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War of 1812: Causes of Conflict

Trouble on the High Seas


Contents | 1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land

Issues of Neutral Trade

While the impressment issue caused problems, tensions were further heightened due to Britain and France's behavior regarding neutral trade. Having effectively conquered Europe but lacking the naval strength to invade Britain, Napoleon sought to cripple the island nation economically. To this end he issued the Berlin Decree in November 1806 and instituted the Continental System which made all trade, neutral or otherwise, with Britain illegal. In response, London issued the Orders in Council on November 11, 1807, which closed European ports to trade and barred foreign ships from entering them unless they first called at a British port and paid customs duties. To enforce this, the Royal Navy tightened its blockade of the Continent. Not to be outdone, Napoleon responded with his Milan Decree a month later which stipulated that any ship that followed the British rules would be considered British property and seized.

As a result, American shipping became prey for both sides. Riding the wave of outrage that followed the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, Jefferson implemented the Embargo Act of 1807 on December 25. This act effectively ended American foreign trade by prohibiting American ships from calling at overseas ports. Though drastic, Jefferson hoped to end the threat to American vessels by removing them from the oceans while depriving Britain and France of American goods. The act failed to achieve his goal of pressuring the European superpowers and instead severely crippled the American economy.

By December 1809, it was replaced with the Non-Intercourse Act which allowed overseas trade, but not with Britain and France. This still failed to change their policies. A final revision was issued in 1810 which removed all embargoes, but stated that if one nation stopped attacks on American ships, the United States would begin an embargo against the other. Accepting this offer, Napoleon promised Madison, now president, that neutral rights would honored. This agreement further angered the British despite the fact that the French reneged and continued seizing neutral ships.

War Hawks & Expansion in the West

In the years following the American Revolution, settlers pushed west across the Appalachians to form new settlements. With the creation of the Northwest Territory in 1787, increasing numbers moved to the present-day states of Ohio and Indiana pressuring the Native Americans in those areas to move. Early resistance to white settlement led to conflicts and in 1794 an American army defeated the Western Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Over the next fifteen years, government agents such Governor William Henry Harrison negotiated various treaties and land deals to push the Native Americans farther west. These actions were opposed by several Native American leaders, including the Shawnee chief Tecumseh. Working to build a confederacy to oppose the Americans, he accepted aid from the British in Canada and promised an alliance should war occur. Seeking to break the confederacy before it could fully form, Harrison defeated Tecumseh's brother, Tenskwatawa, at the Battle of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811.

During this period, settlement on the frontier faced a constant threat of Native American raids. Many believed these were encouraged and supported by the British in Canada. As a result, resentment and dislike of the British, further fueled by events at sea, burned brightly in the west where a new group of politicians known as the "War Hawks" began to emerge. Nationalistic in spirit, they desired war with Britain to end the attacks, restore the nation's honor, and possibly to expel the British from Canada. The leading light of the War Hawks was Henry Clay of Kentucky, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1810. Having already served two brief terms in the Senate, he was immediately elected Speaker of the House and transformed the position into one of power. In Congress, Clay and the War Hawk agenda were supported by individuals such as John C. Calhoun (South Carolina), Richard Mentor Johnson (Kentucky), Felix Grundy (Tennessee), and George Troup (Georgia). With Clay guiding debate, he ensured that Congress moved down the road to war.

Too Little, Too Late

Seizing upon the issues of impressment, Native American attacks, and the seizure of American ships, Clay and his cohorts clamored for war in early 1812, despite the country's lack of military preparedness. Though believing that the capture of Canada would be simple task, efforts were made to expand the army but without great success. In London, the government of King George III was largely preoccupied with Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Though the American military was weak, the British did not wish to fight a war in North America in addition to the larger conflict in Europe. As a result, Parliament began debating repealing the Orders in Council and normalizing trade relations with the United States. This culminated in their suspension on June 16 and removal on June 23.

Unaware of developments in London due to the slowness of communication, Clay led the debate for war in Washington. It was a reluctant action and the nation failed to unite in a single call for war. In some places, people even debated who to fight: Britain or France. On June 1, Madison submitted his war message, which focused on maritime grievances, to Congress. Three days later, the House voted for war, 79 to 49. Debate in the Senate was more extensive with efforts made to limit the scope of the conflict or delay a decision. These failed and on June 17, the Senate reluctantly voted 19 to 13 for war. The closest war vote in the history of country, Madison signed the declaration the next day.

Summing up the debate seventy-five years later, Henry Adams wrote, "Many nations go to war in pure gayety of heart, but perhaps the United States were the first to force themselves into a war they dreaded, in hope that the war itself might create the spirit they lacked."

Contents | 1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land

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