Causes of War

Watercolor of a view of a river, with boats sailing along a river, with groups of people standing along the shoreline.
A somber crowd in Norfolk harbor watched the remains of seaman Robert MacDonald rowed to their final resting place. The attack by the H.M. LEOPARD on the U.S. CHESAPEAKE on June 22, 1807 resulted in the deaths of MacDonald and three other seamen.

This event created a major international crisis between the United States and Great Britain.©Richard Schlecht

In the early 1800s, as a consequence of the Napoleonic War in Europe, the young United States of America was severely hampered economically by Britain’s insistence on unfavorable trade restrictions with its former colonies. British troops continued to occupy disputed territory along the Great Lakes and were suspected of backing Indian raids against U.S. settlers on the frontier. Most dramatically, the British Navy periodically captured and impressed (forced recruitment) American sailors into service on British ships, denying thousands of American citizens their freedom.

By June 1812, overall discontent with Britain’s actions had grown so strong in the United States that President James Madison, in a tight campaign for re-election, acquiesced to the War Hawks’ push to declare war. The American Navy was severely outnumbered, with approximately 17 ships compared to Britain’s fleet of more than 500. The standing American Army was only about half the size of Britain’s and was widely scattered.

However, Americans were emboldened by the fact that the British were also embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, spanning from 1803 to 1815 in Europe. The United States’ Declaration of War made it necessary for British troops, supplies, and funds to be diverted from that conflict with the French to defend their interests in the Canadas. Britain saw America as an important market and supplier and only reluctantly responded to the declaration. U.S. commercial and political interests in New York and New England, concerned about the potential destruction of their shipping industries, opposed the war, and, in fact, continued to trade with the British and its colonies even after the naval blockades were extended north, although in diminished numbers.

In the summer of 1812, American troops attempted to invade and conquer the Canadas. The poorly planned campaign ended in defeat and the American troops withdrew. However, several American naval victories on the high seas boosted U.S. morale and contributed to President Madison’s re-election. In response, the British gradually established and tightened a blockade of the American coast south of New York, impairing trade and undermining the American economy. The blockade, which lasted from early 1813 until the end of the war, was especially hard for people in the Chesapeake region, which was a hub of national and international commerce.

A Nation Divided

In 1812, the United States was barely 25 years old, and only one generation had grown up under the American flag. Many Americans still remembered living through and participating in the Revolutionary War. The country was still in transition. Wary of a strong central government, Americans were grappling with ideas about trade, slavery, and expansion. Washington City, as it was then called, was a fledging capital. National defense was hotly debated and poorly funded.

On June 18, 1812, after the closest vote for war in Congress’s history, Americans found themselves on the front lines of conflict again. The nation was deeply and bitterly divided. In Baltimore, a pro-war mob destroyed the offices of an anti-war newspaper, igniting riots that caused injuries and deaths.
 

Last updated: June 4, 2020

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