What caused the War of 1812?

Welcome to the first in a series on the War of 1812—the United States’ most forgotten war (even more forgotten than the Korean War). Here we look at its causes.

The years following the end of the American Revolutionary War were turbulent. France underwent its own revolution beginning in 1789, and that nation quickly descended into terror. Great Britain organized seven different international coalitions between 1793 and 1815 to overthrow the French revolutionary government, which was led from 1797 by Napoleon Bonaparte.

During this period, many Americans thought it only right that the United States go to war on France’s behalf, returning the favor France had done them by coming to the Americans’ aid during the American Revolution. The full extent of the Terror in France was not known to most Americans, and even those like Thomas Jefferson who did know about the despotic rulers in Paris admired their spirit, believing it to be truly revolutionary. The terror, they reasoned, was a temporary over-exuberance of revolutionary spirit and would soon settle down. Under the leadership of George Washington, however, the U.S. would not enter a foreign war. Washington knew the nation had no money to fight a war, and was still fighting to bring its own citizens under the control of the federal government (see the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794).

But the U.S. could not keep out of the war. Both Britain and France saw the U.S. as a powerful tool to use for their own benefit. Britain, hoping to keep the U.S. from allying with France, offered the Jay Treaty, which the U.S. ratified in 1794. In it, Britain promised to remove its soldiers from six forts in the Great Lakes region (which was U.S. territory), and to pay over $10 million to U.S. shipowners whose ships had been seized by Britain in 1793-4. The ships had been taken as part of Britain’s ongoing efforts to sabotage U.S. growth and expansion (Britain was also helping Native Americans fight U.S. settlement in Ohio). The seizure of the ships had led the U.S. to embargo trade with Britain.

Afraid that the embargo was a sign that the U.S. would ally formally with France, Britain offered the Jay Treaty. The U.S. accepted it (over Jefferson’s strenuous objections), and gave Britain most favored nation trading status in return.

In its turn, France saw ratification of the Jay Treaty as a sign that the U.S. would formally ally itself with Britain. Outraged, France retaliated against the U.S., seizing 300 U.S. ships bound for British trading ports. Worse, when the U.S. sent envoys to Paris to negotiate the ships’ return, three French agents representing their government demanded humiliating bribes from the Americans that would have to be paid just for the privilege of speaking to the French: 50,000 pounds sterling (the U.S. still used the pound as one of its currencies, especially in trade with Great Britain), a $10 million loan, $250,000 for the personal use of the French foreign minister, and a letter of apology for the Jay Treaty from President John Adams.

When news of this insult reached the U.S., Americans demanded that President Adams declare war on France. The “X, Y, Z Affair,” as it was known, was too infuriating to bear. But Adams, like Washington before him, skilfully refused to be drawn into war, and managed to settle the dispute through diplomacy. Adams knew the U.S. was still in no shape to get involved in a war between the two superpowers of the day.

The price of British peace was high. British navy ships routinely stopped U.S. trade and Merchant Marine ships and impressed their crews (this meant forcing the sailors to work basically as slaves aboard British ships). Impressed men never saw their homes again. They were forced to labor for the British navy—often to impress other Americans. Britain also continued to work with Native Americans in Canada and northwestern territories of the U.S. to overthrow the federal government and stop U.S. settlement. According to both the treaty ending the Revolution and the Jay Treaty, the British were supposed to withdraw soldiers from U.S. territory, but did not. The British also tried to stop the U.S. from trading with France.

By 1808, James Madison was president of the United States. One of his first international actions was to stop trade with Britain and France. This was finessed in May 1810 to a statement that the U.S. would trade with whichever nation accepted U.S. neutrality. In France, Napoleon seemed to accept this deal, but he did so only to get the U.S. to embargo trade with Britain. With Britain still in mind as the natural enemy of the U.S., many Americans became “War Hawks” at this point, urging war with Britain. In Congress, War Hawks like John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay pushed Madison to declare war.

Madison knew the odds of winning a war against Britain were no better than they had been in Washington’s or Adams’ day. But continued British impressment and ship seizures, combined with France’s seeming support of U.S. neutrality, led him to bow to public and political pressure.  On June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress to declare war on Britain. It was just 29 years after the Treaty of Paris had ended the Revolutionary War.

Next time: How and where the war was fought