Many Americans Opposed the War of 1812

Declaration of War Passed the Congress, Yet War Remained Unpopular

Engraved portrait of President James Madison
President James Madison. Getty Images

When the United States declared war against Britain in June 1812, the vote on the declaration of war in the Congress was the closest vote on any formal declaration of war in the country's history or since. Only 81% of the Republicans in both houses voted for the war, and not a one of the Federalists did. The close vote reflects how unpopular the war was to large segments of the American public.

The opposition to the War of 1812 broke out in riots in the east, particularly Baltimore and New York City. The reasons for that opposition had much to do with the newness of the country and its inexperience with global politics; and the messy and unclear motives for the war. 

Unclear Motives for War 

The official causes of the war as addressed in the declaration were that the British were suppressing international trade and press-ganging sailors. During the first decade of the 19th century, the British government was fighting off incursions of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and to supplement their resources, they seized cargoes and impressed over 6,000 sailors from American merchant vessels. 

Political attempts to resolve the situation were rejected, in part because of inept envoys and failed embargo attempts. By 1812, then President James Madison (served 1810–1814) and his Republican party decided that only war would resolve the situation. Some Republicans saw the war as a second War of Independence against the British; but others thought engaging in an unpopular war would create a Federalist surge. Federalists opposed the war, considering it unjust and immoral, and championing peace, neutrality, and free trade. 

In the end, the embargoes were damaging to the businesses in the east, more than Europe—and in contrast, Republicans in the west saw the war as an opportunity to acquire Canada or parts of it. 

The Role of Newspapers

Northeastern newspapers regularly denounced Madison as corrupt and venal, particularly after March 1812 when the John Henry (1776–1853) scandal broke, when it was discovered that Madison had paid the British spy $50,000 for information about the Federalists which could never be proven. In addition, there was a strong suspicion among the Federalists that Madison and his political allies wanted to go to war with Britain to bring the United States closer to the France of Napoleon Bonaparte.  

Newspapers on the other side of the argument argued that the Federalists were an "English party" in the United States that wanted to splinter the nation and somehow return it to British rule. Debate over the war—even after it had been declared—dominated the summer of 1812. At a public gathering for the Fourth of July in New Hampshire, young New England attorney Daniel Webster (1782–1852) gave an oration which was quickly printed and circulated.

Webster, who had not yet run for public office, denounced the war, but made a legal point: "It is now the law of the land, and as such we are bound to regard it."

State Government Opposition

At the state level, governments were concerned that the U.S. was not militarily prepared for an all-out war. The army was too small, and states worried that their state militia would be used to bolster the regular forces. As the war began, the governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts refused to comply with the federal request for militia troops. They argued that the U.S. president could only requisition the state militia to defend the nation in the event of an invasion, and no invasion of the country was imminent.

The state legislature in New Jersey passed a resolution condemning the declaration of war, terming it "inexpedient, ill-timed, and most dangerously impolitic, sacrificing at once countless blessings." The legislature in Pennsylvania took the opposite approach, and passed a resolution condemning the New England governors who were opposing the war effort.

Other state governments issued resolutions taking sides. And it is clear that in the summer of 1812 the United States was going to war despite a large split in the country.

Opposition in Baltimore

In Baltimore, a thriving seaport at the beginning of the war, public opinion generally tended to favor the declaration of war. In fact, privateers from Baltimore were already setting sail to raid British shipping in the summer of 1812, and the city would eventually become, two years later, the focus of a British attack.

On June 20, 1812, two days after war was declared, a Baltimore newspaper, the "Federal Republican," published a blistering editorial denouncing the war and the Madison administration. The article angered many citizens of the city, and two days later, on June 22, a mob descended on the newspaper's office and destroyed its printing press.

The publisher of the Federal Republican, Alexander C. Hanson (1786–1819), fled the city for Rockville, Maryland. But Hanson was determined to return and continue publishing his attacks on the federal government.

Riots in Baltimore

With a group of supporters, including two notable veterans of the Revolutionary War, James Lingan (1751–1812) and General Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee (1756–1818 and the father of Robert E. Lee), Hanson arrived back in Baltimore a month later, on July 26, 1812. Hanson and his associates moved into a brick house in the city. The men were armed, and they essentially fortified the house, fully expecting another visit from an angry mob.

A group of boys gathered outside the house, shouting taunts and throwing stones. Guns, presumably loaded with blank cartridges, were fired from an upper floor of the house to disperse the growing crowd outside. The stone throwing became more intense, and windows of the house were shattered.

The men in the house began shooting live ammunition, and a number of people in the street were wounded. A local doctor was killed by a musket ball. The mob was driven to a frenzy. Responding to the scene, the authorities negotiated the surrender of the men in the house. About 20 men were escorted to the local jail, where they were housed for their own protection.

Lynch Mob

A mob assembled outside the jail on the night of July 28, 1812, forced its way inside, and attacked the prisoners. Most of the men were severely beaten, and Lingan was killed, reportedly by being struck in the head with a hammer.

General Lee was beaten senseless, and his injuries probably contributed to his death several years later. Hanson, the publisher of the Federal Republican, survived, but was also severely beaten. One of Hanson's associates, John Thomson, was beaten by the mob, dragged through the streets, and tarred and feathered, but survived by feigning death.

Lurid accounts of the Baltimore riot were printed in American newspapers. People were particularly shocked by the killing of James Lingam, who had been wounded while serving as an officer in the Revolutionary War and had been a friend of George Washington.

Following the riot, tempers cooled in Baltimore. Alexander Hanson moved to Georgetown, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where he continued to publish a newspaper denouncing the war and mocking the government.

End of the War 

Opposition to the war continued in some parts of the country. But over time the debate cooled off and more patriotic concerns, and a desire to defeat the British, took precedence.

At the end of the war, Albert Gallatin (1761–1849), the nation's treasury secretary, expressed a belief that the war had unified the nation in many ways, and had lessened a focus on purely local or regional interests. Of the American people at the end of the war, Gallatin wrote:

"They are more Americans; they feel and act more as a nation; and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured."

Regional differences, of course, would remain a permanent part of American life. Before the war had officially ended, legislators from the New England states gathered at the Hartford Convention and argued for changes in the U.S. Constitution.

The members of the Hartford Convention were essentially federalists who had opposed the war. Some of them argued that states which had not wanted the war should split from the federal government. The talk of secession, more than four decades before the Civil War, did not lead to any substantial action. The official end of the War of 1812 with the Treaty of Ghent occurred and the ideas of the Hartford Convention faded away.

Later events, events such as the Nullification Crisis, the prolonged debates about slavery in America, the secession crisis, and the Civil War still pointed to regional splits in the nation. But Gallatin's larger point, that the debate over the war ultimately bound the country together, had some validity.

Sources and Further Reading