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  The Unfinished Revolution  
The War of 1812: American Independence Confirmed

Image: The White House in ruinsThe American leaders who declared war on Great Britain in 1812 firmly believed that they were beginning a second war of independence. Although the United States failed to achieve any of its stated war aims, the War of 1812 confirmed American nationhood and secured a new respect for the infant republic among the powers of Europe.

The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the Revolutionary War and established the United States among the nations of the world. The treaty, however, neither guaranteed the new nation’s survival nor ensured that the powers of Europe would respect its rights. In upholding its rights to trade freely with all of the world’s countries, the United States government struggled to find a balance between military preparedness and diplomacy. The prolonged wars between Britain and France (1793-1815), kicked off by the French Revolution, greatly complicated America’s ability to protect the rights of its shipping and sailors. Additionally, many Americans along the nation’s western frontier believed that the British in Canada encouraged Indian raids on their settlements.

Attacks by the French on American shipping led to an undeclared naval war from 1798 to 1801, known as the Quasi-War. When war between Britain and France started up again in 1803, Britain forbade neutrals, including the United States, from trading with France and her allies. Many Americans believed Britain’s measures were an attempt to re-impose colonial status on them. Desperate for sailors to man their warships, British captains increasingly boarded American ships and “impressed” sailors into service, claiming that the merchant seamen were deserters from the Royal Navy. America’s efforts to preserve its neutral rights by stopping all trade with the warring powers had no effect, other than to hurt the U.S. economy. On June 18, 1812, after two decades of watching its rights violated, the United States defiantly declared war on Britain. President James Madison’s war message to Congress echoed the language of the Declaration of Independence

In military terms, the War of 1812 was inconclusive. The U.S. achieved some notable victories: on Lake Erie (commemorated at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial), at Fort McHenry (commemorated at Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine), and in the Battle of New Orleans (commemorated at Chalmette Battlefield, part of Jean Lafitte National Historic Park & Preserve). But the war also saw Washington occupied and the White House set on fire. Two American invasions of Canada failed. The 1814 Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, merely affirmed the situation prevailing before the war began (the status quo antebellum). The treaty was silent on the issues of commercial rights that had led to war. When war between Britain and France ended in 1815, so did British interference with American shipping.

The most notable result of the War of 1812 was an upsurge in American nationalism. At the war’s conclusion a French diplomat commented that “the war has given the Americans what they so essentially lacked, a national character.” The three-year conflict also resulted in increased funding of the peacetime military, better coastal defenses, a more secure western frontier, and a final confirmation of the Revolution’s outcome. The power of the Indian nations of the Old Northwest and Old Southwest was decisively broken, opening the way for white settlement across a broad front. Never again would European powers have significant influence with American tribes. The war also produced a new national symbol, The Star-Spangled Banner, which Congress made our national anthem in 1931. Most importantly, America’s independence and status in the world were reaffirmed, never again to be seriously challenged. .

To learn more:

Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995)

John K. Mahon, The War of 1812 (New York: Da Capo, reprint of 1972 edition)

For younger readers: Alden R. Carter, The War of 1812: Second Fight for Independence (New York: Franklin Watts, 1992)

Carl Benn, The Iroquois in the War of 1812 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998)

C. Edward Skeen, Citizen Soldiers in the War of 1812 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1999)

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