Some dates in American history stand out. Mention April 12, 1861, December 7, 1941, or September 11, 2001 and most people know what historical event you have in mind. Ask what happened on June 18, 1812, however, and the most likely response is a blank stare. But on this date two hundred years ago, the United States, then a weak and fragile country on the fringes of the known world, declared war on Great Britain, then one of the world’s most powerful countries.
There is a good reason for the amnesia surrounding the War of 1812: America’s so-called second war of independence did not go so well. Several New England states organized a convention to protest the war and propose changing the Constitution to make it harder for the United States to start a war. Rather than marching to victory in Canada, U.S. troops saw British troops take Washington, DC, and burn the White House and the Capitol building as the President and First Lady fled. The one great U.S. victory in the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans, came only after a peace treaty had been signed.
Doubts about the wisdom of fighting Great Britain were evident even before Congress declared war. President James Madison called for war in a message to Congress on June, but lawmakers debated the war bill for more than two weeks. The outcome was in doubt up until the final votes in the House and Senate. As one representative said, “the suspense we are in is worse than hell—!!!” When Congress finally brushed aside efforts to defeat or limit the declaration, it was the “closest vote on any formal declaration of war in American history”—19 to 13 in the Senate and 79 to 49 in the House. And here, as at many other critical moments in the history of American foreign policy, the politics did not stop at the water’s edge: all thirty-nine Federalists in Congress voted against declaring war.
Many of those lawmakers who voted “aye” might have cast their votes differently had they known what was happening in Great Britain as they were debating what to do. Just two days before Congress voted for war, the British agreed to suspend one of the policies that had inflamed American passions, the Orders-in-Council, which authorized the British Navy to prevent American ships from entering French ports. A week later, London ended the policy, which had been instituted as part of its war with Napoleonic France, without any concessions at all. Unfortunately, news traveled slowly at the start of the nineteenth century. Washington did not learn of the British actions until August. Madison later speculated that, had Americans known about the concession, the declaration of war “would have been stayed” and negotiations “would have been pursued with fresh vigor & hopes.”
So why did the United States opt for war when by any conventional measure it was outgunned by Great Britain? A major force was nationalism. Many Americans fumed over Britain’s lengthy and repeated mistreatment of American shipping and sailors. For years the British Navy had boarded American ships and removed men to serve in the Royal Navy. This policy of “impressment” was justified on the grounds of the British Navy had legal right to recapture British deserters. In practice, however, hundreds of American sailors were rounded up as well. British ships violated American naval rights in other ways, sometimes with disastrous results. In June 1807, a British ship fired on the USS Chesapeake, which was in U.S. waters just nine miles from America’s shores. The attack left four men dead and fifteen others wounded.
Land hunger was also at work. Many Americans had their sights set on moving westward. They worried that Britain was helping Native American tribes block this westward expansion. Madison himself noted in his war message that he could not help but connect British influence with:
the warfare just renewed by the savages on one of our extensive frontiers—a warfare which is known to spare neither age nor sex and to be distinguished by features peculiarly shocking to humanity.
Still other Americans dreamed that war with Great Britain would lead to the conquest of Canada and the end of Britain’s presence on the North American continent.
The so-called war hawks, a fiery group of fresh-faced members of Congress led by Speaker of the House Henry Clay, helped fan the popular passion for war. They exuded confidence and promised great rewards. Clay viewed the coming war as “the combined energies of a free people. . . wreaking a noble and manful vengeance upon a foreign foe.” He also declared that the “militia of Kentucky are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet.” Even the venerable Thomas Jefferson agreed, stating, “The acquisition of Canada this year . . . will be a mere matter of marching.”
The war hawks got their war, but in a story that more than one subsequent generation of Americans would regrettably repeat, they did not get the quick victory and easy rewards they promised. The Canadian militia and the British regulars proved to be far better fighting forces than the war hawks imagined. It didn’t help matters that Congress declared war knowing that the United States was not prepared to fight it. The thinking, as one Republican Congressman put it, was that Congress should emulate the young couple willing “to get married, & buy the furniture afterwards.” That turned out to be poor policy. The war ground down into a bitter conflict that sparked talk of secession in the Northeast and saw 2,260 American soldiers killed.
The War of 1812 did have its moments. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, thereby causing thousands of American schoolchildren to have to remember that he reported back to his superiors, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The Battle of New Orleans catapulted General Andrew Jackson to fame and eventually the White House. And, of course, the refusal of the men at Fort McHenry to surrender to the British in September 1814 despite a withering volley of “bombs bursting in air” led Francis Scott Key to pen the words to the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Today most Americans misremember much of the War of 1812—if they remember it at all. So it is fitting that one history of the war is entitled “A Forgotten Conflict.”