There was no going back once President James Madison signed the declaration of war on June 18, 1812. The House of Representatives had already voted in favor of the war, 79 to 49, and the Senate had followed suit with a vote of 19 to 13. It was the first time that the young United States had ever declared war on another nation, and its rival was the greatest maritime power in the world—Great Britain.
Causes of the War of 1812
Three main grievances led up to the War of 1812. The first involved the troubled relationship between the Americans and the native tribes on the frontier, now the Midwest. It was in this region that the Shawnee Tenskwatawa had come to prominence by claiming to be a prophet. He and his brother Tecumseh gathered a band of tribes around them, united by the premise that the Americans were sons of the Evil Spirit and motivated by the vision of a glorious Indian nation, free from the influence of their unwelcome neighbors. To gather weapons for their undertaking, they turned to the British, who were only too glad to have a friendly Indian nation between Canada and possible encroachment from America. Thus with help from the British, Tecumseh and his warriors were equipped to carry out violent raids on American settlements.
The second problem arose out of the Napoleonic War. Napoleon’s endless ambitions gave England due cause for alarm, and war with France broke out in 1803. To meet the threat, Britain began scouring the seas for deserters, putting them into service. The definition of “deserter” was a little broad since Britain refused to recognize the right of her subjects to become naturalized citizens of other nations. This made America an excellent place to search for sailors to man the Royal Navy, and sometimes even American-born citizens were accidentally seized.
The third source of contention was also a direct result of the Napoleonic War. In an effort to ruin the economy of France, Britain placed restrictions on trade, even going so far as to blockade the coast of Europe in an effort to keep neutral nations from engaging in trade with her rival. It just so happened that largest neutral nation was America. The United States did not appreciate this affront to their trade rights, and many people were suspicious that Britain intended to use embargoes as a means of bringing the new nation back under the control of the Crown.
The Road to War
Matters rapidly approached a crisis in 1807, when the British ship Leopard fired on the Chesapeake, boarded it, and carried off four sailors as deserters. Americans cried for war to uphold their national sovereignty, but President Thomas Jefferson was reluctant to embroil the United States in their very first war. Instead, he responded with the Embargo Act of 1807, which barred British ships from American ports, but also restrained American ships from entering foreign ports. While this improved the safety of American ships on the high seas by keeping them at home, the sea-based economy of New England suffered for it, creating a sharp conflict between the Federalists of the region and the supporters of Jefferson, once the Antifederalists but then preferring to be called the Democratic-Republican Party.
James Madison had been elected president in 1808 and had studiously pursued peace with Britain during his first term. However, his support of Jefferson’s Embargo Act had earned him the animosity of the Federalist Party, and to win reelection in 1812 he needed to rally his fellow Democratic-Republicans behind him.
Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that on June 1, 1812, Madison delivered a speech to Congress recommending war as the final recourse.
The war was marked by events still celebrated in history books today:
- The prowess of the U.S.S. Constitution (“Old Ironsides”).
- The defeat of Tecumseh and his confederates.
- The foresight of Dolly Madison during the burning of Washington, D.C.
- The writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
- The Battle of New Orleans.
These occurrences boosted American morale, but they altered the actual military situation little. At sea, the British blockade of the Atlantic Coast simply could not be broken by the small American Navy. Instead, a multitude of privateers harassed the intruders, taking a toll on the British until Napoleon’s exile to Elba freed up the Royal Navy, allowing them to tighten the blockade.
On land, matters were equally indecisive. Britain, thanks to the Napoleonic Wars, did not have the manpower to take the offensive in North America. On the other hand, the raw American forces were unable to conquer their more experienced rivals. By the time that Britain was finally able to send forces into the United States, the Americans had learned how to fight and were able to repel many of the attacks.
By August 1814, both sides had had enough of the expensive and unproductive war. From an American perspective, there was nothing to be gained by further fighting. Tecumseh had been killed and his allied tribes dispersed, thus ending the Indian threat. Furthermore, with Napoleon captured, England had put an end to its embargoes and had stopped seizing “deserters.”
However, the terms of peace that Great Britain initially put forth were unacceptable to most Americans. England demanded that an Indian state be created between Canada and the United States as a barricade to encroachments. Few in the United States relished the idea of a hostile nation being placed on the frontier in this manner, so even the Federalists rallied behind Madison and the war continued for a time.
The British Prime Minister then turned to the Duke of Wellington, demanding that he take charge of matters in Canada and capture the Great Lakes. The duke, however, replied that the war was a stalemate and that England had better accept the American offer of a return to status quo.
