Mr. Madison’s War

The War of 1812 was, in many respects, something of a disaster. Throughout the United States there was a general resentment and frustration over issues of trade that had been improperly settled after the Revolution, and many areas were openly looking for an excuse to go to war with the British again. There was a distinct geographical split seen both in Congress and public opinion. The southern and western sections were largely in favour, seeing it as an excuse to expand westward and gain international respect.

The turn of the 19th century saw the young United States expanding its maritime commerce, trading with both Britain and France and choosing to ignore the fact that Britain was at war with France. At this time, America had no navy, having relied mostly on privateers during the Revolution, and there was a general sense that the Royal Navy would patrol the seas well enough that there was little sense in America building its own. This lack of thought became apparent when Britain did indeed take offense to American merchant ships trading with France, and responded with piracy and impressment– seizing sailors off of American ships under the claim that they were English deserters. While many of the sailors in question were English deserters, they had been granted protection (and sometimes citizenship) by the United States, and thus for the Royal Navy to board American ships and arrest them was a violation of international law, and showed how little respect Britain had for the new nation. The French were no more pleased about American shipping playing both sides than the British were, but Napoleon had more than his share of trouble with the Royal Navy, and had neither the money, ships, nor inclination to defend American shipping.

There was also the question of Canada. The region had largely chosen to remain neutral during the Revolution, refusing to declare independence along with the colonies that would become the United States, and afterward became a refuge for those colonists who remained loyal to the Crown. A strong English presence remained in Canada, with close trading ties to the Iroquois and other northern tribes. Many of the northern tribes had sided with the British during the Revolution, and Americans were deeply suspicious of British-native relations as a result. It seemed to many Americans that the English presence was intended to fortify natives against white settlement on the frontier, as had been the case prior to the Revolution.

The faction in Congress known as the War Hawks wanted to invade Canada, both to drive the British off the North American continent for good and as a show of force in order to end impressment and the general harassment of American shipping. Interestingly, New England and the middle states of New York and Pennsylvania, the areas most affected by the Royal Navy’s harassment policies, were the least interested in the plan to invade Canada, probably because they didn’t want to create bad blood with their immediate neighbour. Unfortunately, they were out-numbered by the War Hawks, and thus war was declared. However, two days before, the British government had voted to end impressment and resume trade with the United States in order to ease food shortages due to crop failures the previous winter. The invasion of Canada proceeded anyway, but did so in such a haphazard and incompetent manner that the British forces were able to deflect it with little trouble, even though the best of the British army were elsewhere fighting the French. The most important result of the invasion of Canada was that the British changed their mind about resuming trade, and Royal Navy ships proceeded to blockade American ports and conduct raids along the Chesapeake Bay, even burning the nation’s capital. Public opinion of the war rapidly eroded as the poorly-trained American forces proceeded to accomplish very little, and the only reason the war wasn’t a complete failure was because the majority of British forces were occupied in the Napoleonic Wars and therefore unavailable.



Snow, Donald M., and Dennis M. Drew. >From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond: War and Politics in the American Experience. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2010.


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