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. Bibliography Berton, Pierre. The Invasion of Canada 1812-1813. Ontario: Penguin Books Canada, 1980. Berton, Pierre. Flames Across the Border. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981. Brant, Irving. James Madison, Commander in Chief, 1812-1836. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1961. Caffrey, Kate. The Twilight's Last Gleaming. New York: Stein and Day, 1977. Carr, Albert Z. The Coming of War. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960. Coles, Harry L. The War of 1812. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904-05. Horsman, Reginald. The War of 1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. Mahan, A.T. Sea Power In Its Relations To The War of 1812. B oston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1905. Moskin, Robert J. The U.S. Marine Corps Story. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1977. Perkins, Bradford. Prologue to War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961. Perkins, Bradford, ed. The Causes of The War of 1812. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. Pratt, Julius W. Expansionists of 1812. Gloucester, Massachusetts: The Macmillan Company, 1925. Smelser, Marshall. The Democratic Republic 1801 -1815. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Stagg, J.C.A. Mr. Madison's War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983. Taylor, George Rogers, ed. The War of 1812: Past Justifications and Present Interpretations. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1963. Tucker, Glenn. Poltroons and Patriots. New York: The Bobbs- Merrill Company, Inc., 1954. Wiltse, Charles M. The New Nation 18OO-1845. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.
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