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The Causes Of The War Of 1812
AUTHOR Major W.W. Harney,USMC                     
CSC 1989
SUBJECT AREA - History
                  EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
         Title:  The Causes of the War of 1812
    This paper studies the course of events that led to
the first war fought by our nation.  It covers the
maritime, economic and political issues that most
historians consider to be the primary causes of the war.
Briefly described are the many complex relationships
between the continents, nations, regions, economies and
political parties of the time.
    We see that the Jefferson Administration allowed the
nation's military system to decline during his two terms.
The paper shows the results of acting from a position of
weakness, using only economic means to try to achieve
national goals.  Finally, President Madison inherits the
situation and finds his options very limited.  All of his
efforts to avoid war fail as Congress declares war on
Britain in June of 1812.
    The lesson contained within this study of a very
complex and unusual war is very timely.  When many are
calling for defense cuts it reminds us of the dangers of
not maintaining the military capability to achieve our
national goals.
               THE CAUSES OF THE WAR OF 1812
                         OUTLINE
Thesis.  An analysis of the causes of the War of 1812 shows
the importance of maintaining military capabilities that are
compatible with our national goals.
I.  Maritime Issues
    A.  Relation to French/British War
    B.  Impressment
        1.   International Law
        2.   Abuses
    C.  Interference with American Trade
        1.   Napoleon's Continental System
        2.   Orders-in-Council
        3.   Chesapeake Incident
II. Economic Issues
    A.  Embargo Act
    B.  The Depression
    C.  Other Steps and Results
III.  Political Issues
    A.  The Indian Menace
    B.  Territorial Expansionism
    C.  Politics and Presidents
               THE CAUSES OF THE WAR OF 1812
     In June of 1812 the United States declared war on
Britain.  This declaration was the result of almost thirty
years of stormy relations between the two nations.  It both
surprised the British and chagrined many Americans who saw
it as a foolish endeavor.  This was not because of there
being too few reasons to go to war with Britain.  It was
simply that the United States had deliberately avoided war
for so long that when she abandoned her peaceful policy it
was unexpected.  She had, after all, maintained a cautious
neutrality through successive administrations since 1789.
The potential risks in changing this policy and settling the
existing grievances against Britain by force were many.  The
country was young and untested by war.  Its army consisted
of little more than six thousand regular troops.  Its navy
amounted to sixteen vessels of various sizes.  Quite simply,
its military capability was as low as it had been in over a
decade.  That the United States chose this time to declare
war on a nation that had a navy of six hundred ships and an
army of over a quarter of a million men caught many by
surprise.1
     Most historians have found there is no single cause for
the War of 1812 but several related causes.  In the next few
pages I will cover many of these causes.  In so doing I hope
to increase the reader's knowledge of a small part of our
nation's history that is very obscure but has the potential
for teaching us a very important lesson.
     To begin to understand how this war came to pass we
must go back a few years from the war's beginning.  The
second period of the European war between Britain and
France, which opened in 1803, found the United States once
again trying to maintain its neutrality as it had in the
late 1790's.  Following the defeat of the combined French
and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar in 1805, an invincible
naval power, the British, now faced an all-conquering land
power, the French.  Since they could not fight each other
directly, they tried to defeat one another by economic
strangulation.2
1J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison's War (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1983), p.3.
2Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1965). p.5.
     This brings us to a discussion of the maritime issues.
Most current historians group these issues together and
consider them to be the principle cause of the war.
     The United States objected to many British maritime
practices.  The British carried out most of these practices
in the 1790's during the first period of the war between
Britain and France.  However, they enforced them much more
often after the renewed hostilities in 1803.  One reason for
the more vigorous execution of these policies was the
increasing fear in Britain of an invasion by Napoleon.  This
fear combined with other reasons I will cover later inspired
the British to ignore the rights of neutrals enabling them
to prevent any possible aid to the French.  The British
shipping interests and their supporters also felt the
American merchant marine was profiting immensely from the
European wars.  This growth of American shipping was a
threat to British commercial supremacy, to British naval
power, and to the safety of the country.  Restrictions on
American commerce would do harm to France.  At the same time
it would help the British maritime interests compete with
the United States' shippers.3
3Reginald Horsman, The War of 1812 (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1969), p.6.
