War Hawks and the War of 1812

A Faction of Young Congressmen Who Pushed for War Against Great Britain

Battle of New Orleans, War of 1812

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The War Hawks were members of Congress who put pressure on President James Madison to declare war against Britain in 1812.

The War Hawks tended to be younger congressmen from Southern and Western states. Their desire for war was prompted by expansionist tendencies. Their agenda included adding Canada and Florida to the territory of the United States as well as pushing the frontier farther west despite resistance from Indigenous peoples.

Reasons for War

The War Hawks cited multiple tensions between the two 19th-century powerhouses as arguments for war. Tensions included violations that the British committed regarding U.S. maritime rights, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars, and lingering animosity from the Revolutionary War.

At the same time, the western frontier was feeling pressure from Indigenous peoples, who formed an alliance to stop the encroachment of White settlers. The War Hawks believed that the British were financing Indigenous tribes in their resistance, which only incentivized them to declare war against Great Britain even more.

Henry Clay

Although they were young and even called "the boys" in Congress, the War Hawks gained influence given the leadership and charisma of Henry Clay. In December 1811, the U.S. Congress elected Henry Clay of Kentucky as speaker of the house. Clay became a spokesperson for the War Hawks and pushed the agenda of war against Britain.

Disagreement in Congress

Congressmen mainly from Northeastern states disagreed with the War Hawks. They did not want to wage war against Great Britain because they believed their coastal states would bear the physical and economic consequences of an attack by the British fleet more than Southern or Western states would.

War of 1812

Eventually, the War Hawks swayed Congress. President Madison was eventually convinced to go along with the demands of the War Hawks, and the vote to go to war with Great Britain passed by a relatively small margin in the U.S. Congress. The War of 1812 lasted from June 1812 to February 1815.

The resulting war was costly to the United States. At one point, British troops marched on Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol. In the end, the expansionist goals of the War Hawks were not achieved, as there were no changes in territorial boundaries.

Treaty of Ghent

After three years of fighting, the War of 1812 concluded with the Treaty of Ghent. It was signed on December 24, 1814 in Ghent, Belgium.

The war was a stalemate, thus the purpose of the treaty was to restore relations to status quo ante bellum. This means that U.S. and Great Britain borders were to be restored to the condition they were in before the War of 1812. All captured lands, prisoners of war, and military resources, such as ships, were restored. 

Modern Usage

The term "hawk" still persists in American speech today. The word describes someone who is in favor of beginning a war.

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McNamara, Robert. "War Hawks and the War of 1812." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/war-hawks-basics-1773402. McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). War Hawks and the War of 1812. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-hawks-basics-1773402 McNamara, Robert. "War Hawks and the War of 1812." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-hawks-basics-1773402 (accessed June 4, 2023).