The War of 1812

James Madison, President during the War of 1812

In June 1812, U.S. President James Madison asked Congress to declare war against Britain in what some called the “Second War for Independence.”

In the first decade of 1800, Europe was ravaged by war between France and Britain. Across the Atlantic, both the British and French continued trading with the U.S., but they also worked to sabotage each others’ trade, thus harming the U.S. in the process.

The U.S. tended to favor the French over the British due to America’s traditional alliance with France dating back to the War for Independence. In addition, Britain had employed a policy of impressment, in which the Royal Navy stopped U.S. ships at sea and impressed, or forced, U.S. sailors into British naval service. Americans denounced this practice as an infringement on their freedom on the high seas.

Furthermore, by 1812 many young congressmen from the new western states clamored for war against Britain. These “War Hawks” wanted war because they believed the British were inciting Indian uprisings in their region. The “War Hawks” also sought to seize Canada from Britain and possibly even Florida from Spain, a British ally.

Attempts to Conquer Canada

Almost immediately after declaring war, the U.S. began mobilizing to invade Canada. However the Americans suffered many setbacks: U.S. forces surrendered both Forts Dearborn (now Chicago) and Detroit, an attack on Queenston was beaten back, and an expedition on Lake Champlain failed when the state militia units insisted on their constitutional right not to be sent outside their states.

On the other hand, U.S. forces managed to defeat the British at the Thames and Chippewa. Also U.S. troops burned York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. However a Canadian invasion at Montreal failed in late 1813, and this marked the final U.S. attempt to conquer Canada.

Battles at Sea

Surprisingly, the makeshift U.S. Navy managed to win 80 percent of the war’s sea battles. These victories included the USS Constitution compelling the British Guerriere to surrender; the Constitution’s resilient hull gave her the nickname “Old Ironsides.” Also a U.S. fleet under Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British on Lake Erie; Perry declared, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Conversely, the most significant British victory on water was the Shannon’s defeat of the USS Chesapeake off Boston in June 1813. In addition, the British blockaded U.S. naval ports, which nearly destroyed the U.S. economy.

British Counterattacks

When war in Europe ended in 1814, the British began sending reinforcements to North America in a three-pronged offensive designed to split the U.S. into thirds.

The Lake Champlain offensive failed when the U.S. Navy scored a spectacular victory over the British. The Chesapeake Bay offensive was more successful, as the British invaded Washington, DC and burned the White House and the Capitol. However the offensive faltered when the British failed to take Baltimore. The British bombardment of Fort McHenry outside the town inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

By the fall of 1814, the New Orleans offensive had begun when a large British army was sent to invade New Orleans from the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, many Americans clamored for peace as officials negotiated a settlement in Belgium.

Secession Threats, Peace and Victory

Most New Englanders had opposed the war from the start, mainly because their primary trading partner was Britain. Consequently many engaged in illegal trade with the British, and some even openly sided with the enemy. In the winter of 1814, disgruntled New Englanders even attended the Hartford Convention, where they discussed seceding from the Union.

In December 1814, negotiators from the U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812 in stalemate. The U.S. withdrew its major demands under the tacit agreement that Britain would honor them anyway, and territorial disputes were referred to commissions, where they stalled for decades.

News of this treaty had not yet reached the U.S. when the British attacked New Orleans on January 8, 1815. A 3,000-man British Army attacked fortified U.S. positions commanded by General Andrew Jackson and was severely defeated. This made Jackson a national hero, and it also made the Treaty of Ghent more acceptable to Americans.

The War of 1812 showed that the U.S. could stand up to the most powerful nation in the world. By earning British respect, the U.S. would be more respected by European nations in future negotiations. More than anything else, this was why the War of 1812 has sometimes been called the “Second War for Independence.”


  1. Haythronthwaite, Philip J.: The Napoleonic Source Guide (London, England: Arms and Armour Press, 1991)
  2. Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael: A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc., 2004)
  3. Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving: The People’s Almanac (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., Inc. 1975)