Declaration Of War [1812] - History

Declaration Of War [1812] - History

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Be it enacted . , That war be and the same is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories; and that the President of the United States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States to carry the same into effect, and to issue to private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marque and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper, and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the government of the said United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the subjects thereof.

Declaration of War

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The War of 1812 has been made possible by a major grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom. With funding provided by The Wilson Foundation … More

The War of 1812 has been made possible by a major grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom. With funding provided by The Wilson Foundation Warren and Barbara Goldring The Corporation for Public Broadcasting: A private corporation funded by the American people. The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations: Dedicated to strengthening America’s future through education. Phil Lind And The Annenberg Foundation. With additional support from these funders.

This Day in History - the Declaration of War in 1812


Posted by Museum Volunteer Diana Stanley

The War of 1812 is often a forgotten note in American history. If mentioned at all, usually it is only to point out that the British burnt down the White House and the U.S. tried (and failed) to conquer Canada. In reality, the American people of 1812 understood and supported war. In fact, they found it far from "pointless."

First, America declared war because of the Northwest Territory, an area which makes up modern day states of Ohio and Michigan. The British gave up legal claim to the land in the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution. Yet, their forts in the New World never seemed to get the message. In fact, by the time the war started on June 18, 1812, the British were still there. The Americans also thought the British were aiding American Indian tribes in fighting settlers. While the British occupied the Northwest Territory, settlers fought a bloody war against Tecumseh and his tribe, the Shawnee. The Shawnee, like the British, did not want the settlers to move into the area.

The other major spark of war was the treatment of American merchant ships and sailors. At that time, the British boarded American vessels, selected random sailors, and demanded they prove they were not British citizens. If they failed (most did because not a lot of people took their birth certificate to sea, if they had one at all), the British &ldquopressganged&rdquo them to serve as sailors in the British Royal Navy. Starting in 1807, the British began to seize the ships&rsquo goods as well. Tensions rose when three Americans died refusing to allow the British to board the American ship Chesapeake.

Canada has not officially maintained and possessed weapons of mass destruction since 1984 and, as of 1998, has signed treaties repudiating possession of them. Canada ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1930 and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1970, but still sanctions contributions to American military programs.

Canada has long been one of the United States’ closest allies—but the relationship between those nations hasn’t always been so friendly. Besides the American invasion of Canada in 1775, and continued fighting throughout the War of 1812, Canada has faced American invasion on several other occasions.

Madison, Congress, and the Move Toward War

In early June 1812 President James Madison sent a message to Congress in which he listed complaints about British behavior toward America. Madison raised several issues:

  • Impressment
  • Continual harassment of American commerce by British warships
  • British laws, known as Orders in Council, declaring blockades against American ships bound for European ports
  • Attacks by "savages" (e.g., Indigenous peoples) on "one of our extensive frontiers" (the border with Canada) believed to be instigated by British troops in Canada

At the time, the U.S. Congress was being steered by an aggressive faction of young legislators in the House of Representatives known as the War Hawks.

Henry Clay (1777–1852), a leader of the War Hawks, was a young member of Congress from Kentucky. Representing the views of Americans living in the West, Clay believed that war with Britain would not only restore American prestige, it would also provide a great benefit to the country—an increase in territory.

An openly stated goal of the western War Hawks was for the United States to invade and seize Canada. And there was a common, though deeply misguided, belief that it would be easy to achieve. (Once the war began, American actions along the Canadian border tended to be frustrating at best, and Americans never came close to conquering the British territory.)

The War of 1812 has often been called "America's Second War for Independence," and that title is appropriate. The young United States government was determined to make Britain respect it.

War of 1812

The War of 1812 was fought between the United States and Great Britain from 1812 until 1815.

The war had several causes. During the late 1700s and the early 1800s, Great Britain was at war with France. Britain began to face a shortage of skilled sailors. To acquire more men for its navy, Great Britain began to stop American and other ships and impress (take by force) sailors from them. Britain also tried to prevent United States farmers from trading with the French. Finally, British soldiers continued to occupy territory belonging to the United States, despite Great Britain's promise to remove these soldiers in the Treaty of Paris (1783) at the end of the American Revolution. Most of the soldiers were located along the Great Lakes, providing Native Americans, like the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, with support in their struggle against American settlers. In 1812, President James Madison asked the United States Congress to declare war.

The first major battles of the war occurred in 1813. The United States had hoped to invade Canada in 1812, but British soldiers successfully rebuffed the assault. However, America did have some important victories the following year. The success of Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie, gave the United States control of that Great Lake. In the Battle of the Thames, General William Henry Harrison defeated a combined British and Native American force led by Colonel Henry Procter and Tecumseh. Tecumseh died in the battle. In 1814, despite a great naval victory at the Battle of Lake Champlain, the war turned against the Americans. A British army captured and held Washington, D.C. for a brief period. Before the British evacuated the city, they set fire to several of the buildings, including the White House. By late 1814, both the Americans and the British were ready to conclude the war. The two sides signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. Before news of the peace treaty reached America, one final battle, the Battle of New Orleans, which resulted in an American victory, occurred in January 1815.

Most Ohioans actively supported the American war effort. Some of the British soldiers who remained on United States soil following the American Revolution were located along Lake Erie in western Ohio. These British soldiers also were trading guns with the Native Americans, helping the natives to resist the advance westward of white Americans. The United States' victory in the War of 1812 ended British support to the Native Americans and virtually ended the native threat to white Ohioans, allowing these Americans to fully settle Ohio without further opposition.

Why Hitler Declared War on the United States

WHEN NEWS OF THE JAPANESE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR reached Germany, its leadership was absorbed by the crisis in its war with the Soviet Union. On December 1, 1941, after the serious defeat the Red Army administered to the German forces at the southern end of the Eastern Front, Adolf Hitler had relieved Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander in chief of the army group fighting there the next day Hitler flew to the army group headquarters in the southern Ukraine. Late on December 3 he flew back to his headquarters in East Prussia, only to be greeted by more bad news: The German army group at the northern end of the Russian front was also being pushed back by Red Army counterattacks. Most ominous of all, the German offensive in the center, toward Moscow, not only had exhausted itself but was in danger of being overwhelmed by a Soviet counteroffensive. Not yet recognizing the extent of the defeat all along the front, Hitler and his generals saw their reverses merely as a temporary halt in German offensive operations.

The reality was just beginning to sink in when the German leaders got news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. On the evening of December 8, within hours of hearing about the previous day’s attack, Hitler ordered that at any opportunity the German navy should sink American ships and those of Central and South American countries that had declared their solidarity with the United States. That evening, too, he left East Prussia by train for Berlin, but not before sending out a summons to the members of the German parliament, the Reichstag, to meet on December 11 and, in a formal session that would be broadcast to the whole country, declare war on the United States.