     Another of the maritime issues was that of
impressment.   It was the most volatile issue between the
two countries.  This was because it dealt with sovereignty.
Impressment involved the right to search for deserters.  It
also involved the right of any British officer to make an
on-the-spot decision concerning a man's nationality.  These
same officers had the task of keeping their ships manned.
This was difficult in view of the conditions that existed in
the Royal Navy at that time.4  Poor food, hard work, and
harsh discipline caused British sailors to desert by the
thousands.  Most of them ended up in America.  The United
States' merchant marine was quite short of sailors.  Its
growth required about five thousand additional sailors every
year.  This increased demand brought a three-fold wage hike
to American sailors.  This threat to British seapower was
more than they could tolerate and resulted in their warships
searching American merchant vessels and removing British
fugitives.5
     The American government did not try to protect these
British fugitives even when they sometimes claimed to have
4Albert Z. Carr, The Coming of War (New York: Doubleday &
Company, 1960), p.160.
5A.T. Mahan, Sea Power In Its Relations To The War of 1812
(Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1905), I, p.114.
taken advantage of American naturalization.  In those days
most people considered it almost impossible to change one's
nationality.  The United States' complaint over impressment
dealt with the search for deserters, and the abuses that
accompanied it.6
     The right to search was a major problem.  The British
position was that they had the right of sovereignty to chase
fugitive nationals anywhere up to a line where another
nation's sovereignty barred that pursuit.  Britain claimed
no right to search American vessels in territorial waters of
the United States.  Nor did the United States deny that
Britain had the right to search American vessels in British
territorial waters.  It was a question of jurisdiction on
the high seas, over which neither could claim sovereignty,
which caused the problem.  Britain never claimed the right
to search vessels of the United States Navy.  She did claim
the right to search private vessels as she felt this
involved no invasion of another nation's sovereignty.  A new
doctrine that was only beginning to take shape was the one
accepted by the United States.  It stated that a nation's
6Bradford Perkins, ed., The Causes of the War of 1812 (New
York: Holt, Rinenart and Winston. 1962),  p.13.
ships on the high seas were detached portions of its
soil and therefore covered by its sovereignty.7
     The abuses that accompanied the search and impressment
of suspected deserters were extremely upsetting to the
American public.  The British naval officers, in view of the
manpower problems they were having at the time, sometimes
made mistakes and illegally impressed an American citizen.
Though the British would correct these errors, it often took
years to find and free an American they had illegally
impressed.  Americans considered this to be an insult to
their sovereignty.  They also felt that any nation that
allowed the seizure and virtual enslavement of its citizens
could not consider itself independent.8
     Another major issue often sited as a cause of the war
was the interference with American trade.  As I said before,
beginning in 1803 Britain and France tried to defeat each
other by commercial means.  Britain decided to blockade
French possessions in Europe, insuring that the only goods
reaching Napoleon would be through British ports.  This she
hoped would increase her prosperity and power.  The Essex
7A.T. Mahan, Sea Power In Its Relations To The War of 1812
(Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1905), I, p.114-125.
8Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1965), p.4-5.
hoped would increase her prosperity and power.  The Essex
decision of 1805 started a more rigid policy that put a stop
to what they called the `broken voyage' system.  This was
where American ships sailed by way of American ports to
evade the British prohibition of trade between France and
French colonies.9
     In 1807 Napoleon began to vigorously enforce his
Continental System which he hoped would deny Britain access
to the European market upon which her economic life
depended.  He had no navy with which to accomplish this but
he hoped to do it with his formidable army.  He ordered the
confiscation of all British goods and excluded every ship
that had stopped at a British port.  Britain saw that if
Napoleon accomplished his goal she might lose the war.  The
Orders-in-Council were her desperate reply.   She extended
her blockade to include every port from which France
excluded her ships.  She declared that she would treat as an
enemy any vessel that tried to enter a French port without
first stopping at a British port to pay a fee and get a
9Reginald Horsman, The War of 1812 (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1969), p.7.