Great Britain finally relented and followed the duke’s advice. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814. England ratified the treaty three days later, but it took time for the news to cross the ocean. America ratified the treaty on February 18, 1815.
Results of the War of 1812
Great Britain almost instantly forgot the War of 1812, tending to perceive it as an inconvenient but rather insignificant episode in the pageant of the Napoleonic Wars. In America, however, the event ushered in a new era—the “Era of Good Feelings.”
First and foremost, the war removed a very real threat from what was then the American frontier. When Tecumseh died, the lingering hopes of many native tribes in the present-day Midwest died, as well. Peace was made with these tribes, who then began to gradually sell off their lands.
Also of significance to many Americans was the new image that their nation had gained. America was a force to be reckoned with, a real player in international affairs, at least in its own hemisphere. As British diplomat Augustus J. Foster observed, “The Americans…have brought us to speak of them with respect.”
Further fostering the “good feelings” was altered the political scene. The Federalist stronghold of New England had not only opposed the War of 1812, but had carried on an illegal trade with Canada during the war, and had even talked of secession at one point. At the end of the war, the Federalist Party, completely discredited, collapsed. The Democratic-Republicans (later simply called Democrats) dominated American politics, and party squabbles vanished for a time.
One issue that came to be represented by the Democratic-Republican and later the Democratic parties was westward expansion. Americans were free to explore, claim, and settle the continent right up to the edge of the Great Plains, confident that the new states they created would be accepted into the Union and that the government would back them in disputes with the British and the other major power in North America, Spain.
The War of 1812 was a military stalemate, achieving nothing of any great value to either side except the destruction of Tecumseh’s confederacy. And yet it was unquestionably a significant event in American history. It was a cue for the young nation to grow.
The British Burn the Capitol
8-part video exhibition from the U. S. Capitol Visitor Center.
War of 1812
Brief synopsis from Ohio History Central.
War of 1812
Background from the History Channel.
War of 1812
Complete coverage from Indiana University. (Use the menu to the left to navigate.)
“Old Ironsides” Earns Its Name 1812
A retelling with primary sources from Eyewitness to History.
The British Burn Washington, 1814
Another from Eyewitness to History.
The Battle of New Orleans 1815
Retelling from primary sources from Eyewitness to History.
More about the political and military leader from Ohio History Central.
War of 1812 Timeline
From the USS Constitution Museum.
The Naval War of 1812 Illustrated
Excellent book-like presentation by the American Society of Marine Artists explaining the what, the where, and the who.
Cast Your Vote 1812
Make the decisions James Madison faced when deciding whether or not to declare war in this interactive from the National Park Service.
War of 1812 Map Timeline
Timeline interactive from Maryland Public Television.
Hold the Fort
A favorite interactive game from the National Park Service.
A Sailor’s Life for Me
Interactive sponsored by the USS Constitution Museum where you explore Old Ironsides and sail to victory.
The War of 1812
Interactive from the Smithsonian where you read information about the war and answer questions to collect stars. Great for wrapping up.
Andy Jackson: Boy Soldier by Augusta Stevenson
One of our favorites from the Childhood of Famous Americans series by one of our favorite authors. (The updated version is a completely different book!)
The Mentor: “The War of 1812” by Albert Bushnell Hart
In depth look at the War of 1812 in this issue of a now public domain magazine.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
War of 1812 Educator’s Guide
Very complete 121-page download from PBS with lesson plans for three levels of learning that cover the National Anthem, the important people, the treaty, causes, and more. Includes dozens of helpful foldables, maps, and other printables. Geared to go along with the PBS DVD, but easily adaptable without.
Fort McHenry Teacher’s Guide
26-page download from the National Park Service covering details about the fort, Francis Scott Key, and the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
President Madison’s 1812 War Message
Three lesson plans from the National Endowment of the Humanities that analyze Madison’s request for Congress to consider war (primary source document).
In Defense of a Nation: Maryland’s Role in the War of 1812
Extensive teacher’s guide with background information, timeline, biographies, maps, art, quotes, song lyrics, primary source links, and a variety of recommended helps. Great resource!
Free History Studies: Captain James Lawrence
Part of our own unit covering the man who coined “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”
Free History Studies: The Star-Spangled Banner
Our own unit covering Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key, and our national anthem. Background, activities, and printables not included here.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
War of 1812 Declared
Printable for notebook.
War of 1812 Theater
Map for notebook from The Library of Congress.
War of 1812 Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.