Why this eagerness to go to war with yet another great power, and at a time when Germany already faced a serious situation on the Eastern Front? Some have argued that it was an irrational reaction by Hitler to his failure to take Moscow some have attributed the delay of a few days to reluctance on Hitler’s part, when it had more to do with the fact that Japan’s initiative had caught the Germans by surprise still others imagine that Germany had finally reacted to America’s policy of aiding Britain, even though in all his prior declarations of war Hitler had paid scant heed to the policies, for or against Germany, of the countries invaded. Ideological considerations and strategic priorities as Germany saw them were always more important. The most recent case was that of the Soviet Union, which had been providing critical supplies to Germany until minutes before the German attack of June 22, 1941.

The reality is that war with the United States had been included in Hitler’s agenda for years, that he had deferred hostilities only because he wanted to begin them at a time, and under circumstances, of his own choosing, and that the Japanese attack fitted his requirements precisely. It had been an assumption of Hitler’s since the 1920s that Germany would at some point fight the United States. Already in the summer of 1928 he had asserted in his second book (not published until I did it for him in 1961, as Hitlers zweites Buch) that strengthening and preparing Germany for war with the United States was one of the tasks of the National Socialist movement. Because his aims for Germany’s future entailed an unlimited expansion and because he thought the United States might at some time constitute a challenge to German domination of the globe, a war with the United States had long been a part of the future he envisioned. It would come either during his own rule or during that of his successors.

During the years of his chancellorship before 1939, German policies designed to implement the project of a war with the United States had been conditioned by two factors: belief in the truth of the stab-in-the-back legend on the one hand and the practical problems of engaging American military power on the other. The former, the widespread belief that Germany had lost the First World War because of the collapse at home rather than defeat at the front, automatically carried with it a converse of enormous significance, and one that has generally been ignored. The more credence one gave to the stab in the back, the more negligible the military role of the United States in that conflict seemed. To Hitler and to many others in Germany, the idea that American participation had enabled the Western powers to hold on in 1918 and then move toward victory was not a reasonable explanation of the events of that year but a legend instead.

Only those Germans who remained unenlightened by nationalist euphoria could believe that American forces had played any significant role in the past or would do so in the future. A solid German home front, which National Socialism would ensure, could preclude defeat next time. The problem of fighting the United States was not that the inherently weak and divided Americans could create, field, and support effective fighting forces. Rather it was that the intervening ocean could be blocked by a large American fleet.

Unlike the German navy of the pre-1914 era, in which discussions were really debates about the relative merits of landing on Cape Cod versus landing on Long Island, the German government of the 1930s took a more practical approach. In line with its emphasis on building up the air force, specifications were issued in 1937 and 1938 for what became the Me 264 and was soon referred to inside the government as the “America bomber” or the “New York bomber.” The “America bomber” would be capable of carrying a five-ton load of bombs to New York or a smaller load to the Midwest, or of flying reconnaissance missions over the West Coast and then returning to Germany without refueling at intermediate bases. Several types and models were experimented with, the first prototype flying in December 1940, but none of them advanced beyond preliminary models.

Instead, Hitler and his advisers came to concentrate ever more on the concept of acquiring bases for the German air force on the coast of northwest Africa, as well as on the Spanish and Portuguese islands off the African coast, to shorten the distance to the western hemisphere. Hitler also held discussions with his naval advisers and with Japanese diplomats about bombing the United States from the Azores but those consultations did not take place until 1940 and 1941. In the meantime, prewar planning had shifted its focus to naval matters.

Like the Japanese, the Germans in the 1930s faced the question of how to cope with the American navy in the furtherance of their expansionist ambitions without the slightest consultation, and in complete and deliberate ignorance of each other’s projects, the two governments came to exactly the same conclusion. In both countries the decision was to trump American quantity with quality, to build super-battleships, which by their vastly greater size could carry far heavier armament that could fire over greater distances and thus would be able to destroy the American battleships at ranges the enemy’s guns could not match.

The Japanese began constructing four such super-battleships in great secrecy. The Germans hoped to construct six super-battleships their plans were worked out early in 1939 and the keels laid in April and May. These 56,200-ton monsters would outclass not only the new U.S. battleships of the North Carolina class then beginning to be built but even the successor Iowa class.

The precise details of how a war with the United States would actually be conducted was not a subject to which Hitler or his associates devoted a great deal of attention. When the time came, something could always be worked out it was more important to prepare the prerequisites for success.

When World War II began in September 1939, work ceased on those portions of the blue-water navy not already near completion that included the super-battleships. The immediate exigencies of the war took precedence over projects that could not be finished in the near future. Almost immediately, however, the German navy urged steps that would bring the United States into the war. Admiral Erich Raeder, the navy’s commander in chief, could hardly wait to go to war with the United States. He hoped that the increase in sinkings of merchant shipping, including American, that would result from a completely unrestricted submarine campaign would have a major impact on Britain, whose surface navy Germany could not yet defeat. But Hitler held back. As he saw it, what was the point of marginally increasing U-boat sinkings when Germany had neither a major surface navy yet nor bases for it to operate from?

The spring of 1940 appeared to provide the opportunity to remedy both deficiencies. The conquest of Norway in April immediately produced two relevant decisions: First, Norway would be incorporated into the Third Reich, and second, a major permanent base for Germany’s new navy would be built on the Norwegian—now German—coast at Trondheim. In addition, a large, entirely German city would be built there, with the whole complex to be connected directly to mainland Germany by special roads, bridges, and railways. Work on this colossal project continued until the spring of 1943.

The conquest of the Low Countries and France, soon after that of Norway, appeared to open further prospects. In the eyes of Hitler and his associates, the war in the West was over they could turn to their next objectives. On land that meant an invasion of the Soviet Union, a simple task that Hitler originally hoped to complete in the fall of 1940. At sea, it meant that the problem of making war on the United States could be tackled.

On July 11, 1940, Hitler ordered the resumption of the naval construction program. The super-battleships, together with hundreds of other warships, could now be built. While that program went forward, the Germans not only would construct the naval base at Trondheim and take over the French naval bases on the Atlantic coast, but would push a land connection to the Strait of Gibraltar—if Germany could control Spain as it did France. It would then be easy to acquire and develop air and sea bases in French and Spanish northwest Africa, as well as on the Spanish and Portuguese islands in the Atlantic. In a war with the United States, they would be the perfect advance bases for the new fleet and for airplanes that did not yet meet the earlier extravagant specifications for long-range flight.

