OTD in History… June 18, 1812, President Madison signs declaration beginning the War of 1812 against Britain and colonial Canada
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, June 18, 1812, the War of 1812 begins after President James Madison signs the Congressionally passed declaration into law, beginning what is often considered the second war for independence. Since 1807, during President Thomas Jefferson’s administration, Great Britain had been engaging in a blockade against America because they were trading with France, their enemy in the Napoleonic Wars. Britain also practiced impressments, taking American seamen and forcing them to join the British Royal Navy. On the land front, Britain had been agitating Native Indians to attack American communities. Two and a half years later America was triumphant putting to rest any more wars with Great Britain as they began diplomatic and trade relations that continue, while America would no longer threaten Canada as they moved towards nationhood. As Canadian historian, Charles P. Stacey analyzed, “The War of 1812 is one of those episodes in history that make everybody happy, because everybody interprets it in his own way.”
After over 200 years, the good relations between the three countries seem to be eroding under President Donald Trump again over trade and tariffs. After imposing steel tariffs on Canada claiming national security, Trump recently remarked in a conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” when trying to justify the national security reasons. Trump claimed to have been joking but the issue brought up the War of 1812 and the old wounds of the conflict where America unsuccessfully attempted to conquer Canada and the only war where Canada was legitimately an enemy and threat to America in their fight on the side of the British.
Since America won the Revolutionary War, they had been engaging in trade with France, an American ally without any interference from Great Britain shipping from the French West Indies to the US and then to France. With the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Britain started to make it difficult for America to trade with France. The 1805 Essex case in Britain determined Americans could only trade with France if they paid a tariff and proved the items were not originally meant to go to France. American ships were neutral and usually traded with both countries. French leader Napoleon Bonaparte issued the Berlin and Milan decrees in December 1806 and 1807, which created a blockade around Britain. Britain countered with the Order-in-Council. Both empires essentially ordered that ships trading with either empire would have their goods confiscated, American bore the brunt of the decrees. Until the war, the British captured 1,400 American ships.
In earnest since 1803, Britain also engaged in impressments; taking British naval deserters back into the Navy. Most of the men were taken from American ships, many even had American citizenship or papers, but as Frank W Thackeray and John E Findling write in their book Events that changed the world in the nineteenth century, the British policy was “once an Englishman, always an Englishman.” (Thackeray and Findling, 20) The war between the two countries almost started earlier because of the Chesapeake affair in June 1807. Near the Chesapeake Bay, the British ship the Leopard stopped the American warship and insisted they come on board to retrieve a deserter, when the captain refused the British ship opened fire-killing 3 and wounding 18, the British captain still came on board taking a total of four men, three which were Americans citizens. President Jefferson responded in December 1807 with a policy of “peaceful coercion,” which stopped sea trade to Britain and France. Congress proceeded to pass the Embargo Act of 1807.
The embargo affected the American economy hitting the Northeast that relied on shipping trade the hardest. As Thackeray and Findling write, the embargo was a “politically divisive issue” in the Presidential election of 1808 between Democratic-Republican James Madison, and Federalist, C. C. Pinckney. Madison won the election. Before Jefferson left office he repealed the Embargo Act, and in its stead, Congress passed the Non-Intercourse Act, which allowed trade with all other countries except Britain and France, unless they “removed their decrees.” Economic conditions did not improve and in May 1810, Congress passed Macon’s Bill №2 resuming trade with the two countries “but if either revoked their decrees, the United States would reinstitute nonintercourse against the other.” (Thackeray and Findling, 31) In November, Napoleon revoked his decrees but still harassed American ships. At the same time, America ceased to trade with Britain and diplomatic relations virtually ended.
On land, the US was facing difficulties with the Indians in the territories. As American removed the Indians further West for settlement, great Shawnee chief Tecumseh decided to fight back by forming an alliance with Southern tribes and attacking settlers. Indiana territorial governor William Henry Harrison instead, attacked the Shawnee when Tecumseh was not there in what became the Battle of Tippecanoe fought in north-central Indiana. Congress widely believed that Britain was behind Tecumseh’s actions, supplying them from their Northern Canadian colonies. Congressmen in the west wanted war declared to capture Canada and end their aid to the Indians.
When Congress met in November 1811, under new Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky, they passed a number of war preparedness bills, for an army and enlarging the navy. A small battle where the American ship the President beat the British Little Belt pushed the country to war. On June 18, Madison signed the declaration of war. Just two days earlier, on June 16, “Britain’s House of Commons had repealed the Orders-in-Council.” (Thackeray and Findling, 22) Britain thought Madison would revoke the declaration; instead, he made it about the 10,000 American sailors impressed by Britain.