license.  The position of the neutral countries became
impossible. 10
     At first glance both Britain and France were equally
belligerent toward the United States.  However, upon closer
analysis they were not.  Britain's control of the seas gave
her much more power of enforcement.  Even more important was
the legal difference.  She made her seizures at sea which
was a violation of neutral rights under United States'
interpretation of international law.  Britain justified this
as being necessary to defeat Napoleon.  Napoleon, on the
other hand, made his seizures primarily in French ports
within the undoubted jurisdiction of his government.  The
Americans had not forgotten the dependence of colonial days.
Now Britain was insisting they should have no trade of their
own and that she should control all their foreign commerce.
This was another issue that caused Americans to feel their
independence was at stake.11
     On June 22, 1807, a vessel of the United States Navy
named the Chesapeake set sail from Norfolk.  When she was
10Reginald Horsman, The War or 1812 (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1969), p.8.
11George Rogers Taylor, ed., The War of 1812: Past
Justifications and Present  Interpretations (Lexington,
Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company. 1963), p1-8.
eighteen.  The British boarded and removed four members of
the Chesapeake crew who they claimed to be British
deserters.  The Chesapeake returned to Norfolk to tell her
story.  Protests from all parts of the country denounced the
incident as an outrageous violation of American sovereignty.
Americans not only supported but demanded war.  At the
meetings where the Americans filed their complaint the
British could have seized the opportunity to disclaim the
action of its responsible naval officer.  If she had done so
with regret and sincerity and offered honest reparations
this incident's effect on later American actions would have
been much different.  The responsible British naval officer
had, in fact, committed an act of hostility without the
previous authority of his government.  Almost a century
before the incident Britain had stopped instructing the
commanders of its ships to search foreign naval vessels for
deserters.12  President Jefferson made sure that the
incident would continue to be an issue by demanding the end
to impressment as well as restitution for damages
suffered by the United States during the Chesapeake
incident.  The British were not about to give in to the
impressment demand for the reasons we discussed earlier.
12A.T. Mahan, Sea Power In Its Relations To The War of 1812
(Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1905), I, p.170-171.
The British finally made reparations for the Chesapeake
incident but it was too little, too late.  The Chesapeake
affair remained a sore point until the United States
declared war.  We must consider it a major catalyst in that
final declaration.13
     The quiet dismantling of the Federalist military system
begun by the Republicans soon after he became President in
1801 limited President Jefferson's options.  Both he and
Secretary of State Madison felt the United States could
change the policies of the European powers by economic
means.14  This belief derived from Jefferson's idealism and
American experience in dealing with the British using
economic boycotts before the Revolution.  We must also
assume their awareness of United States military
unpreparedness played a part as well.  Their belief resulted
in the Embargo Act.  It sought to stop all United States
merchant vessels from sailing from United States ports and
virtually forbade commerce with any foreign nation.
     The Embargo adversely affected all regions of the
United States and all segments of the economy.  However, it
13A.T. Mahan, Sea Power In Its Relations To The War of 1812
(Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1905), I, p.155-170.
14Reginald Horsman, The War of 1812 (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1969), p.9-10.
merchant vessels from sailing from United States ports and
virtually forbade commerce with any foreign nation.
     The Embargo adversely affected all regions of the
United States and all segments of the economy.  However, it
severely hit the New England shipping interests resulting in
major hardships for many coastal towns.  With cotton prices
falling by fifty percent, it also hit the South very hard
forcing many planters out of business.