These rosy prospects did not work out. Whatever Francisco Franco’s enthusiasm for joining the war on the side of Germany, and whatever his willingness to assist his friend in Berlin, the Spanish dictator was a nationalist who was not about to yield Spanish sovereignty to anyone else—neither in territory now held by Spain nor in French and British holdings that he expected to pick up as a reward for joining the Axis. The fact that the German leadership in 1940 was willing to sacrifice the participation of Spain as an equal fighting partner rather than give up on their hopes for German-controlled bases on and off the coast of northwest Africa is an excellent indication of the priority that they assigned to their concept of war with the United States. Franco’s offer of the use of Spanish bases was not enough for them: German sovereignty was what they believed their schemes required. When the Spanish foreign minister went to Berlin in September 1940, and when Hitler and Franco met on the French-Spanish border in October, it was the sovereignty issue that caused a fundamental rift between the prospective partners in war.

But it was not only the bases that proved elusive. As the preparations for war with the Soviet Union made another reallocation of armament resources necessary in the late fall of 1940, the construction of the blue water navy was again halted. Once more Hitler had to restrain the enthusiasm of the German navy for war with the United States. The navy believed that in World War II, as in World War I, the way to defeat Great Britain lay in unrestricted submarine warfare, even if that meant bringing the United States into the conflict. But Hitler was doubtful whether what had failed the last time would work now he had other ideas for coping with Britain, such as bombing and possibly invading it. When it came to taking on the United States, he recognized that he could not do so without a large surface navy. It was at this point that Japan came into the picture.

Since the Germans had long regarded a war with the Western powers as the major and most difficult prerequisite for an easy conquest of the Soviet Union, and since it appeared to them that Japan’s ambitions in East Asia clashed with British, French, and American interests, Berlin had tried for years to achieve Japanese participation in an alliance directed against the West. The authorities in Tokyo had been happy to work with Germany in general, but major elements in the Japanese government had been reluctant to fight Britain and France. Some preferred a war with the Soviet Union others were worried about a war with the United States, which they saw as a likely result of war with Britain and France still others thought that it would be best to settle the war with China first and some held a combination of these views.

In any case, all German efforts to rope Japan into an alliance actively opposing the West had failed. The German reaction to this failure—their signing of a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union in 1939—had only served to alienate some of their best friends in a Japan that was then engaged in open hostilities with the Soviet Union on the border between their respective East Asian puppet states of Manchukuo and Mongolia.

In Tokyo’s view, the defeat of the Netherlands and France the following year, and the need of the British to concentrate on defense of the home islands, appeared to open the colonial empires of Southeast Asia to easy conquest. From the perspective of Berlin, the same lovely prospects lay in front of the Japanese—but there was no reason to let them have all this without some military contribution to the common cause of maximum looting. That contribution would lie in pouncing on the British Empire in Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, before Britain had followed France and Holland into defeat, not after. It would, moreover, at one stroke solve the problem of how to deal with the United States.

In the short run, Japanese participation in the war would divert American attention and resources from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In the long run, and of even greater importance, the Axis would acquire a huge and effective navy. At a time when the United States had a navy barely adequate for one ocean, the Panama Canal made it possible to move that navy from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and back. This was the basic concern behind the American desire for a two-ocean navy, authorized by Congress in July 1940. Since it would be years before that two-ocean navy was completed, there would be a lengthy interval when any major American involvement in a Pacific conflict would make substantial support of Britain in the Atlantic impossible. Furthermore, it obviously made no difference in which ocean American warships were sunk.

For Germany in the meantime, the obvious alternative to building its own navy was to find an ally who already had one. The Germans believed that Japan’s navy in 1940—41 was the strongest and best in the world (and it is quite possible that this assessment was correct). It is in this framework of expectations that one can perhaps more easily understand the curious, apparently self-contradictory policy toward the United States that the Germans followed in 1941.

On the one hand, Hitler repeatedly ordered restraint on the German navy to avoid incidents in the Atlantic that might prematurely bring the United States into the war against Germany. Whatever steps the Americans might take in their policy of aiding Great Britain, Hitler would not take these as a pretext to go to war with the United States until he thought the time proper: American lend-lease legislation no more affected his policy toward the United States than the simultaneous vast increase in Soviet assistance to Germany influenced his decision to go to war with that country.

On the other hand, he repeatedly promised the Japanese that if they believed war with the United States was an essential part of a war against Britain, Germany would join them in such a conflict. Hitler personally made this pledge to Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke when the latter visited Germany early in April 1941 it was repeated on various occasions thereafter. The apparent contradiction is easily resolved if one keeps in mind what was central in the thinking of the German leader and soon became generally understood in the German government: As long as Germany had to face the United States by itself, it needed time to build its own blue-water navy it therefore made sense to postpone hostilities with the Americans. If, however, Japan came into the war on Germany’s side, that problem would be automatically solved.

This approach also makes it easier to understand why the Germans were not particular about the sequence: If Japan decided to go to war in the spring or summer of 1941, even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, that would be fine, and Germany would immediately join in. When it appeared, however, that Japanese-American negotiations in the spring and summer might lead to some agreement, the Germans tried hard to torpedo those talks. One way was by drawing Japan into the war through the back door, as it were. At a time when the Germans were still certain that the eastern campaign was headed for a quick and victorious resolution, they attempted—unsuccessfully—to persuade the Japanese to attack the Soviet Union.

During the summer of 1941, while the Japanese seemed to the Germans to be hesitating, the German campaign in the Soviet Union appeared to be going perfectly. The first and most immediate German reaction was a return to its program of naval construction. In the weapons technology of the 1930s and 1940s, big warships were the system with the longest lead time from orders to completion. The German leaders were entirely aware of this and highly sensitive to its implications. Whenever the opportunity appeared to be there, they turned first to the naval construction program. Once again, however, in 1941 as in 1940, the prospect of prompt victory over the immediate foe faded from view, and once again work on the big warships had to be halted. (But the Germans, despite their much-vaunted organization, failed to cancel an engine contract in June 1944 they were offered four useless battleship engines.) Stopping the battleship construction only accented the hope that Japan would move, as well as the enthusiasm with which such an action would be greeted.

Just as the Germans had not kept the Japanese informed of their plans to attack other countries, so the Japanese kept the Germans in the dark. When Tokyo was ready to move, it had only to check with the Germans (and Italians) to make sure that they remained as willing to go to war against the United States as they had repeatedly asserted they were. In late November and again at the beginning of December, the Germans reassured the Japanese that they had nothing to worry about. Germany, like Italy, was eager to go to war with the United States—provided Japan took the plunge.

