A Regency Bicentennial:   America Declares War on Britain

Two hundred years ago, this coming Monday, the American President, James Madison, signed a document which brought his country into conflict with the same country against which America had successfully rebelled only three decades previously. This war, unlike many curiously named wars of the eighteenth century, such as Cresap’s War or the War of Jenkins’ Ear, was named simply for the year it which it was declared. Thus, this war would be known to history as the War of 1812.

Why America declared war on Britain …

It is very possible that war would never have been declared, if communications were not so slow in the early nineteenth century. There were a number of causes of this war, but certainly the most significant to the Americans was the English Orders in Council. The first Order had been issued in 1807, by George III, to put pressure on Napoleon and the French. Additional clauses were added to the Orders until, by early 1811, they not only prohibited ships of neutral countries from trading between any ports in France or controled by France, but required those ships to call in at British ports or they would be subject to search by British authorities. Any ship which refused to comply was considered liable to seizure by Britain. The British were aware this order would anger the Americans, but they believed it was important to throttle the French economy at any cost as their only hope of forcing the French to drop their own embargoes against the British. In September 1811, a new Order in Council clause was added, which completely prohibited the sale of salt fish by the Americans in the West Indies, as well as imposing severe tariffs on any other goods which originated in American ports.

By early 1812, the British industrial and manufacturing interests were strongly pressuring Parliament to revoke all of the Orders in Council because the trade restrictions which were prohibiting commerce with America were clearly wreaking more havoc on the British ecomony than on the French. In fact, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was on his way to a hearing in the House of Commons on this very issue when he was assassinated in the lobby there on 11 May 1812. This tragic event had the effect of delaying these hearings for several days. They did begin again, later in the month, but on 1 June 1812, President James Madison asked Congress to consider a declaration of war against Britain. While Congress deliberated in Washington, in London, the hearings on the negative commercial impact of the Orders in Council were underway in Parliament. On 16 June 1812, Parliament repealed all of the Orders in Council. But there was no time to get the news to America and two days later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the United States Congress declared war on Britain.

The Orders in Council were a very important factor in the American decision to declare war, but they were not the only reason. Almost equally important was the constant impressment by the British Navy of sailors working on American ships. British Navy ships regularly stopped American ships on the open seas, ostensibly looking for deserters, but they also impressed a large number of Americans from those ships. The problem was that Britain did not recognize naturalized United States citizenship, nor did they recognize the right of a British citizen to relinquish their citizenship for that of another country. As far as they were concerned, if a man was born British, he was British for life. Therefore, they felt they had a right to impress any man they believed to be British even if they found them aboard an American vessel. A large majority of American sailors at this time were foreign-born, but fewer than half of them had been born British. In fact, more than half of them were actually Irish. Perhaps the two most egregious episodes of British impressment were the Leander Affair and the Chesapeake–Leopard Affair, which so incensed many Americans that there had already been calls for war in America, years before it was declared. The President at the time, Thomas Jefferson, was fully aware that the United States did not have the military strength to fight a war with the most powerful nation in the world at that time, so he steadfastly resisted any declaration of war during his presidency.

There was yet another reason why at least one group of Americans were willing, even eager, to go to war with Britain. This was group of young Congressmen, mostly from the west, known as War Hawks, who had hopes of invading and conquering Canada. But even more objectionable to the War Hawks was the fact that Britain was arming several of the Indian tribes in the western territories. The British were not keen to see United States control of the continent spread either west or north and they had quietly employed the various Indian tribes in the region to impede the Americans’ westward progress. The British had even made a treaty with the influential and powerful Indian tribal leader, Tecumseh. This alliance particularly angered the War Hawks, because Tecumseh was a clever and cunning commander who had achieved a number of victories over American forces. And the War Hawks had several allies in the U. S. Congress who supported their cause and strongly urged the vote for war. So, even though the declaration of war against Britain was not especially popular with the majority of Americans, the War Hawks and their supporters were able to convince enough legislators in both houses of Congress to pass the war declaration.

The United States officially declared war on Britain on Thursday, 18 June 1812, when President Madison signed the declaration. Three years to the day before Wellington finally defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. And if that declaration of war had not been made by the United States, Wellington would have taken a much less "infamous army" into the field that Sunday in Belgium. After the Battle of Toulouse and Napoleon’s abdication, in April of 1814, the British withdrew their forces from the Continent, and several of those battle-hardened regiments were sent to bolster the British forces fighting in America. When Bonaparte left Elbe and began gathering his army in France, though the War of 1812 was over, Wellington’s former troops were still in America. There was not enough time or ships to bring the Duke’s experienced regiments back across the Atlantic. That is why Wellington had to make do with the hodge podge of inexperienced soldiers which were available from England and her allied countries, their only advantage being that they could get to Belgium in time.

However, the War of 1812 also had painful personal consequences for the Duke of Wellington. His brother-in-law, Sir Edward Pakenham, brother of the Duke’s wife, Kitty, a fellow officer who had served with him in the Peninsula and a man he held in very high regard, was killed at the Battle of New Orleans, on 8 January 1815. To compound the tragedy, the Peace Treaty for the War of 1812 had been signed in Ghent, Belgium, only weeks before, on 24 December 1814. But once again, the distance to be covered was too great for the news to reach America in time to prevent the battle.

The War of 1812 may well be the most ambiguous war America ever fought. In fact, it did not even acquire its name until well into the nineteenth century, as a convenient name by which historians could identify it in their writings. The noted historian, Richard Hofstadter, called the War of 1812 " … a ludicrous and unnecessary war." Perhaps it was. The Orders in Council had been repealed even before war was declared, though, of course, the U. S. President and Congress did not know that at the time. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British Navy had less need for able seamen and impressment came naturally to an end. Though American troops invaded Canada on more than one occasion throughout the war, they were always eventually pushed back by the Canadians. The peace treaty left all boundaries exactly where they had been before the war. The war was, in fact, a draw, with no clear winners, but the Americans believed they had won because news of the peace treaty arrived very soon after the news of the American victory at the Battle of New Orleans so most Americans assumed the one was the driving force behind the other. In a sense, they had won, because this young, ill-prepared and ill-equipped country had held its own against the world’s greatest military power of the age. Thirty years after they had declared their independence from that country, the United States had in essence re-declared that independence and renewed their faith in the future of their young nation.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to A Regency Bicentennial:   America Declares War on Britain

  1. KWillow says:

    The novels “Lydia Bailey” and “Arundel” by Kenneth Roberts tell enthralling tales of the 1812 war from the American -Naval, not land- point of view. Both have very strong women characters, especially Lydia Bailey, tho the books are told from the POV of the male protagonist.

  2. Most interesting, Kat. There’s a lot I didn’t know about the 1812 war. Another useless war was the Pig War, which wasn’t even a war at all, but a quite friendly standoff. At least there weren’t needless casualties, unless you count the pig, of course!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I vaguely remember reading about the Pig War. Was it not a disagreement between some British and American soldiers over a pig which had crossed the border?

      The War of 1812 is very interesting, in terms of all that went on during those two years. But in the end, it was essentially useless, as no one gained any territory and the other issues to which the US had objected were either resolved before war was even declared or as a result of Napoleon’s final defeat.

      I think the thing that struck me most was that if communications had been more swift at the time, it is unlikely that war would ever have been declared.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Regards,

      Kat

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