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The Causes Of The War Of 1812 Essays

An American Perspective on the War of 1812

by Donald Hickey
The War of 1812 is probably our most obscure conflict.  Although a great deal has been written about the war, the average American is only vaguely aware of why we fought or who the enemy was.  Even those who know something about the contest are likely to remember only a few dramatic moments, such as the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the burning of the nation’s capital, or the Battle of New Orleans.

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A British Perspective

by Andrew Lambert  
The War of 1812 has been referred to as a victorious “Second War for Independence,” and used to define Canadian identity, but the British only remember 1812 as the year Napoleon marched to Moscow. This is not surprising. In British eyes, the conflict with America was an annoying sideshow. The Americans had stabbed them in the back while they, the British, were busy fighting a total war against the French Empire, directed by their most inveterate enemy. For a nation fighting Napoleon Bonaparte, James Madison was an annoying irrelevance. Consequently the American war would be fought with whatever money, manpower and naval force that could be spared, no more than seven percent of the total British military effort. 

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A Canadian Perspective on the War of 1812

by Victor Suthren
When the American declaration of war fell upon the disparate colonies of British North America, it produced reactions as different as the character of each colony.  But the people of the Canadian colonies were united in the belief that this was an unwanted war, governed more by the distant preoccupations of London or Washington than the needs and wishes of the King’s subjects in North America.

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A Native Nations Perspective on the War of 1812

by Donald Fixico
The War of 1812 was an important conflict with broad and lasting consequences, particularly for the native inhabitants of North America.  During the pivotal years before the war, the United States wanted to expand its territories, a desire that fueled the invasion of native homelands throughout the interior of the continent.  [Miller, p.47] Tribal nations of the lower Great Lakes, including the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and others saw their lands at risk.  The same was true for the Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw in the south.

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Black Sailors and Soldiers in the War of 1812

In 1813 Charles Ball, an escaped slave and self-declared “free man of color,” had a choice.  He could row out to the British fleet, moored in the Chesapeake Bay, and offer his services to the King --  or he could volunteer for the fledgling American navy and defend his country.  Ball, whose dramatic bid for freedom is chronicled in The Life of Charles Ball, A Black Man, chose the latter  and he was not alone. 

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Military Medicine in the War of 1812

There is hardly on the face of the earth a less enviable situation than that of an Army Surgeon after a battle – worn out and fatigued in body and mind, surrounded by suffering, pain, and misery, much of which he knows it is not in his power to heal…. I never underwent such fatigue as I did the first week at Butler's Barracks.  The weather was intensely hot, the flies in myriads, and lighting on the wounds, deposited their eggs, so that maggots were bred in a few hours.

Tiger Dunlop, British surgeon to the 89th (The Pricess Victoria’s) Regiment of Foot, War of 1812.

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Naval Battleships in the War of 1812

When the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the U.S. Navy was an eighteen-year-old institution with barely a dozen ships to its name. The British Royal Navy, by contrast, had been operating for centuries, and could boast over five hundred active warships.  Eighty-five of these ships were sailing American waters at the time war broke out.

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Prisoners of War in 1812

Military captives in the War of 1812 posed a particular problem for both sides.  Neither the British nor the Americans could maintain large prisons – they lacked the military facilities and the manpower to hold soldiers for long periods of time.  And, in a war that stretched along half of North America, prisoners posed a logistical nightmare – prisoners taken in battle were often hundreds of miles away from the nearest military garrison.

The British often paroled captured militiamen and army officers, releasing them after they’d made a pledge to stay out of the war for the duration.

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Personal Journals from the War of 1812

For some of the participants in the War of 1812 the conflict was the defining moment of their lives, and they were well aware of it.  A number of young soldiers penned brief diaries and journals that show how the war began for them as an adventure, but ended in many cases with injury, imprisonment and grief. For women, too, the war was a trial, a test of their fortitude and resourcefulness, but it was also a window onto a wider world.  Their journals in turn have become our window onto a war that took place two centuries ago.

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The Treaty of Ghent

James Madison had an opportunity to end the War of 1812 almost as soon as it began. The British had repealed the Orders in Council – rules that curbed American trade with Europe – and thus one of Madison’s major reasons for war was now moot.  If the British had foregone the right to impress American sailors, Madison could well have gone back to Congress with the suggestion that hostilities cease immediately.  However, the British considered impressment their right by custom, and believed it essential to their naval might. And so James Madison took his country to war.

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An American Perspective on the War of 1812

by Donald Hickey

The War of 1812 is probably our most obscure conflict.  Although a great deal has been written about the war, the average American is only vaguely aware of why we fought or who the enemy was.  Even those who know something about the contest are likely to remember only a few dramatic moments, such as the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the burning of the nation’s capital, or the Battle of New Orleans.           