There were two ways in which the German declaration of war on the United States would differ from her procedure in going to war with other countries: the timing and the absence of internal opposition. In all other cases, the timing of war had been essentially in Germany’s own hands. Now the date would be selected by an ally that moved when it was ready and without previously notifying the Germans. When Hitler met with the Japanese foreign minister back in April, he had not known that Japan would dither for months he also did not know, the last time Tokyo checked with him, that on this occasion the Japanese intended to move immediately.

As a result, Hitler was caught out of town at the time of Pearl Harbor and had to get back to Berlin and summon the Reichstag to declare war. His great worry, and that of his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was that the Americans might get their declaration of war in ahead of his own. As Ribbentrop explained it, “A great power does not allow itself to be declared war upon it declares war on others.”

Just to make sure that hostilities started immediately, however, Hitler had already issued orders to his navy, straining at the leash since October 1939, to begin sinking American ships forthwith, even before the formalities of a declaration. Now that Germany had a big navy on its side, there was no need to wait even an hour. The very fact that the Japanese had started hostilities the way Germany had begun its attack on Yugoslavia earlier that year, with a Sunday morning attack in peacetime, showed what a delightfully appropriate ally Japan would be. The American navy would now be smashed in the Pacific and thus incapable of aiding Britain, while American troops and supplies would be diverted to that theater as well.

The second way in which this German declaration of war differed from most that had preceded it was in the absence of opposition at home. For once the frenetic applause of the unanimous Reichstag, the German parliament last elected in 1938, reflected a unanimous government and military leadership. In World War I, it was agreed, Germany had not been defeated at the front but had succumbed to the collapse of a home front deluded by Woodrow Wilson’s siren songs from across the Atlantic now there was to be no danger of a new stab in the back. The opponents of the regime at home had been silenced. Its imagined Jewish enemies were already being slaughtered, with hundreds of thousands killed by the time of Hitler’s speech of December 11, 1941. Now that Germany had a strong Japanese navy at its side, victory was considered certain.

From the perspective of half a century, one can see an additional unintended consequence of Pearl Harbor for the Germans. It not only meant that they would most certainly be defeated. It also meant that the active coalition against them would include the United States as well as Great Britain, its dominions, the Free French, various governments-in-exile, and the Soviet Union. Aid without U.S. participation, there could have been no massive invasion of northwest Europe the Red Army eventually might have reached the English Channel and the Atlantic, overrunning all Germany in the process. If the Germans today enjoy both their freedom and their unity in a country aligned and allied with what their leaders of 1941 considered the degenerate Western democracies, they owe it in part to the disastrous cupidity and stupidity of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. MHQ

GERHARD L. WEINBERG is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His next book is a general history of World War II, to be published by Princeton University Press.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1992 issue (Vol. 4, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Why Hitler Declared War on the United States.

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VI. The Treaty of Ghent and beyond

In April 1813, Russia offered to mediate a peace agreement. The Madison administration was quick to accept the offer, as U.S. gains were expected in Canada. A three-person commission was chosen and instructed to pursue the transfer of Upper Canada to the U.S. The commissioners arrived in St. Petersburg on July 21, 1813. The British government, however, decided to forego the Russian offer and proposed direct negotiations instead, although it was in no hurry to get started. On January 28, 1814, the Madison administration reconstituted the commission to include John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard, Jonathan Russell, Henry Clay, and Albert Gallatin, and issued new instructions. According to the Canadian historian Patrick C. T. White, “These instructions might be considered the product of an overvaulting ambition.” The American instructions included demands for the abolition of the practice of impressments, reparation payments for impressed Americans, payments for the destruction of American private property, and either the return of slaves taken by the British or payments for them. Most importantly, the delegation was to work for “the cession of Canada.” The latter was needed, according to Secretary of State James Monroe, in order to avoid a future war over control of the Great Lakes, and secondly, in order to end British support for hostile Indian tribes on the frontier. White comments:

As so often in the past, the United States had asked for terms which neither her power nor situation justified. And again, as so often in the past, she hoped that the skill of her negotiators would gloss over the weakness of her case. But America was bound to be disappointed. Only one or two conditions would give American aspirations substance and hope. Either Britain would have to be soundly defeated in Canada, or she would have to be desperately engaged in Europe. Neither of these conditions existed. [129]

By June 1814, the military situation on the ground had shifted in favor of Great Britain. Recognizing this, the Madison administration ordered its commissioners to abandon the issue of impressments and to concentrate on retaining American territory and fishing rights in the Atlantic. The issue of impressments had lost its salience, as the end of the war in Europe meant that Great Britain no longer needed to impress sailors from American ships. At the first meeting in Ghent on August 9, 1814, the British delegation, consisting of Henry Goulburn, Baron Gambier, and William Adams, took the diplomatic offensive. Its first priority was to secure Canada. According to Troy Bickham, “The theme of the British Empire standing up to the bullying American ‘aggrandizers’ was the central pillar of the British position for the first three months of the negotiations.” In a series of formal letter exchanges in September, the British delegation accused the U.S. of extending its empire by the “progressive occupation of the Indian territories, by the acquisition of Louisiana, by the more recent attempts to wrest by force of arms from a nation in amity the two Floridas, and lastly by the avowed intentions of permanently annexing the Canadas to the United States.” Had the U.S. invasion of Canada succeeded, the British delegates asked rhetorically, “is there any person who doubts that they [U.S. leaders] would have availed themselves of their situation to obtain on the side of Canada important cessions of Territory, if not the entire abandonment of that Country by Great Britain?” [130]

One means of bolstering the security of Canada was to establish a permanent, internationally recognized Indian Territory in the American northwest. The British delegation pressed for the cession of some 250,000 square miles of American territory (in the present states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and parts of Ohio) for this purpose. The British controlled most of Michigan and all of Wisconsin at the end of the war. The thinking behind the aggressive proposal was that the British had been far too generous in the peace treaty of 1783, allowing the U.S. to establish political sovereignty over a territory it had neither won on the battlefield nor settled, and that the First Nations that had defended Canada in its hour of need deserved a protected homeland. The American delegation was shocked at the proposal and almost walked out. The delegates subsequently abandoned their pursuit of Canadian territory and focused on retaining American territory.

A 1914 painting illustraties the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, Dec. 24, 1814

In the end, the British delegation withdrew its proposal for an Indian homeland and settled for the restoration of Indian lands taken since 1811. Although this did little to stop continuing American encroachment and land-grabbing, it allowed the British to save face with their Indian allies. The two parties agreed to the principle of the status quo ante bellum – each side retaining the lands it held before the war. Boundary disputes, fishing privileges, navigation of the Mississippi River, and naval forces on the Great Lakes were left to joint commissions and future negotiations. “The new treaty,” writes White, “simply provided for the cessation of hostilities and the establishment of mixed commissions to settle certain boundary disputes.”

