The War of 1812

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The title of Donald R. Hickey’s work is apt, for the War of 1812 is, indeed, a conflict forgotten by most Americans. As Hickey points out, even to contemporaries the conflict was confusing, with endless debates as to the actual causes, the true goals, and the ultimate result of the entire affair. Faced with motives that were sometimes questionable; reviewing military campaigns that were too often failures, and considering administrative and bureaucratic initiatives that seem amateurish at best, it is little wonder that the tendency has been to cloak the conflict as something of a second American Revolution,” a muddled but somehow successful war during the course of which the United States won” its true independence from Great Britain. When not forgotten, the War of 1812 is misunderstood.

Yet the war was an important event in the development of the new nation; because of it, lasting changes were made in the way American politics, economics, military affairs, and foreign policy were conducted. It helped to ensure the ascendancy of one political party and prompted the destruction of another. It made the nation realize the importance of an effective and well- trained regular army and a powerful navy, and, for a time, memories of the conflict even induced Congress to allocate sufficient funds for such forces. From the perspective of the European powers, the war gave the United States credibility; at home, it kindled the sectionalism that would burst into the flames of another, and much more terrible, war in 1861. Donald Hickey’s excellent survey places all these events and their consequences in perspective.

The traditional American explanation for the War of 1812 has always been that it was fought for “free trade and sailors’ rights,” or, in more specific terms, for continued American commerce with Europe despite Britain’s blockade against Napoleon, and an end to the Royal Navy’s use of impressment, the seizing of sailors from American vessels for service on British ships. The diplomatic problems raised by these points, however, were more symbolic than actual. Britain seems to have regarded both blockade and impressment as largely temporary measures, necessitated by its desperate struggle with the French Emperor; their insistence upon them helped maintain the image of the Royal Navy as “Mistress of the Seas,” a title which carried considerable value for both propaganda abroad and morale at home.

American resentment of the practices resulted more from injured national pride than actual economic damages. Although losses to trade were real, and suffering from impressment acute for the individuals involved, many Americans were more incensed by what they felt to be Britain’s disdain of the new nation and its sovereignty, and saw the actions as deliberate affronts to the dignity of the United States. These feelings were especially strong in the Republican Party (later evolving into the present-day Democrats), founded by Thomas Jefferson and led by such figures as Jefferson’s successor as president, James Madison.

Impressment and neutral rights had been the focus of dispute since the early days of the Jefferson Administration, and a number of unsuccessful methods had been attempted to secure redress. By 1812, however, Napoleon’s position had weakened, and both the blockade and impressment had begun to ease; on the very eve of the conflict, Great Britain had actually moved to rescind the most objectionable practices. Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, announced this change just two days before the United States declared war, thereby undercutting the announced diplomatic causus be//i so long and loudly proclaimed by American War Hawks. As Hickey notes, “Had there been a transatlantic cable, Castlereagh’s announcement might have averted war.” More likely, war would merely have been postponed, momentum having grown too great. The reason, Hickey plausibly suggests, was internal American politics.

During this period the Republican Party was in control of the presidency, the Congress, and most of the state legislatures in the South and West Their rivals, the Federalists, remained strong only in New England, and even there they seemed in decline. A successful, popular war would quite possibly consolidate the Republican hold on power, especially if that war was against Great Britain, still regarded as hostile from the Revolution. The Federalists were known to be friendly to Britain, and generally took a conciliatory attitude in disputes with that nation War would place them in an extremely awkward position, and would permit the Republicans to strengthen their claim as the truly American political party.

War would be popular with the Republicans’ constituency, especially in the West and South. Westerners, led by such War Hawks as Henry Clay, desired the conquest of Canada, which would simultaneously expand their territory and put an end to the Indian menace on the frontier. Southerners felt that a successful war would reopen markets for their agricultural goods and increase the prestige of the United States. Republicans also calculated that a majority of Americans in all sections of the country would be pleased at humbling haughty Great Britain.

A third reason for the war was ideological and nationalistic. Republicans were acutely conscious of their role as heirs of the Revolution, and felt there was a need to unite the nation in order to complete the...

(The entire section is 2233 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Choice. XXVIII, May, 1990, p. 457.