At first, the war was a stalemate, Britain was occupied with the war in Europe until 1814, and America failed to raise the funds and increase enlistment to enlarge to army and navy to capture Canada. In the first six months of the war, America was victorious in six sea battles, while privateers “captured over 150 British merchant ships worth $2 million.” Britain did better in the land war; with Tecumseh, they reacquired the Michigan territory, while in November 1812, America’s attempted unsuccessfully to invade Upper Canada. By April 27, 1813, with Canada not reinforced with supplies, America captured and burned Upper Canada’s capital York now Toronto. In October, Canada lost Tecumseh as a defense, who was killed. Britain successfully applied a blockade by sea to New York and Philadelphia and blocked the Chesapeake and Delaware.
In 1814, when Napoleon abdicated, Britain turned its attention to the Americans assaulting the country by land and by sea. At the Battle of Lundy’s Lane in July 25, 1814, near Niagara Falls at the New York-Canada border, America lost its last chance to invade Canada. On August 24, Britain captured under Maj.-Gen. Robert Ross from Rostrevor, County Down, Ireland captured the capital Washington, DC burning down the Capital, Library of Congress, Treasury and the White House in retaliation for an attack on York, which forced President Madison to flee to Virginia. Britain thought these defeats would prompt America to fold but Madison would not. Francis Scott Key would be inspired to write the poem the Star Spangled Banner when he saw the American flag still flew above Fort McHenry outside Baltimore Harbor on September 14. On September 11, the US had a resounding victory pushing back Britain at Lake Champlain near the border. America had its most decisive victory after the ceasefire with the Andrew Jackson leading the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815.
The war officially ended with a ceasefire on December 24, 1814, when both parties signed the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium. The war officially ended on February 16, 1815, Madison signed the ratified peace treaty. America had staved off the mighty British forces, and although Britain had hoped for American concessions, they could not acquire them. Prime Minister Lord Liverpool concluded, “We might certainly land in different parts of their coast, and destroy some of their towns, or put them under contribution; but in the present state of the public mind in America it would be in vain to expect any permanent good effects from operations of this nature.”
Historians popularly view the War of 1812 as the second war for independence cementing America’s status as a nation. Britain was pleased they were able to contain America. Canada might have been the big victors, British historian Amanda Foreman writes, “For Canadians, the war was, and remains, the cornerstone of nationhood, brought about by unbridled U.S. aggression.” Johns Hopkins University professor and historian Eliot Cohen writing in his book Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great Warpath that Made the American Way of War believes Canada benefited the most, “ultimately, Canada and Canadians won the War of 1812… Americans at the time, and, by and large, since did not see matters that way.” Cohen speaking of Canada’s gains in the war explains, “Not only did the colony remain intact: It had acquired heroes, British and French, and a narrative of plucky defense against foreign invasion, that helped carry it to nationhood.”
Historian Sally E. Hadden claims the War of 1812 often called “forgotten conflict” had far-ranging effects for America. Hadden explains, “Surprisingly, the war had a tremendous long-term impact on international law of the sea, American foreign and domestic policies, and America’s plans for expansion to the south and west, which altered American-Indian relations for the rest of the century. The war elevated men like Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun to power in American politics; all would affect momentous decisions in the years before the American Civil War.” Historian Alan Taylor in his book The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies concludes, “The ultimate legacy of the war was that the empire and the republic would share the continent along a more clearly defined border more generous to the Americans and more confining to the British — but most ominous to the Indians.” (Taylor, 439)
The issues that brought upon the war would be resolved years later with the 1817 Rush-Bagot Agreement, which demilitarized the Great Lakes.” The Convention of 1818 determined the Canada US border; the border would be along the forty-ninth parallel until the Rocky Mountains, while both would share the Oregon Territory for 10 years, and the US secured fishing rights off Newfoundland. Politically, the war destroyed the Federalist Party, when they supported the Hartford Convention’s plan for the Northeastern states to secede if Congress did not give them more influence. In contrast, it saw the rise of influence of the South and West, with two war heroes Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison later elected president.
Cohen, Eliot A. Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath That Made the American Way of War. New York, NY: Free Press, 2011.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
Thackeray, Frank W, and John E. Findling. Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Taylor, Alan. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.