Remembering the War of 1812

The Democratic Republicans were as intent on maintaining their “honor” at the war’s conclusion as they were at its outset, and thus they extolled the treaty as a great success. “The terms of the treaty are yet unknown to us,” said Representative Charles Ingersoll of Pennsylvania. “But the victory at Orleans has rendered them glorious and honorable, be they what they may. . . . Who is not proud to feel himself an American – our wrongs revenged – our rights recognized.” So began the intentional forgetting of causes and nature of the war. “The myth of American victory continued to grow,” writes Donald Hickey, “so that by 1816 Niles’ Register could unabashedly claim that ‘we did virtually dictate the treaty of Ghent.’” Several months later, Representative Henry Southard of New Jersey spoke of the “glorious achievements of the late war . . . and the Treaty of Ghent has secured our liberties, and established our national independence, and placed this nation on high and honorable ground.” Hickey comments:

As the years slipped by, most people forgot the causes of the war. They forgot the defeats on land and sea and lost sight of how close the nation had come to military and financial collapse. According to the emerging myth, the United States had won the war as well as the peace. Thus the War of 1812 passed into [American] history not as a futile and costly struggle in which the United States had barely escaped dismemberment and disunion, but as a glorious triumph in which the nation had single-handedly defeated the conqueror of Napoleon and the Mistress of the Seas. [132]

A rare marker commemorating soldiers who died in camp (Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 2000)

The Federalist view of the War of 1812 as wrong-headed and dishonorable was drowned out amidst the paeans to American righteousness and glory. So, too, were Canadian and British views, and facts and experiences that ran counter to the popular American myth. One Federalist complained that the suffering and losses caused by the war “are carefully concealed,” while a treaty that merely re-established peace and nothing else “is represented as glorious.” Hickey identifies as the number one American myth the notion that the “War of 1812 was a second American war of independence.”

This hearty perennial was first articulated by Republicans at the beginning of the conflict and has been repeated by countless historians ever since. It is not true. None of the British policies that precipitated the war actually threatened American independence, nor was American independence ever at stake in the war itself. British policies that led to the war were a direct outgrowth of the Napoleonic Wars and would cease when that war ended. At no time after 1783 did the British have any real designs on American independence or was American independence in any real jeopardy. Although the War of 1812 was not an American war of independence, it was a war of independence for people living in Canada and for Indians living on both sides of the border. . . . Since Great Britain’s independence was at stake in the Napoleonic Wars, one might argue that the United States was the only belligerent on either side of the Atlantic in the War of 1812 that had nothing to fear for its independence. [133]

Statue of Gen. Andrew Jackson in New Orleans

The American heroic account helped propel two military generals to the presidency – Andrew Jackson in 1829 and William Henry Harrison in 1841. More broadly, it exonerated the United States from any wrongdoing in its invasion of Canada and set the stage for future aggressive expansionism. As Donald Hickey writes, “American military victories during the war encouraged an aggressive territorial expansion that later generations would call manifest destiny.” Troy Bickham comments, “Rather than humbling the United States, the war helped to create a nation that was far more powerful and resolute in its expansionist plans.” [134] With regard to Great Britain and Canada, however, U.S. leaders pursued a more cautious path, recognizing the limits of American power. Canada was henceforth excluded from U.S. expansionist designs, which in turn allowed for a stable peace. In 1817, the two nations signed the Rush-Bagot Agreement, which limited warships on the Great Lakes. Treaties resolving boundary disputes were signed in 1818, 1842, and 1846. Trade issues remained contentious, but no one suggested war. According to J. C. A. Stagg:

After the war, Americans, as they had in 1783, sought unrestricted access to the [British West Indies] islands, but Great Britain refused to grant it. Congress retaliated, in 1817 and 1818, with two navigation acts, the first excluding British colonial imports into the United States unless they were carried in American bottoms, and the second prohibiting both exports to and imports from all British colonial possessions closed to American shipping. . . . The quarrel lasted until 1830, when Andrew Jackson ended it – and on terms that favored Americans more than they did Britons or Canadians. As these developments played out, the armistice of Ghent was gradually transformed into a permanent peace. [135]

A Fort York Museum display recounts the American attack and pillage of York (photo by author click to enlarge)

For Canadians, the War of 1812 was most significant, as it drew Canadians together in common defense, established national heroes, and strengthened ties with Great Britain (Canada peacefully gained independence in 1867). Popular history in Canada tends to exaggerate the national unity sparked by the War of 1812, but, unlike its American counterpart, it has the basic story right: Canada successfully resisted foreign subjugation. The Canadian historian Carl Benn served as curator of the Fort York museum from 1985 to 1998, and regularly inquired of his visitors what they knew about the War of 1812:

One thing we asked them was, “What was the most surprising thing you learned today?” From the large number of replies by our guests from the United States, far and away the most common response was, “I never knew we invaded Canada” (with that particular phrase, word-for-word, appearing most often). A little bit of probing revealed that the War of 1812 for most of them comprised the attacks on Washington and Baltimore, the Battle of New Orleans, a select grouping of frigate actions, fought in their minds in a war to protect American rights on the high seas or even to prevent the British from reconquering the United States. This suggest that the interpretations that Americans favored at the return of peace in 1815 remain strong today. Canadian visitors, in contrast, knew about the invasions across the border . . . At the same time, our conversations with visitors told us that Canadians tend to know few details and occasionally thought some odd things, with a number of them believing that the burning of the White House in 1814 had been carried out by Canadians who somehow marched overland from British North America.

Benn draws from these conversations an important lesson about the uses of history: “Obviously much needs to be done to correct common misconceptions, enrich understanding, enlarge the range of subjects and horizons addressed by studying the war, and curtail the misuse of history that only achieves simpleminded patriotic reactions that are sadly subversive to encouraging civic maturity and critical engagement among a nation’s citizens.” [136]

Historical Perspective

At the heart of this viewpoint is the assumption that the most important concern in history is who holds power – who wins and loses it – rather than how that power is gained, morally speaking, and whether it is used for good or ill. More nationalistic versions of this line of thinking simply conflate national power and goodness, such that questions of right and wrong are categorically excluded. The formula is simple: Americans are a good people, with democratic and free institutions, and thus their foreign policies must be good and their wars must be defensive and necessary. To question the legitimacy of the War of 1812 is to challenge this nationalistic bias, and ultimately to invite critical questioning of the whole of U.S. foreign policy.


