War of 1812 Bicentennial

War of 1812 History: Causes of the War of 1812

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What are the causes of the War of 1812? Well, the War of 1812 can't be examined in a vacuum; goings-on in the rest of the world need to be taken into consideration. Over in Europe, Napoleon had been crowned Emperor of France and had gained control of much of Europe, with Great Britain next on his "to-do" list. As the United States were neutral, American merchants didn't mind this initially, as it meant that they were able to sell at inflated prices to both powers. However, in 1806, Napoleon issued his Berlin Decree, which declared Great Britain to be in a state of blockade and prohibited neutral countries from trading with Great Britain. In retaliation, the British passed Orders-in-Council the following year that similarly forbade trading with countries under Napoleon's sway. These naturally caused problems for American traders. It caused the Americans to get rather upset at the British, as opposed to the French, because the British could actually enforce it, their navy dominating the high seas.

Another American grievance was the British right of search. In the early 1800s, deserting the British Navy was the "in" thing to do, and the best place to get a job after you've done that would be on an American merchant vessel. So, Great Britain claimed the right to search other countries' ships for such deserters and impress them back into navy service. The United States claimed that the British Navy often defined "deserter" to mean "anyone who couldn't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were an American citizen," and there was most likely some truth to that complaint. Great Britain and the United States also held different views on naturalization. Great Britain felt that you couldn't just leave the country of your birth and become a citizen or subject of another country and thus get out of your obligations to the country of your birth, and the United States felt that, well, yes, you could.

One incident in 1807 was particularly rankling. Five British sailors had deserted a British sloop and enlisted on the American frigate Chesapeake, and a few weeks later, when the Chesapeake was stopped by the British frigate Leopard, Captain James Barron of the Chesapeake refused to let the Leopard's officers search his ship. The Leopard fired on the Chesapeake, and the Chesapeake submitted after a fight during which twenty-one men were killed or wounded. Four men were seized. The only one of the four who actually was a deserter was hanged, which makes you wonder why the British bothered in the first place. Another of the men died. The British tardily returned the other two men, apologized and paid for damages, but that didn't really help matters much.

A third cause of the war was American expansionism. While the Americans were indignant about Great Britain's naval policy, war started to seem imminent only after 1810, when several frontier states, though located far away from the maritime hubs of the United States, sent a bunch of warlike politicians to Congress. These states were hungry for land, whether British (Canada), Spanish (Florida), or Indian. For the past few decades they had been slowly but steadily kicking the Indians off of land in the "West", which now comprises states that we no longer think of as being in the West, like Ohio and Michigan. The Indians, led by Tecumseh, called on Great Britain for help, and the Americans believed that Great Britain was secretly helping the Indians. While there was no hard evidence to support this claim, nothing fuels innuendo like a lack of hard evidence, so there you go. It was felt that an invasion of Canada would resolve this problem, perhaps not necessarily as an end in itself, but it could put an end to the imagined British support of the Indians, either by kicking the British off the continent completely, or by forcing the British to agree to terms favourable to the United States.

Some smaller-minded Americans would be willing to use any excuse to invade Canada; certainly the idea of the Americans conquering Canada was not a new one. They had already tried twice. The first time was in 1690, when America was British (although this attack was thoroughly American) and Canada French. The second time was in 1775, led by Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery. Both attempts were complete failures, but hey, third time's the charm, right? Many people, such as Thomas Jefferson and U.S. Secretary of War William Eustis, felt that it would be trivial to conquer provinces such as Upper Canada. The fact that that province was originally populated by those who fled the United States under threat of persecution for backing the losing side in the War of Independence notwithstanding, they thought that they would just have to show up and they would be welcomed as liberators.

[Portrait of James Madison]
President James Madison.

Support for a war was not unanimous in the United States. The New England states, even though they were most affected by the Orders-in-Council and by impressment, opposed war, believing that it would ruin their trade, while the Western states, such as Kentucky, were hungry for war. James Madison, then President of the United States, was perhaps not as war-hungry as many of his fellow members of the Democratic Party (actually, the party was more often referred to as the Republican Party, but this is the party that is now known as the Democratic Party, not the party currently known as the Republican Party. Confused yet? Back then, the word "democrat" was a bit of a bad word, with connotations to anarchy) but in 1812 presidential elections were just around the corner and Madison needed some votes in the West. So, he started a now time-honoured tradition among Presidents of the United States who want to get their approval ratings up: He asked Congress to declare war, on June 1st. There was a bit of a delay in the senate, but on June 18th, Congress had voted in favour of the measure and Madison approved the bill. The next day Madison issued a proclamation of war, and the War of 1812 had begun.

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