     The Embargo resulted in a depression that all but
paralyzed the United States' economy.  The intent was for it
to do this to the British and French economies but this did
not happen.  The Embargo complimented Napoleon's Continental
system.  It also had virtually no affect on the British
economy.  Brazil and the Spanish colonies opened to British
trade about the same time the Embargo started.  This had the
effect of offsetting any impact the loss of American trade
might have had on the British economy.  The Embargo actually
helped British policy in many ways and it stopped any help
the French may have received from American shipping.15
     The failure of the Embargo was a terrible blow to
Jefferson and his Republican supporters.  It caused many of
15Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1965). p.10.
smuggling which flourished along the Canadian border.  The
effects on the maritime capabilities of the nation were
disastrous.  The merchant fleet was rotting in port while
American seaman sought work where they could find it.  This
quite often meant the Royal Navy.  Where before the Embargo
the British could not man their navy now they had a ready
pool of out-of-work sailors.  Jefferson showed his contempt
for a blue-water navy when he wrote to his friend Thomas
Paine about his idea for a new gunboat: "Believing, myself,
that gunboats are the only water defence which can be useful
to us, and protect us from the ruinous folly of a navy, I am
pleased with everything which promises to improve them. "16
Likewise, he showed his "dislike approaching detestation for
the carrying trade"17 when he wrote:
     I trust that the good sense of our country will
     see that its greatest prosperity depends on a due
     balance between agriculture, manufactures, and
     commerce, and not on this protuberant navigation,
     which has kept us in hot water from the
     commencement of our government.  This drawback
     system enriches a few individuals, but lessens the
     stock of native productions, by withdrawing all
     the hands [seamen] thus employed.  It is
     essentially necessary for us to have shipping and
     seamen enough to carry our surplus products to
     market, but beyond that I do not think we are
     bound to give it encouragement by drawbacks or
16Paul Leicester Ford, ed.,  The Works of Thomas Jefferson
(New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904-05), V, p189.
17A.T. Mahan, Sea Power In Its Relations To The War of 1812
(Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1905), I, p.187.
     which has kept us in hot water from the
     commencement of our government.  This drawback
     system enriches a few individuals, but lessens the
     stock of native productions, by withdrawing all
     the hands [seamen] thus employed.  It is
     essentially necessary for us to have shipping and
     seamen enough to carry our surplus products to
     market, but beyond that I do not think we are
     bound to give it encouragement by drawbacks or
     other premiums.  This exuberant commerce brings us
     into collision with other Powers in every sea, and
     will force us into every war with European
     Powers.18
That his aversion to things nautical affected the decision
to institute the Embargo seems quite possible.  Jefferson's
last act before leaving office was to repeal the Embargo.
     Since the Embargo had severely weakened the United
States' economy the nation found itself weaker militarily in
1809 than it had been in 1807 before the Embargo.  This
resulted in the only alternative being to continue the
policy of peaceable coercion.  The Non-intercourse Act of
1809 opened up commerce with all the world except France and
England.  This act was as much a failure as was the Embargo
itself.
     The next bill to come forward was Macon's Bill No. 2
passed in May of 1810.  It ended commercial restrictions
against France and England and offered a bribe instead.  If
18Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson
(New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904-05), V, p417,426.
either country removed their restrictions against the
United States and the other would not do likewise, then the
United States would reinstate non-importation against the
delinquent power.  France appeared to jump at this ofrer.
America could now direct their animosity toward their
favorite enemy, Britain.  However, it soon became obvious
that Napoleon had backed out of this agreement and the
escalation toward war continued.
     Soon after the Chesapeake affair British officers in
Canada realized the likelihood of hostilities.  They began
to make arrangements to insure the friendship of the Indians
of the Old Northwest.  This was a fairly easy task due to
the constant pressure put on these tribes by the westward
expansion of the United States.  Beginning in 1805 the
Shawnee, Tecumseh, and his brother, Prophet, were trying to
form a general Indian confederacy to resist this westward
expansion.  The British started aiding them in 1807.  In
November of 1811 Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana
clashed with the Indian confederacy at Tippecanoe.  The
United States saw this as a major renewal of Indian warfare
with the British in Canada backing the Indians.  The affair
gained much attention in Washington but probably had only a
minor impact on relations with Britain which were horrible
by this time.  It did go a long way toard inflaming the
helped those in the Twelfth Congress who were calling for
war with Britain.19
     Earlier historians (in the 1920's) placed primary blame
on territorial expansionism for causing the war.  More
recent studies discount its importance but we need to look
at it.