[1] President James Madison, “Special Message to Congress on the Treaty of Ghent (February 18, 1815),”

[2] Robert P. Watson, America’s First Crisis: The War of 1812 (Albany: State University of New York, 2014), p. 353. Similarly, Walter R. Borneman, in The War that Forged a Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), writes: “During the War of 1812, the United States would cast aside its cloak of colonial adolescence and – with more than a few bumbles along the way – stumble forth onto the world stage. After the War of 1812, there was no longer any doubt that the United States of America was a national force to be reckoned with” (p. 3).

[3] Charles DeBenedetti, The Peace Reform in American History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. 28.

[4] Donald Hickey, “An American Perspective on the War of 1812,” Public Broadcasting Service,

[5] Canadian histories of the war include James Hannay, History of the War of 1812 (Toronto: Morang & co., limited, 1905), and Carl Benn, The War of 1812 (Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing, 2002). In 2012, the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the Canadian government issued a number of coins honoring key events and heroic individuals: a two dollar coin celebrating the bloody victory of the British frigate HMS Shannon in capturing the American frigate USS Chesapeake outside Boston harbor in 1813 (60 Americans were killed) a quarter dollar coin honoring heroine Laura Secord, who warned British troops and their native allies of approaching Americans and other quarter dollar coins honoring Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who led native warriors in the fight to capture Fort Detroit from the Americans, British General Sir Isaac Brock, who died leading the charge to repulse American invaders, and Charles-Michel de Salaberry, who organized and led French volunteers to defend Montreal from the Americans.

[6] Jon Latimer, 1812: War with America (London: Belknap Press, 2007), p. 4.

[7] See, for example, Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber and Faber, 2012) and Brian Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2011).

[8] See, for example, Donald Fixico, “A Native Nations Perspective on the War of 1812,” “Turning Point: The War of 1812 from the Native American Perspective,” and “Aboriginal Contributions to the War of 1812,” Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada

[9] The United Nations Charter bans national aggression but allows for national and collective defense “until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” Charter of the United Nations, This prohibition against military aggression is also affirmed in the Charter of the Organization of American States.

[11] Paul A. Gilje, “’Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’: The Rhetoric of the War of 1812,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Spring 2010), p. 7.

[12] Carl Benn, The War of 1812, p. 19. The classic study of expansionist motives is Julius W. Pratt’s Expansionists of 1812 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1925), which documents expansionist rhetoric but without discounting the importance of maritime grievances against Great Britain. His study has been criticized by other U.S. historians, notably Bradford Perkins and Donald Hickey, who assert that maritime issues impelled the U.S. to war, expansionist rhetoric notwithstanding. The argument is probably impossible to resolve as it involves determining a collective motivation, which is an abstraction. In reality, different parties had different interests and their views changed over time in response to new developments. The policies of the U.S. government reflected this mix of interests and views in proportion to the political clout each carried.

[13] J. C. A. Stagg, in The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 157-58.

[14] “James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, [9 March 1812],” National Archives, Founders Online, and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 308.

[15] Norman K. Risjord, “National Honor as the Unifying Force,” in Bradford Perkins, ed., The Causes of the War of 1812: National Honor or National Interest? (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), p. 94.

[16] Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 74.

[17] Jon Latimer, 1812: War with America (London & Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 16 Donald Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006, p. 19 and Troy Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 62. Bickham is an American-born historian who studied and taught in Great Britain before returning to the U.S. he specialty is the Atlantic world, with emphasis on the British empire.

[18] Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War: England and the United States, 1805-1812 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), pp. 90-92 Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), p. 104 and Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 32-33.

[19] Perkins, Prologue to War, pp. 94-95 and Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, Tenth Edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980), p.120.

[20] Spencer C. Tucker and Frank T. Reuter, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).

[21] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 42.

[23] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, p. 11, 55-56.

[24] Ibid., pp. 26-27 and John R. Grodzinski, “The Duke of Wellington, the Peninsular War and the War of 1812 Part I: North America and the Peninsular War – Logistics,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 5 (December 2006),

[25] J. C. A. Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 30.

[26] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 16-17.

[27] Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, pp. 128-29.

[28] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 42 and Perkins, Prologue to War, p. 421.

[29] Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, p. 144.

[30] U.S. Census of Population and Housing, “Table 1. United States Resident Population by State: 1790 – 1850,” and “Population of the Major European Countries” [Source: B. R. Mitchell, European Historical Statistics, 1750-1975, 2nd ed. (New York, 1980)],

[31] Walter Nugent, Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion (New York: Random House, 2008), p. 10.

[32] Ohio History Central, “Tecumseh’s Confederation,”’s_Confederation?rec=637. On Tecumseh and his movement, see Peter Cozzens, Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2020).

[33] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 124. On the relationship between the British and Tecumseh’s confederacy, see Robert S. Allen, “His Majesty’s Indian Allies: Native Peoples, the British Crown and the War of 1812,” Michigan Historical Review 14.2 (1988): 1–24 .

[34] Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! p. 38. On treaties, see Donald L. Fixico, ed., Treaties with American Indians: An Encyclopedia of Rights, Conflicts, and Sovereignty (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008), pp. 294-303.

[35] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 244, 43, 47.

[36] Johnson, Jefferson, and Harper quoted in Julius W. Pratt, Expansionists of 1812 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1925), pp. 51-52, 153. Clay quoted in James Hannay, History of the War of 1812 (Toronto: Morang & Co., limited, 1905), pp. 27-28.

[37] Grundy quoted in Pratt, Expansionists of 1812, p. 51-52 Calhoun quoted in Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison (New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1986 first published 1889-91), p. 440.

[38] Patrick C. T. White, A Nation on Trial: America and the War of 1812 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), pp. 133, 143, 145.

[39] Jerald A. Combs, The History of American Foreign Policy, Volume I: To 1917 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986), p. 52, 49 and Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 11.

[40] Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People, p. 138 and “Debate in the House of Representatives, December 10, 1811,” in Richard Hofstadter, ed., Great Issues in American History, From the Revolution to the Civil War, 1765-1865 (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), pp. 229-30.

[41] Howard Jones, Quest for Security: A History of U.S. Foreign Relations, Volume I to 1813 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996), p. 55.

[42] James G. Cusiak, The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), p. 32.

[45] Ibid., p. 137 and Gene Allen Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 75.

[46] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, p. 92.

[47] Cusiak, The Other War of 1812, pp. 191-92.

[51] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, p. 182 and Cusiak, The Other War of 1812, p. 308.

[52] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 56, 444 and George Sheppard, Plunder, Profit, and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), p. 37.

