Jun 18

U.S. Declares War on Great Britain in 1812

Friday, June 18, 2010 5:00 AM


Uncertainty, turmoil, and conflict marked U.S. foreign relations in the three decades following the War for American Independence (1775-1783). During this time, the young Republic’s leaders struggled to protect the nation’s maritime interests, especially overseas trade and shipping, from foreign depredations and harassment. The United States fought an undeclared naval war with France (1798-1801) and a war with Tripoli (1801-1805) to safeguard these interests. By 1807 the threat to America’s merchant fleet clearly emanated from Great Britain and France then locked in a life-and-death struggle for supremacy in Europe.

Both these countries sought to undermine each other’s capacity to wage war by striking at their opponent’s economy. To this end, each side issued proclamations (Britain’s Orders in Council and France’s Berlin and Milan Decrees) declaring the other’s ports under blockade and closed to all foreign commerce. Ships attempting to violate these restrictions risked seizure and subsequent loss of vessel and cargo. American merchantmen carrying goods to the European continent soon found themselves targeted by British and French warships enforcing their country’s respective trade laws. As U.S. shipping losses grew, public pressure mounted on the President and Congress to take action to protect American shipping.

Short of war, there was little either the Jefferson or Madison administrations could do to compel the European belligerents to respect the neutrality of American vessels. For a time, the U.S. pursued a series of punitive economic measures, including an embargo, to compel the British and French to drop their obnoxious trade restrictions. But in the end, these policies proved more detrimental to the American economy than to those of its intended targets.

While U.S. grievances against France were strong enough by 1812 to justify an American declaration of war against its former Revolutionary War ally, peace prevailed between the two nations. The armed break came instead with Great Britain. This was because the complaints against that country extended beyond the violations of American neutral trade. Chief among these was the Royal Navy’s practice of forcibly removing (impressing) sailors from Yankee vessels to serve in British warships. It has been estimated that the Royal Navy secured as many as 6000 U.S. seamen in this way. A final cause for complaint against Great Britain was the outbreak of a bloody Indian war on the country’s northwestern frontier, which citizens of that region believed British officials had helped engineer.

On 1 June 1812, believing that there was no peaceful way to resolve Anglo-American differences, President Madison asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain. A divided Congress approved the declaration on 18 June, and the nation went to war to defend “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights.”