TIME MACHINE: The War of 1812

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TIME MACHINE: THE WAR OF 1812

This summer marks the 200th anniversary of when President James Madison and the U.S. Congress declared war against Great Britain and the British Empire on June 18, 1812; an act that led to the beginning of the War of 1812 (1812-1814). 

The War of 1812 was a major conflict that lasted two-and-a-half years between the young United States nation and the British Empire, along with the latter’s Native American allies. The conflict was fought on both land and the sea, on and near the North American continent. There were a handful of reasons that led the U.S. government to declare war on Great Britain. Here are a few:

Impressment of American Sailors – Due to the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) waged against Napoleon’s French Empire, sailors aboard American ships found themselves impressed by the Royal Navy and French ships. The British, especially, claimed that many sailors that found themselves aboard American merchant ships were deserters from their Navy. And many of them were. Their efforts to impress sailors from American ships became even more excessive after 1805. The problem of impressment culminated in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, a naval engagement between naval engagement that occurred off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia; on June 22, 1807, between the British warship H.M.S. Leopard and American frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake. The crew of the Leopard pursued, attacked and boarded the American frigate, while looking for deserters from the British Navy.

Orders in Council (1807) – This document was a series of decrees made by Great Britain that forbade French trade with the British Empire, its allies, or neutrals like the United States. The decrees were a response to France’s Berlin Decree of 1806, which forbade the import of British goods into European countries allied with or dependent upon France, and installed the Continental System in Europe. The Orders in Council led the British to use the Royal Navy to enact a blockade of French ports. The British used the Orders in Council as an excuse to bombard Copenhagen, Denmark in September 1807 (Battle of Copenhagen). They did so to prevent the Danish from joining France’s Continental System. The British also used their decrees as an excuse for their policy of stopping neutral (including American) ships from trading with France. President Thomas Jefferson responded to the Orders by passing the Embargo Act of 1807, which forbade U.S. ships from trading with Britain and France. The act proved to be very ineffective, unpopular, and led to economic strain in the U.S., until it was repealed in 1809. Great Britain repealed the Orders in Council on June 16, 1812. But the news of the repeal, which gave great concessions to the U.S., did not reach American shores in time to prevent Congress from declaring war on the British.

American Expansion – This is believed to be one of the major causes of the war. The Americans wanted expansion into the Native American lands of the Northwest Territory and the Upper Mississippi Valley. However, the tribes blocked their expansion and the British supported this block. The British worried about American desire for Canada, a problem that first manifested during the American Revolution. Many American historians believe that the U.S. desire for the conquest of Canada is nothing more than a staple of Canadian opinion since the 1830s and that it was never a permanent war goal, merely a tool for negotiations. However, many do believe that if the U.S. had been successful in acquiring control of Canadian lands, the government would have been very reluctant to returned the occupied territory to the British.

Despite the many reasons that led to the beginning of the War of 1812, it took certain incidents that led the U.S. to declare war on Great Britain. Confrontations between the Royal Navy and American ships (both military and commercial) like the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and the Leander Affair, the series of economic decrees and embargo acts, and military conflicts between the Native Americans and the Americans like the Tecumseh War in which the British supported the natives, finally led to the development of a coalition of young congressmen from the Democratic-Republican party (popular in the West and the South) called the “War Hawks”. Led by Henry Clay Sr. of Kentucky andJohn C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the “War Hawks” pushed for a declaration of war against Britain. President James Madison gave a speech to the U.S. Congress on June 1, 1812; listing American grievances against Great Britain. The House of Representatives quickly voted to declare war against the British, followed by the Senate. The conflict formally began on June 18, 1812; when President Madison signed the measure into law.

If you have any further interest in the War of 1812, the following is a sample of books you might want to read:

*“The War of 1812 – A Forgotten Conflict” by Donald R. Hickey

*“The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent” by J.C.A. Stagg

*“1812: War With America” by Jon Latimer

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