[53] Samuel Eliot Morison, Frederick Merk, and Frank Freidel, Dissent in Three American Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 3.[54] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 176 and Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! p.201. On the “laws of war,” see Donald E. Graves, “’Every horror committed with impunity . . . and not a man was punished!’ Reflections on British Military Law and the Atrocities at Hampton in 1813,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 11 (June 2009),

[55] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 347 and Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! pp. 257-58.

[56] Latimer, 1812: War with America, pp. 262, 265.

[57] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, pp. 346-47, 390 and Dianne Graves, In the Midst of Alarms: The Untold Story of Women and the War of 1812 (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio Inc, 2007), pp. 365-66.

[58] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 193 and Latimer, 1812: War with America, pp. 259-60.

[59] Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! pp. 192-94 and Robert Kostoff, Nuggets of Niagara County History (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2003), pp. 74-75.

[60] Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812: A Political, Social, and Military History (ABC-CLIO, 2012), Vol. 1, p. 113.

[63] Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, pp. 156-57.

[64] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 304.

[65] Benn, The War of 1812, pp. 27, 20 and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 126.

[66] Latimer, 1812: War with America, p. 84.

[68] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 152-53 and Robert S. Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies: British Indian Policy in the Defence of Canada, 1774-1815 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993), p. 140.

[69] Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies, p. 135 and Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 164.

[70] Benn, The War of 1812, p. 34.

[72] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 87 and Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies, p. 140.

[73] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, pp. 211-12, 206 Linai Taliaferro Helm, The Fort Dearborn Massacre (Chicago: Rand, McNally, 1912), pp. 9-10 and Sandy Antal, “Remember the Raisin! Anatomy of a Demon Myth,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 10 (October 2008),

[75] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 302.

[77] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, p. 245.

[78] Ibid., pp. 249-50 and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 141-42.

[79] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, pp. 254-55.

[80] Ibid., p. 259 and Christopher Klein, “The Burning of Buffalo, 200 Years Ago,” December 30, 2013, History in the Headlines,

[81] Taylor, 1812: The Civil War, pp. 385-87, 391 and Robert Leckie, The Wars of America (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1998), p. 284.

[82] Dianne Graves, In the Midst of Alarms: The Untold Story of Women and the War of 1812″ (Quebec: Robin Brass Studio, 2007), p. 388.

[83] Benn, The War of 1812, pp. 55, 57 and Brian Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), p. 241.

[84] Jeremy Black, “A British View of the Naval War of 1812,” Naval History Magazine, Vol. 22, No. 4 (August 2008), and Benn, The War of 1812, p. 56.

[85] Donald R Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! Myths of the War of 1812 (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 2006), p. 122 Black, “A British View of the Naval War of 1812” and John A. Tures, “’A Word of ‘Captain Caution’: Myths About Privateers in the War of 1812,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 14 (October 1810),

[86] Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship!, p. 123 “Privateering in the War of 1812,” War of 1812 website (Canada), and Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 181, pp. 210-21.

[87] Benn, The War of 1812, p. 57 and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 153.

[88] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, pp. 91, 93.

[89] Latimer, 1812: War with America, pp. 171-72 and Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, pp. 104, 92, 96.

[91] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, p. 211, 101-102 and Government of Canada, “War of 1812 The War at Sea,”

[92] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 182.

[93] Henry Adams, The War of 1812, (New York: First Cooper Square Press, 1999 original publication circa 1890), p. 218 and Latimer, 1812: War with America, pp. 303-304.

[94] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History, p. 62.

[96] President James Madison, “Proclamation upon British Depredations, Burning of the Capitol (September 1, 1814),”

[97] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History, p. 64.

[99] Ibid., pp. 71-72 and Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 206, 194-95.

[101] Robert V. Remini, The Battle of New Orleans (Viking Penguin, 2001), pp. 5-6.

[102] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, pp. 212-13.

[103] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, pp. 164, 170.

[104] Ibid., p. 160 and Kenneth R. Aslakson, Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans (New York: New York University Press, 2014), p. 183.

[105] Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble, pp. 205-206, 208.

[108] United States Congress (January 1, 1834), American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Volume 10, pp. 185-87 also cited in Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, p. 177.

[109] “An Address of Members of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States, to their Constituents, on the Subject of the War with Great Britain,”

[110] New York Evening Post, April 21, 1812, quoted in James H. Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812 (New York: Algora Publishing, 2009), p. 73.

[111] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, p. 9 and John Lowell, Mr. Madison’s War. A Dispassionate Inquiry into the Reasons Alleged by Mr. Madison for Declaring an Offensive and Ruinous War against Great Britain. Together with Some Suggestions as to a Peaceable and Constitutional Mode of Averting that Dreadful Calamity – by a New England Farmer (Boston: Russell & Cutler, 1812), pp. 4, 5.

[112] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, pp. 28-29.

[113] Ibid., p. 8 and Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! p. 206.

[114] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, p. 11 and Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, p. 193.

[115] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, pp. 11-13.

[116] J. I. Little, Loyalties in Conflict: A Canadian Borderland in War and Rebellion, 1812-1840 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), pp. 37, 44.

[117]Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, p. 51 and Hickey, Don’t Give Up The Ship! p. 29.

[118] Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War, pp. 185, 192.

[120] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 272.

[122] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 308.

[123] DeBenedetti, The Peace Reform in American History, pp. 28-37 and Lawrence Wittner, “New York’s 200-Year Conspiracy for Peace,” Counterpunch,

[124] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 68-69 and Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! p. 8.

[125] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 211, 217.

[126] “War Manifesto” House Foreign Relations Committee Report on a Declaration of War (excerpts) June 3, 1812, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives,

[127] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 162, 72.

[128] Ibid., pp. 205-206 and Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship! p. 7.

[129] Patrick C. T. White, A Nation on Trial: America and The War of 1812 (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), pp. 145-47.

[130] Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, pp. 244-45.

[131] White, A Nation on Trial, p. 164 and Benn, The War of 1812, p. 83.

[132] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 309.

[133] Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, p. 308 and Donald Hickey, “Leading Myths of the War of 1812,” The War of 1812 Magazine, Issue 4 (September 2006).

[134] Donald Hickey, “Review Essay: Small War, Big Consequences: Why 1812 Still Matters,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, No. 6 (Nov.-Dec. 2012), p. 150 and Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance, p. 277.

[135] Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, p. 168.

[136] Carl Benn, “Introduction,” in Spencer C. Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812: A Political, Social, and Military History (ABC-CLIO, 2012), Vol. 1, p. xxiii.

