The War of 1812 Begins: The U.S. Declares War on Great Britain

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed an Act of Congress declaring war on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The next day he issued a proclamation of war, here.

James Madison, 4th President of the United States of America

The War of 1812 is almost forgotten in both the U.S. and U.K., but to many Canadians, it is an important aspect of their history, ending for the most part, U.S. attempts to control and annex parts of Canada.

Historian Alan Taylor of the University of California-Davis has written a book advancing the theory that the war was “in effect a civil war between related members of a founding nation.” In The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies, Taylor looks at the conflict from multiple points of view.

U.S. Historian Alan Taylor in Toronto

An interesting article from the Canadian Broadcasting Company on Alan Taylor’s book is here.  This site will also connect you to various Canadian commemorations of the War of 1812.

As I remember from my high school American History course, the impressment of American seamen by British ships on the high seas was a basic cause of U.S. complaints. The British, embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars on the Peninsula and the Continent, claimed the right to stop and board ships to find deserters; sometimes they were also said to have taken naturalized or other Americans to force them to serve the British Navy. A further aggravation to the growing American merchant fleet were the Orders in Council,  His Majesty’s naval blockade of  continental ports, as part of the war with France.

USS Constitution, in action 1812, painted by
Anton Otto Fischer, U.S. Naval Historical Center 

Historians have added additional motivations for declaring war. The U.S. definitely wanted to control more of Canada. Growing controversy among the War Hawks and the fledgling political parties put President Madison in a bind. The war debate in Congress was heated and extremely partisan, only barely passed by Madison’s political allies.  Further, U.S. expansion caused continual controversy with Native Americans, who often turned to the British Army for assistance.  We all know the sad story of the fate of the Native Americans, moved farther and farther west away from their ancestral homes.

One wonders why the young, weak, and struggling United States of America would attempt to defeat the strongest maritime nation in the world. The U.S. Constitution had been in effect for less than a quarter of a century; there was no professional army; instead the government had to  rely on little-trained state militias.  One can hardly avoid the suspicion many leaders in the U.S. relied upon the British being quite thoroughly preoccupied with war against Napoleon.

Another factor was the very slow process of communication in those days.  Upon the declaration of war, the U.S. had not heard that British Prime Minister Perceval had been assassinated on May 11, 1812, and replaced by a government headed by Lord Liverpool (1770-1828, Prime Minister 1812-1827).  He had already rescinded the Orders in Council before the formal declaration, but who knew in Washington?

Robert Jenkinson, 2rd Earl of Liverpool
by Sir Thomas Lawrence

We don’t have to provide a spoiler alert to reveal that the war led to nothing, for all practical purposes, on the part of the U.S. and U.K.  In Canada, it was seen as confirming their unique relationship with both their neighbor to the south and the British.  The Treaty of Ghent confirmed the status quo ante bellum, that is, a return to the situation before the war was declared. The hostilities had been in vain.

Among the commemorations in the U.S., the estate of James Madison (1751-1836), near Jefferson’s Monticello, will host a number of events.  Their website is here.

Montpelier, near Charlottesville, Virginia

The U.S. did have a few contributions to its popular history from the War of 1812, such as the composition of the Star Spangled Banner in 1814 by Francis Scott Key as he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. For more on the flag at the Smithsonian, click here.

During naval battles on Lake Erie, one of the more memorable of American legends took place when Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819), commanding the U.S. ships, won and reported to General William Henry Harrison, “We have met the enemy and they are ours: two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”

Captain Oliver H. Perry
U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) came into national prominence after his victory in the Battle of New Orleans, a totally unnecessary event that took place after the peace treaty had been signed ending the war.  That battle cost the life of General Edward Pakenham, brother-in-law of the first Duke of Wellington and the deaths of hundreds of British and less than a dozen American soldiers. Jackson later became the 7th president of the U.S, serving from 1829-1837.

Battle of New Orleans, as painted by Edward Percy Moran in 1910
Library of Congress

From time to time, we hope to return to the battles, mishaps, and personalities of the War of 1812 .  Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “The War of 1812 Begins: The U.S. Declares War on Great Britain”

  1. When I complained to one of my British acquaintances that they set our White House on fire, I was told that this was a minor occurrence/skirmish, compared to having to "kick Napoleon's ass all over Europe" at the same time.

    This "war" meant a whole lot more to us — and to Francis Scott Key — than, alas, it did to Britain!

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