The Causes and Importance of the War of 1812

The War of 1812 is often overlooked in American history given that the war ended with virtually no changes to pre-war conditions. This position downplays the fact that the War of 1812 was extremely important on several fronts and helped to transform society in the United States.

There were many causes of the War of 1812, most of which stemmed from long-standing grievances lingering between the United States and Great Britain from the American Revolution and cascading effects from the Napoleonic Wars.

Neither nation truly wanted war, though several attempts at reconciliation failed such as the significant Jay’s Treaty of 1794.

War hawks elected to Congress in 1811 ultimately spurred the nation to war with Great Britain, claiming that national pride and honor were at stake. Many historians consider the War of 1812 to be a “Second” American Revolution due to the similarities.

The United States was not prepared to fight Great Britain despite initiating the war. The nation suffered from a virtually non-existent manufacturing sector, leading to supply shortages, poor military planning, and a lack of a stable financial system to fund the war effort.

At many points the United States appeared destined to lose the war and was on the brink of financial collapse.

Fortunately the US won a couple key battles in 1814 to strengthen its position at the negotiating table. The resulting important 1815 Treaty of Ghent ended the war on terms of status quo antebellum, or similar to how they were before the war.

Although the War of 1812 was fought to an inconclusive draw, it is important that the United States was once again able to stand up to the mighty Great Britain and defend its sovereignty.

What Were the Three Causes of the War of 1812?

There were three primary causes of the War of 1812:

  1. The British Orders in Council that authorized the seizure of neutral American merchant ships and illegal blockades 
  2. Forced impressment of American sailors into British naval service
  3. British interference on the western frontier by providing weapons and supplies to Native Americans

The first two causes were largely a result of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars that engulfed the European continent. In fact, several historians believe the War of 1812 to be an offshoot of the Napoleonic Wars given how resulting European policies drew the United States to declare its own war.1

The British Orders in Council, along with the French Berlin and Milan Edicts authorized the nations to seize neutral merchant ships destined for enemy ports. As a neutral commercial nation trading with both Britain and France, the United States was severely impacted by the orders.

War of 1812 important map

Hundreds of ships were seized, incensing Americans for the violation of its neutral status. The United States responded in kind with a series of economic measures aimed at punishing Britain and France.

These laws included the Embargo Act of 1807, the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, and Macon’s Bill No. 2. Unfortunately the measures failed to convince Britain to revoke the Orders in Council.

Impressment was also a major cause of the War of 1812. Britain was desperate for sailors to serve in its navy against the threat of Napoleon.

British law considered any man born in Britain or its colonies to be a subject of the King and owe allegiance for life. This contrasted greatly with American citizenship that could be granted at any time to any person regardless of birth location.2

The British did not believe they were doing anything wrong by impressing British subjects with American citizenship into service. The act of impressment outraged Americans who believed that Britain was violating its sovereignty by forcefully taking American seamen.

Lastly, Americans on the frontier were convinced that the British were instigating violence and supplying Native Americans with weapons and supplies to resist American encroachment.

The rise of Tecumseh’s Confederacy, including the important 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, was all blamed on the British. As long as the British remained in Canada and continued to supply Native Americans, the US would have difficulties on the frontier.

There were many causes of the War of 1812, though impressment, the Orders in Council, and frontier violence were the three primary causes.

Major Events of War of 1812

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the declaration of war against Great Britain.

The United States quickly initiated hostilities, though it was inadequately supplied and prepared and suffered early defeats that sapped morale.

Major Events War of 1812 important chart

Several major events of the War of 1812 are as follows:

EventDateSignificance
Declaration of WarJun 1812Madison declares war after pressure from war hawks; All Federalists oppose
Siege of DetroitAug 1812British seize Fort Detroit with help of Tecumseh’s Confederacy
USS Constitution victoryAug 1812USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere, earning nickname “Old Ironsides”
Battle of Lake ErieSept 1813US forces under Oliver Perry shockingly defeat British navy on Lake Erie
Battle of the ThamesOct 1813US forces defeat Tecumseh’s Confederacy, Tecumseh killed in battle
Battle of Horseshoe BendMar 1814General Andrew Jackson defeats Creek natives during Creek War
Burning of WashingtonAug 1814British march on the capital and burn Washington DC
Peace talks begin GhentAug 1814US and British delegates meet at Ghent, US in poor negotiating position
Siege of BaltimoreSep 1814US successfully defended important port city, Star Spangled Banner written
Battle of PlattsburghSep 1814US victory to defeat British invasion, gave US extra leverage in peace talks
Hartford ConventionDec 1814New England states meet to discuss anger over war, secession discussed
Treaty of Ghent signedDec 1814War ends with signing of Treaty of Ghent at terms of status quo antebellum
Battle of New OrleansJan 1815Andrew Jackson routs British in a battle that took place after peace treaty