Why is this war so obscure?  One reason is that no great president is associated with the conflict.  Although his enemies called it "Mr. Madison's War," James Madison was shy and deferential, hardly measuring up to such war leaders as Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, or Franklin Roosevelt.  Moreover, the best American generals in this war – Andrew Jackson, Jacob Brown, and Winfield Scott – were unable to turn the tide because each was confined to a one or two theaters in a war that had seven or eight theaters.  No one like George Washington, Ulysses Grant, or Dwight Eisenhower emerged to put his stamp on the war and to carry the nation to victory.

Another reason for the obscurity of this war is that its causes are complex and little understood today.  Most scholars agree that the war was fought over maritime issues, particularly the Orders in Council, which restricted American trade with the European Continent, and impressment, which was the Royal Navy’s practice of removing seamen from American merchant vessels.  In contemporary parlance, the war was fought for "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights."  These issues seem arcane today.  Moreover, the only way that the United States to strike at Great Britain was by attacking Canada, and that made it look like a war of territorial aggression.  Even today Canadians are likely to see the war in this light, and who can blame them?  A war fought to secure maritime rights by invading Canada strikes many people as curious.


The Consequences of the War

If the causes of the war are obscure, so too are the consequences.  The United States has won most of its wars, often emerging with significant concessions from the enemy.  But the War of 1812 was different.  Far from bringing the enemy to terms, the nation was lucky to escape without making extensive concessions itself.  The Treaty of Ghent (which ended the conflict) said nothing about the maritime issues that had caused the war and contained nothing to suggest that America had achieved its aims.  Instead, it merely provided for returning to the status quo ante bellum – the state that had existed before the war.

The prosecution of the war was marred by considerable bungling and mismanagement.  This was partly due to the nature of the republic.  The nation was too young and immature – and its government too feeble and inexperienced – to prosecute a major war efficiently.  Politics also played a part.  Federalists vigorously opposed the conflict, and so too did some Republicans.  Even those who supported the war feuded among themselves and never displayed the sort of patriotic enthusiasm that has been so evident in other American wars.  The advocates of war appeared to support the conflict more with their heads than their hearts, and more with their hearts than their purses.  As a result, efforts to raise men and money lagged far behind need.
Despite the bungling and half-hearted support that characterized this conflict, the War of 1812 was not without its stirring moments and splendid victories.  American success at the Thames in the Northwest, the victories at Chippewa and Fort Erie on the Niagara front, the rousing defense of Baltimore in the Chesapeake, and the crushing defeat of the British at New Orleans – all these showed that with proper leadership and training American fighting men could hold their own against the well-drilled and battle-hardened regulars of Great Britain.  Similarly, the naval victories on the northern lakes and the high seas and the success of privateers around the globe demonstrated that, given the right odds, the nation’s armed ships matched up well against even the vaunted and seemingly invincible Mistress of the Seas.   

The war also produced its share of heroes–people whose reputations were enhanced by military or government service.  The war helped catapult four men into the presidency – Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, and William Henry Harrison – and three men into the vice-presidency – Daniel D. Tompkins, John C. Calhoun, and Richard M. Johnson.  The war also gave a significant boost to the political or military careers of other men.  Indeed, for many young men on the make, the war offered an excellent launching pad for a career.

In some ways, the War of 1812 looked more to the past than to the future.  As America's second and last war against Great Britain, it echoed the ideology and issues of the American Revolution.  It was the second and last time that America was the underdog in a war and the second and last time that the nation tried to conquer Canada.  It was also the last time that Indians played a major role in determining the future of the continent.  In this sense, the War of 1812 was the last of the North American colonial wars.  The war was unusual in generating such vehement political opposition and nearly unique in ending in a stalemate on the battlefield.  Although most Americans pretended they had won the war – even calling it a "Second War of Independence"–they could point to few concrete gains – certainly none in the peace treaty – to sustain this claim.

It is this lack of success that may best explain why the war is so little remembered.  Americans have characteristically judged their wars on the basis of their success.  The best-known wars – the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II – were all clear-cut successes.  Although many people remembered the War of 1812 as a success, it was in a very real sense a failure, and perhaps this is why it attracts so little attention today.

The obscurity of this war, however, should not blind us to its significance, for it was an important turning point, a great watershed, in the history of the young republic.  It concluded almost a quarter of a century of troubled diplomacy and partisan politics and ushered in the Era of Good Feelings.  It marked the end of the Federalist party but the vindication of Federalist policies, many of which were adopted by Republicans during or after the war.  The war also broke the power of American Indians and reinforced the powerful undercurrent of Anglophobia that had been spawned by the Revolution a generation before.  In addition, it promoted national self-confidence and encouraged the heady expansionism that lay at the heart of American foreign policy for the rest of the century.  Finally, the war gave the fledgling republic a host of sayings, symbols, and songs that helped Americans define who they were and where their young republic was headed.  Although looking to the past, the war was fraught with consequences for the future, and for this reason it is worth studying today.

Donald R. Hickey is a professor of history at Wayne State College, Wayne, Nebraska.  He is the author of  Don't Give Up the Ship: Myths of the War of 1812 and The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.

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