Wednesday, March 28, 2012
War of 1812 Wednesday, Part I, Causes and Background of the War
To understand the causes of the War of 1812, which was a conflict many in the United States did not want, it is essential to know a little bit of the global politics of the day. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, following the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte had made France the ruler of continental Europe. The French were able to defeat Spain, Prussia, Austria, Russia and other powers with Great Britain alone holding out because her naval mastery kept Napoleon from invading the British Isles. As a result, both sides declared blockades against each other to bring economic pressure to bear against their enemy. This effected the United States which, as a neutral power, had been making money hand over fist selling supplies to both sides. The United States protested these blockades, but against the naval might of Great Britain, could do very little about it, nor were all Americans sympathetic to the French regime of Napoleon.
The British later apologized for the incident, but the overall situation continued. The United States tried to retaliate by passing the Embargo Act which stopped all foreign trade, and as a result almost ruined the entire economy of the New England states which depended on commerce for their livelihoods. It also hurt southern states which could not sell cotton or tobacco to Britain, virtually shutting off their only income. After 15 months this nonsense was stopped, but none of the other actions taken had any effect either. Moreover, when the United States promised to restore free trade with any nation that lifted her restrictions, Napoleon pretended to do so hoping to incite America to join his war against the British. He would soon get his wish and actions such as this only made Britain view America as not only less than neutral but supportive of the dictator Napoleon and his conquest of Europe.
That same year, negotiations with Britain continued to go nowhere and the aggressiveness of the United States was growing, fueled by a desire for expansion and conquest. President James Madison forbid all trade with Britain and asked the Congress to prepare for war with the British Empire. The country, however, was not united on the subject of war. The so-called "War Hawks" were mostly from the southern and western states under such men as Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. They were eager most of all for the conquest of Canada. During the American Revolution Canada had been invaded but British and Indian troops under Sir Guy Carleton had defeated the attempt and many in the US were anxious for revenge. National arrogance played a great part in this. Many Americans were so convinced of the superiority of their country and government that they believed the Canadians would welcome their invasion with open arms. One politician, commenting on the weak defenses to the north remarked that the Kentucky militia alone would be enough to conquer Canada. Indeed, with Britain locked in combat with Napoleon, Canada seemed like a huge, undefended prize simply waiting to be taken.
This view was not universal though. Many New England states were totally opposed to a war with Britain. Conquering Canada mattered little to them in comparison to how their economy would be ruined by cutting off all trade with the British Empire. The problems so far had already taken a heavy toll on their businesses and many were not prepared to tolerate conditions becoming any worse. Many people in the US also sympathized with Great Britain carrying on the fight against Napoleon and were not happy with the prospect of effectively entering a world war on the side of a French dictator bent on conquest. The divisions became so heated that the same month war was declared riots broke out in Baltimore against the anti-war Federalists which raged for four months. The War of 1812 was probably the most unpopular war the United States ever fought up until the Vietnam conflict. Yet, as many as there were who opposed the war, there were many more who favored aggressive action against Britain. These people believed in the "Manifest Destiny" of the United States to rule all of North America and war with Britain seemed the perfect way to finally wipe out the British-backed Indians hindering US occupation of the Northwest Territory, grabbing the vast expanses of Canada as well as perhaps taking Florida from Britain's Spanish ally.
Continued next week with "1812 - The First Year"