War of 1812: Causes of Conflict

Trouble on the High Seas

Naval battle between the HMS Java and the USS Constitution, December 29, 1812

 De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Having won its independence in 1783, the United States soon found itself a minor power without the protection of the British flag. With the security of the Royal Navy removed, American shipping soon began falling prey to privateers from Revolutionary France and the Barbary pirates. These threats were met during the undeclared Quasi-War with France (1798-1800) and First Barbary War (1801-1805). Despite success in these minor conflicts, American merchant ships continued to be harassed by both the British and the French. Engaged in a life-or-death struggle in Europe the two nations actively sought to prevent the Americans from trading with their enemy. In addition, as it depended upon the Royal Navy for military success, the British followed a policy of impressment to meet its growing manpower needs. This saw British warships stop American merchant vessels at sea and remove American sailors from their ships for service in the fleet. Though angered by the actions of Britain and France, the United States lacked the military power to halt these transgressions.

The Royal Navy and Impressment

The largest navy in the world, the Royal Navy was actively campaigning in Europe by blockading French ports as well as maintaining a military presence across the vast British Empire. This saw the size of the fleet grow to over 170 ships of the line and required in excess of 140,000 men. While volunteer enlistments generally met the service's manpower needs during peacetime, the expansion of the fleet during times of conflict required the employment of other methods to sufficiently crew its vessels. To provide enough sailors, the Royal Navy was permitted a follow a policy of impressment which allowed it to draft into immediate service any able-bodied, male British subject. Often captains would send "press gangs" to round up recruits from pubs and brothels in British ports or from British merchant ships. The long arm of impressment also reached onto the decks of neutral commercial vessels, including those of the United States. British warships made a frequent habit of stopping neutral shipping to inspect crew lists and remove British sailors for military service.

Though the law required impressed recruits to be British citizens, this status was loosely interpreted. Many American sailors had been born in Britain and became naturalized American citizens. Despite possession of citizenship certificates, this naturalized status was often not recognized by the British and many American sailors were seized under the simple criterion of "Once an Englishman, always an Englishman." Between 1803 and 1812, approximately 5,000-9,000 American sailors were forced into the Royal Navy with as many as three-quarters being legitimate American citizens. Heightening the tensions was the practice of the Royal Navy stationing vessels off American ports with orders to search ships for contraband and men who could be impressed. These searches frequently took place in American territorial waters. Though the American government repeatedly protested the practice, British Foreign Secretary Lord Harrowby contemptuously wrote in 1804, "The pretention advanced by Mr. [Secretary of State James] Madison that the American flag should protect every individual on board of a merchant ship is too extravagant to require any serious refutation."

The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

Three years later, the impressment issue resulted in a serious incident between the two nations. In the spring of 1807, several sailors deserted from HMS Melampus (36 guns) while the ship was at Norfolk, VA. Three of the deserters then enlisted aboard the frigate USS Chesapeake (38) which was then fitting out for a patrol in the Mediterranean. Upon learning of this, the British consul at Norfolk demanded that Captain Stephen Decatur, commanding the navy yard at Gosport, return the men. This was refused as was a request to Madison who believed the three men to be Americans. Subsequent affidavits later confirmed this, and the men claimed they had been impressed. The tensions were heightened when rumors circulated that other British deserters were part of Chesapeake's crew. Learning of this, Vice Admiral George C. Berkeley, commanding the North American station, instructed any British warship that encountered Chesapeake to stop it and search for deserters from HMS Belleisle (74), HMS Bellona (74), HMS Triumph (74), HMS Chichester (70), HMS Halifax (24), and HMS Zenobia (10).

On June 21, 1807, HMS Leopard (50) hailed Chesapeake shortly after it cleared the Virginia Capes. Sending a Lieutenant John Meade as messenger to the American ship, Captain Salusbury Humphreys demanded that the frigate be searched for deserters. This request was flatly refused by Commodore James Barron who ordered the to ship be prepared for battle. As the ship possessed a green crew and the decks were cluttered with supplies for an extended cruise, this procedure moved slowly. After several minutes of shouted conversation between Humphreys and Barron, Leopard fired a warning shot, then a full broadside into the unready American ship. Unable to return fire, Barron struck his colors with three men dead and eighteen wounded. Refusing the surrender, Humphreys sent across a boarding party that removed the three men as well as Jenkin Ratford who had deserted from Halifax. Taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Ratford was later hung on August 31 while the other three were sentenced to 500 lashes each (this was later commuted).

In the wake of the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, an outraged American public called for war and President Thomas Jefferson to defend the nation's honor. Pursuing a diplomatic course instead, Jefferson closed American waters to British warships, secured the release of the three seamen, and demanded an end to impressment. While the British did pay compensation for the incident, the practice of impressment continued unabated. On May 16, 1811, USS President (58) engaged HMS Little Belt (20) in what is sometimes considered a retaliatory attack for the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. The incident followed an encounter between HMS Guerriere (38) and USS Spitfire (3) off Sandy Hook that resulted in an American sailor being impressed. Encountering Little Belt near the Virginia Capes, Commodore John Rodgers gave chase in the belief the British vessel was Guerriere. After an extended pursuit, the two vessels exchanged fire around 10:15 PM. Following the engagement, both sides repeatedly argued that the other had fired first.

