James Madison and the Road to the War of 1812


For almost 29 years the United States of America had been peaceful from large scale international war. However, when war exploded in Europe, America was once again thrown into European affairs. Revolutionary France declared war on Great Britain in 1793. The United States desired to remain neutral in political affairs while involved in overseas trade commerce with both nations. This created great tension and eventually resulted in a war with Great Britain in 1812. As President Madison stressed, U.S. neutral rights were a principal reason for war but along with this reason were the desire for geographic expansion into Canada, and to end British support and alliance with the Native American tribes.

Violation of U.S. Neutral Rights

In President Madison’s argument for going to war that was written to Congress, he stressed the point of U.S. neutral rights as the principal reason for going to war. In 1807, Great Britain had put into place several trade restriction laws to destroy trade relations between America and France. Great Britain was involved in a great war with Napoleonic France and did not allow America to help the enemy though international laws claimed that they had every neutral right to do so. Great Britain’s goal was not to engage in war with America, but rather to win the war they were already engaged in with France. They did so by means of trade restrictions and impressments.

To defeat France, Great Britain required sailors, resulting in impressments. British sailors began to board American merchant ships and reclaim not only British sailors but kidnap American sailors. The policy of impressments was supposed to allow only the reclamation of British subjects, however Great Britain failed to recognized British subjects who had received American citizenship certificates as the true American’s that they were. Between 1806 and 1812 six thousand American sailors were taken captive and forced to serve in the Royal Navy against their will. Because of this violation of the policy of impressments Britain was viewed as the worst of the culprits in trade restrictions and the violation of U.S neutral rights.

Expansion into Canada

However, neutral rights were not the only principal reason for declaring war as Madison may have stressed it to seem. In an allusion to Jesus being taken up to the mountain by the devil and tempted with ruling all the nations of the earth, John Randolph showed that the devilish greed for Canadian territory also spurred on the declaration of war.

Gaining ‘northern influence’, or rather Canadian territory as a bargaining chip temporarily was a goal of the American war hawks. As a result of the British arming the Indians in an attempt to stop western settlement, American’s believed that conquering Canada would be an easy way to force Britain into changing trade policies. They also saw Canada as a means to an end of British influence and support for American Indians. Expansionism was a powerful underlying reason for political leaders desire to declare war on Great Britain.

Great Britain and the Native Americans

Madison’s argument for going to war also includes mention of the activity and alliances between Great Britain and the tribes on the frontier. In addition to the violation of neutral rights and lure of Canadian territory the War of 1812 also seemed like a temptation for the revenge and future prohibition upon Britain for support of the Indians in their resistance against American government. American’s on the frontier blamed Great Britain for the instigation of a rebellion among the Native American tribes.

Political figurers argued that Native American tribes would never have thought of rebelling against the American government without the influence of another power. The British had continued their role as resolving disputes between the tribes and encouraging their alliance to keep American’s out of Ohio. In violation of the Treaty of Paris, Great Britain continued to occupy forts on American territory and supply tribes with arms to fight America. The War of 1812 was influenced by the desire to destroy Native American resistance on the frontier.

The temptation of geographic expansion into Canada contributed to the argument for war along with the desire to destroy Native American resistance on the frontier.