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During the Franco-British Wars, American merchants had traded with both sides, even though the U.S. was nominally neutral. Both sides took steps to prevent American trade with the other. However, the primary cause of the American declaration of War was the impressment of American soldiers into service on British ships. Service in the British navy was brutal, so much so that British sailors were not allowed to leave ship when in port, even in the ship's home port, as it was feared by the commanders that the sailors would not return. Some did escape, of course, and Britain began a policy of stopping American ships to search for deserters. Not only was stopping the ships offensive; there was evidence that some innocent Americans were taken from the American ship and forced into service on the British ship. This was the primary reason for the declaration of war. An underlying cause was the desire of the War Hawks in Congress, including John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay, to make Canada a part of the U.S. Although they argued that the war was to protect national honor, others saw it differently. Sen John Randolph commented:
We have heard but one word—like the whippoorwill, but one eternal monotonous tone: "Canada! Canada! Canada!
Diplomatically, the war accomplished little or nothing for the U.S. At the end of the war, the British had burned Washington and there was only one major American victory, the Battle of New Orleans which was fought two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. The Treaty, which ended the war, re-established the status quo ante bellum. Impressment, the stated casus belli, was not even mentioned. Domestically, the war engendered intense patriotism and nationalism, and led to the "Era of Good Feelings." One should also note that it was during the war of 1812 that Francis Scott Key composed The Star Spangled Banner.
The War of 1812 is generally taught as "The American Revolution II", because it was largely an extension of the first American Revolution.
Britain and France had long been ignoring American neutrality -- they impressed sailors into service, seized ships and merchant goods, and continued fighting their wars on American soil. The two nations had a long-standing feud born of a medieval conquest and the rights of feudal lords: a fight America wanted nothing to do with!
Britain was engaged in a battle with Napoleon and America wanted to continue to trade -- needed, really, because as a fledgling nation we needed to build an economy. Britain blockaded us from trading, then France did the same, and the War Hawks in Congress (pro-war) pushed their agenda through. Eventually, it was decided that the US would declare war to assert itself and to protect itself economically. It was a lackluster war with little change at the end, but we did thereafter declare ourselves protectors of the Americas and engaged in a policy of neutrality.
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