Issues of Neutral Trade

While the impressment issue caused problems, tensions were further heightened due to Britain and France's behavior regarding neutral trade. Having effectively conquered Europe but lacking the naval strength to invade Britain, Napoleon sought to cripple the island nation economically. To this end, he issued the Berlin Decree in November 1806 and instituted the Continental System which made all trade, neutral or otherwise, with Britain illegal. In response, London issued the Orders in Council on November 11, 1807, which closed European ports to trade and barred foreign ships from entering them unless they first called at a British port and paid customs duties. To enforce this, the Royal Navy tightened its blockade of the Continent. Not to be outdone, Napoleon responded with his Milan Decree a month later which stipulated that any ship that followed the British rules would be considered British property and seized.

As a result, American shipping became prey for both sides. Riding the wave of outrage that followed the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, Jefferson implemented the Embargo Act of 1807 on December 25. This act effectively ended American foreign trade by prohibiting American ships from calling at overseas ports. Though drastic, Jefferson hoped to end the threat to American vessels by removing them from the oceans while depriving Britain and France of American goods. The act failed to achieve his goal of pressuring the European superpowers and instead severely crippled the American economy.

By December 1809, it was replaced with the Non-Intercourse Act which allowed overseas trade, but not with Britain and France. This still failed to change its policies. A final revision was issued in 1810 which removed all embargoes but stated that if one nation stopped attacks on American ships, the United States would begin an embargo against the other. Accepting this offer, Napoleon promised Madison, now president, that neutral rights would be honored. This agreement further angered the British despite the fact that the French reneged and continued seizing neutral ships.

War Hawks and Expansion in the West

In the years following the American Revolution, settlers pushed west across the Appalachians to form new settlements. With the creation of the Northwest Territory in 1787, increasing numbers moved to the present-day states of Ohio and Indiana pressuring the Native Americans in those areas to move. Early resistance to white settlement led to conflicts and in 1794 an American army defeated the Western Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Over the next fifteen years, government agents such as Governor William Henry Harrison negotiated various treaties and land deals to push the Native Americans farther west. These actions were opposed by several Native American leaders, including the Shawnee chief Tecumseh. Working to build a confederacy to oppose the Americans, he accepted aid from the British in Canada and promised an alliance should war occur. Seeking to break the confederacy before it could fully form, Harrison defeated Tecumseh's brother, Tenskwatawa, at the Battle of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811.

During this period, settlement on the frontier faced a constant threat of Native American raids. Many believed these were encouraged and supplied by the British in Canada. The actions of the Native Americans worked to advance British goals in the region which called for the creation of a neutral Native American state that would serve as a buffer between Canada and the United States. As a result, resentment, and dislike of the British, further fueled by events at sea, burned brightly in the west where a new group of politicians known as the "War Hawks" began to emerge. Nationalistic in spirit, they desired war with Britain to end the attacks, restore the nation's honor, and possibly to expel the British from Canada. The leading light of the War Hawks was Henry Clay of Kentucky, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1810. Having already served two brief terms in the Senate, he was immediately elected Speaker of the House and transformed the position into one of power. In Congress, Clay and the War Hawk agenda were supported by individuals such as John C. Calhoun (South Carolina), Richard Mentor Johnson (Kentucky), Felix Grundy (Tennessee), and George Troup (Georgia). With Clay guiding debate, he ensured that Congress moved down the road to war.

Too Little, Too Late

Seizing upon the issues of impressment, Native American attacks, and the seizure of American ships, Clay and his cohorts clamored for war in early 1812, despite the country's lack of military preparedness. Though believing that the capture of Canada would be a simple task, efforts were made to expand the army but without great success. In London, the government of King George III was largely preoccupied with Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Though the American military was weak, the British did not wish to fight a war in North America in addition to the larger conflict in Europe. As a result, Parliament began debating repealing the Orders in Council and normalizing trade relations with the United States. This culminated in their suspension on June 16 and removal on June 23.

Unaware of developments in London due to the slowness of communication, Clay led the debate for war in Washington. It was a reluctant action and the nation failed to unite in a single call for war. In some places, people even debated who to fight: Britain or France. On June 1, Madison submitted his war message, which focused on maritime grievances, to Congress. Three days later, the House voted for war, 79 to 49. Debate in the Senate was more extensive with efforts made to limit the scope of the conflict or delay a decision. These failed and on June 17, the Senate reluctantly voted 19 to 13 for war. The closest war vote in the history of country, Madison signed the declaration the next day.

Summing up the debate seventy-five years later, Henry Adams wrote, "Many nations go to war in pure gayety of heart, but perhaps the United States were the first to force themselves into a war they dreaded, in hope that the war itself might create the spirit they lacked."

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Causes of Conflict." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-causes-of-conflict-2361354. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 29). War of 1812: Causes of Conflict. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-causes-of-conflict-2361354 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Causes of Conflict." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-causes-of-conflict-2361354 (accessed May 31, 2023).