real control over Canadian soil.

By 1814, the performance of the U.S. Army had improved significantly. U.S. forces scored several hard-fought victories along the Niagara frontier, including at Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane, and Fort Erie, but they lacked adequate resources to sustain the effort. Although the Navy won several skirmishes, most notably the sinking of HMS Guerriere by the USS Constitution
Constitution, USS , the British were able to drive most U.S. shipping off the seas. They were far less successful in containing U.S. privateers, however, and these raided British commerce with impunity and much profit.

Napoleon’s Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and War of 1812[War of 1812] downfall in 1814 and the subsequent reinforcement of Canada Canada;and War of 1812[War of 1812] seriously jeopardized the strategic position of the United States. Many members of Britain’s Parliament began calling for punitive operations. However, the British strategy of launching a three-pronged attack against the United States also proved unsuccessful. In 1814, a British armada entered Chesapeake Bay and, in retaliation for the burning of York, burned Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C.;burning of The British forces failed in their second objective of taking Baltimore, despite an all-night bombardment of Fort McHenry Fort McHenry in Baltimore Baltimore;in War of 1812[War of 1812] Harbor.

A second British drive across northern New York was repulsed at Plattsburg. A third British force suffered a major defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, as it tried to secure control of the Mississippi River. Ironically, this most bitter struggle of the war took place two weeks after peace had been concluded in Europe between the belligerent powers. By dint of skillful negotiating at Ghent Ghent, Treaty of (1815)
War of 1812 (1812-1814);Treaty of Ghent in Belgium, the U.S. delegation under John Quincy Adams Adams, John Quincy
[p]Adams, John Quincy;and War of 1812[War of 1812] achieved its aim of preserving the prewar conditions, despite negotiating from a position of weakness. The accord, signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, reflected both Adams’s unwillingness to compromise the national interest and British preoccupation with European events.


When viewed against the backdrop of the immensely larger Napoleonic Wars, Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);and War of 1812[War of 1812] the War of 1812 appears little more than a backwoods, frontier skirmish. Despite its inconclusive nature, however, this conflict exercised direct and salutary effects upon the development of North America. The United States had commenced the war in a fractured condition politically, yet emerged with a degree of consolidation and consensus it had not possessed before. The Federalists, by dint of their strident opposition, were thoroughly discredited and began a slide into obscurity. The prevailing nationalism also launched a new generation of political leadership. At least three presidents—John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William Henry Harrison—owed their elections, in part, to wartime activities. The U.S. Army Army, U.S.;in War of 1812[War of 1812] was drastically reformed during the postwar era and made great strides in proficiency and professionalism. The bitter legacy of defeats forced a Jeffersonian rapprochement with the military establishment and adoption of more rational defense policies.

The War of 1812 made indelible marks upon the inhabitants of Canada Canada;and War of 1812[War of 1812] as well. Defeat of U.S. forces stimulated the Canadians’ first surge of national consciousness and, abetted by patriotic organizations such as the United Empire Loyalists, Canadians undertook a political and cultural evolution entirely different from their southern neighbor. If the War of 1812 had any clear losers, they were the Native American Native Americans;and War of 1812[War of 1812] peoples. Crushing defeats north and south presaged their ultimate removal and accelerated the pace of white expansion on the frontier Frontier, American;and War of 1812[War of 1812] .

Further Reading

  • Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Comprehensive study of the war that pays special attention to the conflict’s contribution to unifying the United States.
  • Elting, John R. Amateurs to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books, 1991. A revealing discussion of the factors surrounding U.S. military ineptitude; good coverage of obscure actions.
  • Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. A broad synthesis of the political and diplomatic concerns that underscored U.S. political infighting.
  • Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson. 3 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. The first volume of this nearly definitive biography covers Jackson’s military career and his role in territorial expansion.
  • Stagg, J. C. A. Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Portrays the war as James Madison’s ideological crusade to save republicanism; detailed notes and imaginative use of primary sources.
  • Stanley, George F. G. The War of 1812: Land Operations. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada in collaboration with the National Museum of Man, National Museums of Canada, 1983. Modern Canadian perspective on a variety of strategic and political considerations usually overlooked by U.S. scholars.
  • Watts, Steven. The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Argues that the war and its aftermath were a reaffirmation of revolutionary principles and a factor in expanding them for posterity.

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