, Research Paper
Question: Was the War of 1812 justified?
American entry into War of 1812 was justified for many reasons. Some reasons include British impressment of American sailors, the lack of success of the embargoes America had put on Britain, the British arming of frontier Indian tribes and encouraging them to fight the Americans who lived on the frontier, and by the lack of success of the Jay’s Treaty and the Monroe-Pickney Treaty.
In 1793, England went to was with France. Britain’s plan was to blockade French ports, destroy French ships, and seize any ship trying to trade with France. Trade with France was very important to the United States economy so the Americans defied the British and carried on booming trade with France. Britain’s retaliation was to confiscate American ships and board many American ships searching for deserted British sailors. Britain would also impress American sailors into the Royal Navy Force as well. Britain Impressed American sailors because thousands of British sailors had been deserting British ships to take jobs in American vessels because better conditions, better pay, and treatment. (Nardo 67-69)
Impressment of American sailors angered American citizens who demanded war but President Washington decided not to go to war because he knew America was not ready for another war. Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to England to negotiate with the British in 1794. The British forced Jay into a settlement were Britain was favored because Britain knew they had a superior army and navy. The Treaty said that the British would no longer confiscate American ships but the Americans could not trade with France and were excluded from most British trade markets. The treaty was very unpopular in the United States and the British continued to harass American vessels. (Greenblatt 56-63)
In 1803, Britain and France were at war together and Britain began to violate Americans rights again. Impressment of American sailors resumed and about 6,000 sailors were impressed into the Royal Navy Force from 1803-1812. The British also interfered with American trade in the West Indies, violated U. S. territorial waters, used many naval blockades, and used a broad definition of contraband in order to prevent French-American trade.
The Monroe-Pickney Treaty of 1806 tried to resolve these problems. This treaty was more favorable to Americans than Jay’s Treaty, but Thomas Jefferson found it so dissatisfactory that he did not want to even submit it to the Senate, because it ignored the matter of impressment. (Greenblatt 155-156)
In 1807, Britain enacted the Orders in Council which was a law that forbade any neutral nations form trading with any European nation except through British ports. The British wanted to cut off flow of goods into French controlled Europe and to force U. S. merchants to trade strictly through British ports which would boost the British economy. (Nardo pp 38-40)
the Orders began to take affect in the United States as the South and the West suffered an economic depression in 1810 because farmers had lost markets for their crops. In 1810, Napoleon tricked Madison into reinstating the embargo against Britain. Even after realizing that he had been double-crossed, Madison continued the embargo hoping that it would eventually hurt the British economy and get the British to suspend the Orders in Council. (Nardo pp 39-42)
Another incident which brought America and Britain closer to war was the British encouraging of Indians on the frontier to battle white settlers. The Indian Confederation was head by two Shawnee leaders, Tecumseh and his brother Tenshwatawa who were determined to renounce the ways of the whites and to prevent further advancement of white settlers. In late 1811, William Henry Harrison defeated the Indians in the Battle of Tippecanoe, which ended most fears of Indian uprising, but Indian skirmishes continued and kept the Northwest a dangerous area for white settlers. (Greenblatt 209-212)
The turmoil in the west reinforced a political change that was occurring in the U. S. that was most clearly shown in the twelfth Congress elected in 1810. The attitude of the newcomers showed pride in their country. They resented British attacks on U. S. ships and impressment as well as the British-Indian alliance in the west. They demanded that the US declare war on Britain and invade Canada where many British agents were stationed. They felt that as the populations grew, the country would need to expand so they wanted the US to obtain more land. These men were named “War Hawks.” On November 11, 1811, the War Hawks elected Henry Clay of Kentucky as Speaker of the House. Clay turned the position into a position of party leadership and using his power, he packed all the important committees within the War Hawks, most importantly the Foreign Affairs Committee. Within weeks, the committee hammered out a strong set of resolutions calling for an increase in the army and the navy. The War Hawks Congress continued to criticize Great Britain and finally Madison realized that national sentiment shifted strongly to the support war. Madison sent a note to Britain demanding it to lift all restrictions against US shipping.
When no answer came by June, Madison asked Congress to issue a declaration of war. (Greenblatt 98-102)
The United States would now embark on a war in which it was not sure the US had a chance to win. The US could have tried to resolve its differences with Britain diplomatically, but as Jay’s Treaty and the Monroe-Pickney Treaty had shown, it would be hard to resolve their problems through treaties and there was no guarantee that the British would abide by its terms.
Although there were many reasons for America to enter the War of 1812, there were several reasons for America to not enter the war. If America and Britain tried a little hard, they could have solved their problems through diplomacy. If the War Hawks and Madison had been more patient and even waited two more days, the announcement of the suspension of the Orders in Council would have reached the US and this could have led to peace. The US Army and Navy wasn’t ready to battle with one of the strongest armies and navies in the world. A war also could hurt trade with Britain, their number one trading partner, which is why the Federalists were so Anti-war during the debate. The US was very split over entering the war as evidenced by actions in New England. (Nardo pp 39)
If Madison and Congress would have been more patient, we could have avoided war through diplomatic means. On May of 1812, the British offered to give the US an equal share of their trade with Europe, which they authorized under special licenses. The British, in effect, were offering to suspend the Orders in Council in practice if the US merchants would conduct their trade with Europe under British licenses. Thinking that accepting the British offer would be equal to surrendering US independence, the Americans rejected the proposal. When their was no response to Madison’s demand to Britain to remove their Orders in Council by May 1812, many decided time had become to fight. What the Americans did not know was that Madison’s embargo had been working. Many British politicians argued that the country needed American trade and called for the suspension of the Orders. But members of the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval’s wanted to keep the Orders. On May 11, 1812, Perceval was killed, bringing the government to a standstill. Now lacking Perceval’s support, his followers agreed to suspend the Orders on June 16, but news of the event did not reach America until it was too late. On June 18, 1812, after the major obstacle to peace was removed, the US declared war on Britain. (Nardo pp 41-43)
When Madison was recommending the war to the American public, he stressed “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” as the leading cause of the conflict. But, In New England, which owned three-fourths of America’s merchant fleet and home to most seamen, opposed the war. Most of the Northeast did not partake in the war. Many New Englanders saw Britain as their only hope against Napoleon and condemned Madison for going to war. (Nardo pp 45-46)
Another reason why America was unjustified for going to war was because America was not ready for war. The seven thousand men in the army were badly prepared and did not have the experience for such a war. The army morale was low as well as the supplies for soldiers. There was little money in the Treasury to pay for the supplies. The early attacks were weakly planned and unsuccessful. Madison had to consider a draft because enlistment in the army was so low, but he decided not to because New England would have sceded if he did so. (Nardo pp 56-58)
The war would have been difficult to win, expensive, and military forces had to be spread over vast stretches of land and sea. The navy lacked fire power and vessels needed to defend thousands of miles of coastline.
Overall, America was justified for entering the war. Previous efforts of diplomacy were unsuccessful and Britain never abided by treaty rules. Britain had continued its abuses toward America by the Orders in Council, impressment, and supplying the Indians on the frontiers in their battles against white settlers.
Greenblatt, Miriam. The War of 1812; America at War. New York: Facts on File, 1994
Nardo, Don. The War of 1812. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1991.