     The primary cause for the call to invade Canada was the
obvious support the British in Canada were giving the
Indians of the Northwest.  The Americans did not miss that
Canada was Britain's last foothold on the continent either.
Southerners openly discussed annexing the Spanish claims in
Florida because of Spain's alliance with Britain.  As
relations with Britain worsened the call for expansion both
north and south increased in volume and frequency.20
     Another school of thought charged that the exhaustion
of the farm lands in the Old Northwest caused land-hungry
farmers to call for the conquest of Canada with its good
19George Rogers Taylor, ed., The War of 1812: Past
Justifications and Present Interpretations (Lexington,
Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1963), p83-85.
20Julius W. Pratt, Expansionists of 1812 (Gloucester,
Massachusetts: The Macmillan Company, 1925), p .9-15.
lands.21  They felt this would explain why the trade
dependent Northeast opposed the war in Congress when the
British maritime actions hurt them most of all.  This was
hard to understand if you accepted that we fought the war
because of the maritime issues.  Especially when the South
and West supported it though they had neither ships nor
sailors.  Most historians downplay this idea as not being
nearly as responsible for creating support for the war in
the South and the West as the depression.  The adverse
economic impact they felt which they quickly blamed on the
British restrictions to American commerce had much more
impact they felt.  Historians accepted that the Northeast
was Anglophile.  The West and South were more aggressive and
probably felt more humiliation from the British maritime
actions.22
     In November of 1811 the Twelfth Congress met.
President Madison called it into session a month early
because of the sorry state of foreign affairs.  It was very
much like those that had preceded it except that over half
of its members were replacing incumbents that they had
21Bradford Perkins, ed.,  The Causes of the War of 1812 (New
York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), p.46-52.
22Bradford Perkins, ed.,  The Causes of the War of 1812 (New
York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962). p.53-86.
defeated in the last election.  Most had won based on their
vow to alter the status quo.  The President that met this
congress was showing a willingness to go along with stronger
measures.  This was probably because he had decided by the
summer of 1811 that he had only two choices--war or
submission.  The Federalists branded the Republicans who
took the lead in calling for stronger measures that would
eventually result in war as War Hawks.  Even some of the
Federalists who felt a war would be disastrous voted for it
hoping the public would blame the Republicans for it.  They
thought they could then step in to make peace and save the
day.23
     Toward the end of my research I started to feel uneasy
about the failure of many of the historians to say much
about a causal factor becoming very clear to me.  Not
surprisingly, Mahan covered it.  I felt this might be
because of his naval background.  Then I came upon a more
recent work that came closer to my own viewpoint.  In it the
author gives primary responsibility for the war to the
American statesmen:
     ...the Republican chieftains must bear primary
     responsibility for the war.... Whereas Washington
     and Adams kept objectives and means in harmony
23Harry L. Coles,  The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press. 1965)  p.16-23.
     with one another, their successors often committed
     the United States to seek absolute right with
     inadequate weapons.... In a state of military and
     psychological unpreparedness, the United States of
     America embarked upon a war to recover the self
     respect destroyed by Republican leaders.24
The failure to maintain military preparedness is a major, if
not the primary, cause of the War of 1812.  This should be
very significant to us today.  The attitudes toward military
preparedness of the Jefferson Administration and the Carter
Administration were very similar.  One wonders what the
outcome would have been if we had reelected Mr. Carter and
not arrested our military decline in the early 1980's.
     The lessons of this study of a small bit of American
history are two-fold.  First, that it is extremely important
to maintain our military capability in line with our
national goals.  Second, that not all well-intentioned
Americans understand the first lesson.  Those of us that do
must be forever vigilant.  When the call goes out to cut our
defenses too much we must educate our countrymen to the
inherent dangers involved in this course of action.  If we
fail to do this we are doomed to repeat history and in the
Nuclear Age this could be fatal.
24Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1961)  p.442.
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