[137] On the historiographical debate in the U.S., see Thomas Sheppard, “Dubious Victories: Refighting the War of 1812,” The Annual Journal produced by the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, Fall 2013, and Warren H. Goodman, “The Way of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 28 (September 1941): 171-186. The debate is revived in Stephanie M. Amerian, “‘Difficult to Relinquish Territory Which Had Been Conquered’: Expansionism and the War of 1812,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2015). Amerian asserts that the Madison administration was not expansionist at heart, but only wanted to repeal the Orders in Council (p. 77). She cites as evidence the administration’s lack of preparation for the military invasion of Canada and Federalist objections to it, neither of which prove the point. In the end, she makes the convoluted argument “that U.S. leaders consistently rejected the possibility of absorbing Canada and merely asked Britain for sparsely populated western territories during peace negotiations” (p. 96), as if absorbing Upper Canada was not expansionist in design. The U.S., moreover, did not “merely” ask, but used every means of force at its disposal to obtain these territories, resulting in the deaths of thousands.

[138] Walter Borneman, The War that Forged a Nation (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), p. 3.

Declaration of war

DECLARATION OF WAR. An act of the national legislature, in which a state of war is declared to exist between the United States and some other nation.
2. This power is vested in congress by the constitution, art. 1, s. 8. There is no form or ceremony necessary, except the passage of the act. A manifesto, stating the causes of the war, is usually published, but war exists as soon as the act takes effect. It was formerly usual to precede hostilities by a public declaration communicated to the enemy, and to send a herald to demand satisfaction. Potter, Antiquities of Greece, b. 3, c. 7 Dig. 49, 15, 24. But that is not the practice of modern times. In some countries, as England, the, power of declaring war is vested in the king, but he has no power to raise men or money to carry it on, which renders the right almost nugatory.
4. The public proclamation of the government of a state, by which it declares itself to be at war with a foreign power, which is named, and which forbids all and every one to aid or assist the common enemy, is also called a declaration of war.

Activity 1. Answers Lead to More Questions

Briefly review the list of troubling passages and questions in President Madison's War Message that the class compiled in Lesson One, above. Then read with or to the class "President Madison's War Message, Edited/Annotated Version," on pages 1-2, or "President Madison's War Message, Full-Text Version" in the PDF. When you come to previously troubling sections in the text or those relating to student questions, determine if the concerns/questions have been clarified.

Ask students to assume the role of newspaper reporters present when President Madison's message was read in the House of Representatives. Have them write a concise, accurate account of what the message contained. Students should remember to begin the account using the reporter's formula, a brief paragraph summarizing the key elements: who, what, where, when, and why of the event. The text of Madison's message should be available to students as they compose their articles.

  • Secondary accounts offer slightly different versions of the importance of the War Hawks in the run up to the War of 1812. According to The Encyclopedia of American History:

"The prowar feeling that swept the country in 1810-11 left its mark on the congressional elections.

"Most of the War Hawks came from the agrarian areas of the South and West whose people were hardly affected by maritime issues (although some Westerners claimed that the orders in council had crippled their markets for agricultural produce) yet they chose to view maritime seizure and impressments as outrages upon national rights and honor. Northern and Southern War Hawks found common ground in expansionism, (J.W. Pratt, 1925). Those from the Northwest, eager to destroy the frontier Native American menace they attributed to British intrigue and incitement, equated security with land hunger and demanded the conquest of Canada. The Southerners wanted to wrest Florida from Spain, Britain's ally.

"Despite expansionist pressures, the U.S. would not have been involved in war had it not been for maritime and commercial issues. Madison was no tool of the war party (see Theodore Clark Smith, 1931), although he ultimately supported its program." (P. 1548-1549)

According to Donald Hickey's The War of 1812 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), "By directing debate and interpreting the rules, by packing key committees and acting forcefully behind the scenes, he [Henry Clay, Speaker of the House and an important War Hawk] insured that the War Hawks dominated the 12th Congress." (P. 30) Among the legislators Hickey lists as War Hawks are Henry Clay and Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky Felix Grundy of Tennessee Langdon Cheeves, William Lowndes, John C. Calhoun, and David R. Williams of South Carolina George M. Troup of Georgia Peter B. Porter of New York and John A. Harper of New Hampshire. (Students can look for these names as they read documents from Congress.)

According to American Military History: The War of 1812 on The United States Army website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Pubic Library:

"The seat of anti-British fever was in the Northwest and the lower Ohio Valley, where the land-hungry frontiersmen had no doubt that their troubles with the Indians were the result of British intrigue. Stories were circulated after every Indian raid of British Army muskets and equipment being found on the field. By 1812, the westerners were convinced that their problems could best be solved by forcing the British out of Canada.

"While the western War Hawks urged war in the hope of conquering Canada, the people of Georgia, Tennessee, and the Mississippi Territory entertained similar designs against Florida, a Spanish possession. The fact that Spain and England were allies against Napoleon presented the southern war hawks with an excuse for invading Florida. By this time, also, the balance of political power had shifted south and westward ambitious party leaders had no choice but to align themselves with the war hawks, and 1812 was a Presidential election year."

  • Did the War Hawks tend to come from certain regions of the country?
  • How did they promote a war agenda, if at all?
  • How did the Foreign Relations Committee advance the move toward war, if at all? How did it increase American preparedness for war?
  • What did the War Hawks hope the U.S. would gain from the war?
  • Were their goals reasonable? Legitimate?

A long protest against the 1812 Declaration of War was inserted into the Congressional Record by Samuel Taggart, a Federalist from Massachusetts. (The Federalists, in the minority, decided to "boycott" the debate by remaining silent because the majority insisted on debating in secret.) Taggart's speech begins on page 1638 of the Annals of Congress for the House of Representatives, 12th Congress, 1st Session, on the EDSITEment resource American Memory. His remarks end on page 1679.

In the course of his speech, Representative Taggart gives a complete accounting of Federalist objections to the war. For example, he says the following about the ambitions of those who wanted to conquer Canada:

"The conquest of Canada has been represented to be so easy as to be little more than a party of pleasure. We have, it has been said, nothing to do but to march an army into the country and display the standard of the United States, and the Canadians will immediately flock to it and place themselves under our protection. They have been represented as ripe for revolt, panting for emancipation from a tyrannical government … But to invade a country with any prospect of success, the power of the invader needs to be much greater than that of the party invaded." (P. 1663)

Further Objections to the War in the Senate, also on American Memory, were voiced by Obadiah German, a senator from New York State.

The culmination of the war protest came in 1814 with the Hartford Convention. According to Madison's Presidency: Foreign Affairs on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President:

Watch the video: The Market Revolution: Crash Course US History #12 (August 2022).