The War of 1812
Some Americans began to talk about attacking Canada to route the British, destroy the Indians, and open up new lands for Americans. War Hawks like John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay clamored for war. James Madison’s presidency had been entangled in foreign affairs from the beginning. Insisting on neutral rights and freedom of the seas, he continued Jefferson’s policy of “peaceable coercion” by a different but no better means.
Instead of an embargo, Congress created the Non-Intercourse Act, which reopened trade with all countries except France and England and gave the president the power to reopen trade with whichever one of these countries gave up its restrictions. The Non-Intercourse Act proved just as ineffective as the embargo and in 1810 the government tried another plan, a measure called Macon’s Bill Number 2, which reopened trade with both warring countries but promised that if either dropped its restrictions, non-intercourse would resume with the other. Both countries continued to seize American ships and harass citizens. Continued frustration over seizures, impressment, and the problems on the frontier led Madison to ask for a declaration of war against England in June 1812.
Causes of the War of 1812
The General Armstrong
The main cause of the war—neutrality rights, specifically on the seas—is pretty clear, but the vote for war in Congress is troubling. Maritime states hit hardest by the British seizures and impressments voted against war while farm regions from Pennsylvania south and westward voted for war. It appears that the “War Hawks” from the new territories had gotten their wish, but wishing does not prepare a country for the reality of war.
Preparing for War
The United States was totally unprepared for the war against England, both financially and militarily. War had been likely for almost a decade, but Republican budget cuts had stripped the army to only 6,700 ill trained and poorly equipped men. The navy was in better shape, having fought the Barbary pirates off Tripoli.
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Perry’s victory on Lake Erie
The navy carried the morale of the United States during the first year of the war, winning the only victories in isolated duels against British vessels. Within twelve months the British had blockaded the coast, except for New England, and most of the American fleet was trapped. The blockade proved highly effective, even though England was also at war with France.
The War in Canada
Invasion of Canada repelled
Map of principal engagements of War of 1812
The only place the United States could effectively attack Britain was in Canada and that proved a dismal failure. The war flared up in the South in the summer of 1813 in Alabama. Major-General of the Tennessee militia Andrew Jackson summoned about 2,000 volunteers and crushed the Creek allied Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Three days later the British beat Napoleon and his empire collapsed.
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artist vision of the Battle for Fort McHenry
A Washington lawyer named Francis Scott Key watched the siege from a boat in the harbor. The next morning he looked out across the water and saw the American flag still flying at the fort. The sight inspired him, and he hastily scratched a poem, “The Star Spangled Banner” on the back of an envelope. The words were later revised and set to an old English drinking song. It was a hit and eventually became the national anthem. Read the Star Spangled Banner. [Link to document: Star Spangled Banner. Have the link to the words “Star Spangled Banner.”
Now free to fight only the Americans, the British threw their entire army and navy against the North Americans. In 1814 America suffered the humiliation of having Washington, D. C. captured and burned. Having romped through the capitol, the British turned and marched toward Baltimore. But American forces were more prepared, fortifying the heights behind the city. About 1,000 men held Fort McHenry, an island in the harbor. The British bombarded Fort McHenry throughout the night, but to no avail. The next day they abandoned the attack on the city as too costly.
Battle of New Orleans
Battle of New Orleans. Painting by Eugene Louis Lami, 1839
Along the gulf coast, Andrew Jackson was busy shoring up defenses. Without government approval, he invaded Spanish Florida and took Pensacola. In Louisiana, he erected earth works and cotton bale defenses around New Orleans, preparing to meet the British in battle. Jackson had built an invulnerable position, but the English ridiculed him and his rough crowd of frontier militiamen. Ordering a frontal assault, the Americans sat back and waited, mowing down about 2,000 British. Unknowingly, Jackson had won a victory at New Orleans after a peace treaty had already been signed, but the victory reassured ratification of the treaty and the end of the war.
“Peace” by John Rubens Smith, 1814
Treaty of Ghent
Efforts at peace began even before the first battle back in 1812. Final negotiations occurred at the Flemish city of Ghent and over time, both sides dropped their demands, settling on ending the war, returning all prisoners, and restoring previous boundaries. The treaty was formally signed on Christmas Eve 1814.
Political cartoon mocking the delegates of the Hartford Convention
While the treaty was being negotiated, New England states held a different type of meeting. Dissatisfied with the “president’s war,” Federalists in Massachusetts called for a convention of New England states to create a plan of action separate from the federal government. Delegates from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire met. Two groups emerged: an extreme radical group that wanted secession from the Union and a more moderate group that wanted to draft a formal protest against the war. The men proposed seven constitutional amendments designed to limit Republican power, but when their messenger arrived in Washington with the document, they found the capital celebrating the good news of the victory at New Orleans and the end of the war. The Federalist Party never recovered from the stigma of the disloyalty of the Hartford Convention.
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War of 1812
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After the War
Despite the many problems of the war, Americans emerged from it with a more intensely patriotic feel for their country. The Battle of New Orleans and the daring victories won by the American Navy made America proud. The nation had survived a “second war for Independence” against the strongest nation on earth. The people created new symbols of nationhood and a host of heroes emerged, all part of creating a “history” for America. The United States had been around for forty years but other countries had not taken it seriously until after the War of 1812. After surviving another war, it appeared that the new country might just make it.