Similarities Between the War of 1812 and the American Revolution

There are numerous similarities between the War of 1812 and the American Revolution; as such, several historians have coined the term “Second American Revolution” to describe the War of 1812.

Similarities between the two wars include:

  1. British violation of colonial/American rights
  2. Official and unofficial allies of British and United States
  3. Fractured American populace over decision for war
  4. “David vs Goliath” aspect of weak United States against the might of the British Empire

Prior to the American Revolution the British violated colonial rights through acts such as the 1765 Stamp Act that represented taxation without representation and limited westward expansion through the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

Following the revolution the British refused to honor various terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and continued to violate American rights via the Orders in Council and impressment of American sailors.

In both wars the official and unofficial allies of the British and United States were similar. The British had strong support among Native Americans, particularly those in the Northwest Territory who feared the continued westward expansion of the United States.

star spangled banner

While France was a direct ally of the US in the American Revolution, it did not directly support the US in the War of 1812. However, the ongoing Napoleonic Wars in Europe helped divert British troops away from America, making France an indirect ally and trade partner to the US.

Furthermore, the American populace was very divided in both wars. Patriot and Loyalist Support of the American Revolution was decisively split and the War of 1812 was no different.

Southern and western states generally favored the War of 1812 and helped to elect the “war hawks” to Congress. Northern states and New England in particular were very against the war, favoring reconciliation with Great Britain.3

Finally, both wars featured the weak, poor, and divided United States against the mightiest power in the world. Few thought the United States could actually win against Britain in 1776, and the same logic dominated in 1812 as well.

Once again, the United States shocked the world by fighting Britain to a draw and reaffirming its sovereignty and independence in the process.

Why was the War of 1812 Important?

The War of 1812 was very important as it helped to reaffirm American sovereignty and proved yet again that the United States could stand up to the mightiest empire of the time.

Although the United States struggled throughout the war and nearly went bankrupt in the process, it learned much from its failures and the experience gained helped to transform the nation in the years to come.

The peace treaty at Ghent helped lead to a heightened period of nationalism known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” The period was dominated by a one-party system after the rapid decline of the Federalist party following the disastrous 1814 Hartford Convention where New England states considered secession from the Union.

The US war experience also highlighted the need to protect and grow the nascent domestic manufacturing sector.

USS_Constitution_vs_Guerriere War of 1812

Henry Clay’s American System took a more prominent role in national politics, leading to the Second National Bank of the United States, the protectionist Tariff of 1816, and internal improvements such as the Erie Canal.

Following the war’s end the US relationship with Great Britain would dramatically improve. The significance of the 1817 Rush-Bagot Agreement was to help to lower tensions on the Canadian border, which helped create a lasting peace.

Despite emerging intact at the end of the war, deep divisions remained throughout the United States. Sectionalism still dominated the political scene and battles over slavery (Missouri Compromise), the national bank (Jacksonian Era), Native American policy (Worcester v. Georgia), and federal vs. state power (Mcculloch v. Maryland) would be frequent over the next several decades.

The United States did not win the War of 1812 but its historical significance cannot be understated.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States

Sources

1) HORSMAN, REGINALD. “The War of 1812 Revisited.” Diplomatic History, vol. 15, no. 1, 1991, pp. 115–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24912110.

2) BRUNSMAN, DENVER. “Subjects vs. Citizens: Impressment and Identity in the Anglo-American Atlantic.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 30, no. 4, 2010, pp. 557–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40926065.

3) Hawkins, George K. “GENERAL OBSERVATIONS ON THE WAR OF 1812.” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, vol. 10, 1911, pp. 95–107, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42889982.

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