Not Only About Impressment: Causes of the War of 1812

The Reasons America Declared War in 1812

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

The War of 1812 is generally thought to have been provoked by American outrage over the impressment of American sailors by the Britain's Royal Navy. And while impressment—British military ships boarding American merchant ships and taking away the sailors to serve for them—was a major factor behind the declaration of war by the United States against Britain, there were other significant issues fueling the American march toward war.

The Role of American Neutrality

During the first three decades of American independence there was a general feeling in the country that the British government had very little respect for the young United States. And during the Napoleonic Wars the British government actively sought to meddle with—or completely suppress—American trade with European nations.

British arrogance and hostility went so far as to include a deadly attack by the British frigate HMS Leopard upon USS Chesapeake in 1807. The Chesapeake and Leopard affair, which began when the British officer boarded the American ship demanding to seize sailors they considered to be deserters from British ships, nearly triggered a war.

Failed Embargo

In late 1807, President Thomas Jefferson (served 1801–1809), seeking to avoid war while calming public outcry against British insults to American sovereignty, enacted the Embargo Act of 1807. The law, which prohibited American ships from trading in all foreign ports, succeeded in avoiding a war with Britain at the time. But the Embargo Act was generally seen as a failed policy, as turned out to be more damaging to United States' interests than to its intended targets, Britain and France.

When James Madison (served 1809–1817) became president in early 1809, he also sought to avoid war with Britain. But British actions, and a continuing drumbeat for war in the U.S. Congress, seemed destined to make make a new war with Britain unavoidable.

The slogan "Free Trade and Sailor's Rights" became a rallying cry.

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., Native Americans) 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.

The United States Declared War In June 1812

Following the message sent by President Madison, the United States Senate and the House of Representatives held votes on whether to go to war. The vote in the House of Representatives was held on June 4, 1812, and members voted 79 to 49 to go to war.

In the House vote, the members of Congress supporting the war tended to be from the South and West, and those opposed from the Northeast.

The U.S. Senate, on June 17, 1812, voted 19 to 13 to go to war. In the Senate the vote also tended to be along regional lines, with most of the votes against the war coming from the Northeast.

The vote was also along party lines: 81% of the Republicans supported the war, while not a single Federalist did. With so many members of Congress voting against going to war, the War of 1812 was always controversial.

The official Declaration of War was signed by President James Madison on June 18, 1812. It read as follows:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That war be and 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 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 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.

American Preparations

While the war not declared until late June 1812, the United States government had been actively making preparations for the outbreak of war. In early 1812 the Congress passed a law actively calling for volunteers for the U.S. Army, which had remained fairly small in the years following independence.

American forces under the command of General William Hull started marching from Ohio toward Fort Detroit (site of present day Detroit, Michigan) in late May 1812. The plan was for Hull's forces to invade Canada, and the proposed invasion force was already in position by the time war was declared. The invasion proved to be a disaster when Hull surrendered Fort Detroit to the British that summer.

American naval forces had also prepared for the outbreak of war. And given the slowness of communication, some American ships in the early summer of 1812 attacked British ships whose commanders had not yet learned of the official outbreak of the war.

Widespread Opposition to the War

The fact that the war was not universally popular proved to be a problem, especially when the early phases of the war, such as the military fiasco at Fort Detroit, went badly.

Even before the fighting began, opposition to the war caused major problems. In Baltimore a riot broke out when a vocal anti-war faction was attacked. In other cities speeches against the war were popular. A young lawyer in New England, Daniel Webster, delivered an eloquent address about the war on July 4, 1812. Webster noted that he opposed the war, but as it was now national policy, he was obligated to support it.

Though patriotism often ran high, and was boosted by some of the successes of the underdog U.S. Navy, the general feeling in some parts of the country, particularly New England, was that the war had been a bad idea.

Ending the War

As it became obvious that the war would be costly and might prove to be impossible to win militarily, the desire to find a peaceful end to the conflict intensified. American officials were eventually dispatched to Europe to work toward a negotiated settlement, the result of which was the Treaty of Ghent, signed December 24, 1814.

When the war officially ended with the signing of the treaty, there was no clear winner. And, on paper, both sides admitted that things would return to how they had been before hostilities began.

However, in a realistic sense, the United States had proven itself to be an independent nation capable of defending itself. And Britain, perhaps from having noticed that the American forces seemed to become stronger as the war went on, made no further attempts to undermine American sovereignty.

And one result of the war, which was noted by Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the treasury, was that the controversy around it, and the way the nation came together, had essentially united the nation.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Hickey, Donald R. "The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict," Bicentennial Edition. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 2012. 
  • Taylor, Alan. "The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.