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The Causes of the War of 1812

Noontime Seminar:  October 10, 2003


Thesis:  From 1789 to 1812, the United States tried to implement a variety of policies towards Britain and France in order to avoid war with either country.  After this long period of attempting diplomacy with Britain, James Madison is ultimately pushed into the War of 1812 because of Britain’s inability to recognize American neutrality rights, the aggressive British impressment system, and a wave of sectional nationalism that put a new group of Republicans in Congress.


I.                   Background:  US caught in the Middle 1803-1808

a.      From 1803-1808, the US wanted to maintain trade relations with Britain and France, as well as maintain neutrality towards the renewed Napoleonic wars.


b.      Britain and France blockade each other

                                                              i.      Essex decision: (1805)  Declared broken voyages illegal.  Attempt to blockade Europe.  Kept US from transporting goods from French colonies to France.


                                                           ii.      Continental System (Berlin and Milan Decrees):  Napoleon’s response was to deny Britain access to the European market.  Seized all British goods and excluded every ship which had stopped at a British port.


                                                         iii.      British Orders in Council:  Extended British blockade.  Declared any ship an enemy of Britain that tried to enter a French port without first stopping at a British port to pay a fee and get a license.


                                                         iv.      Virtually outlawed all American trade.  Made it impossible for US to maintain neutrality.


c.       Impressment & the Chesapeake Incident

                                                              i.      While both sides abused American sailors/ships, the Americans were more humiliated by the stronger Royal Navy


                                                           ii.      Impressment – Allowed Britain to search US ships for deserters (and seize them.)


                                                         iii.      June 1807:  USS Chesapeake (gov’t ship) was attacked by the Royal Navy.  


II.                 The Embargo Act and its Repeal and its Repeal…

a.      Embargo Act (1807):  forbade the departure of American merchant ships for foreign ports.  Embargo Act repealed (1809)


b.      Nonintercourse Act (1809):  reopened trade with all nations except for France and Britain.  Failed because of widespread smuggling.


c.       Macon’s Bill No. 2 (1809):  Repealed the Nonintercourse Act; reopened trade with France and Britain; if either nation ceased its violations of American neutrality, non-intercourse woul be revived against the other. 


d.     Nonintercourse Act of 1811:  when Napoleon promised to repeal the Berlin and Milan Decrees, Madison announced he was establishing non-intercourse with Britain unless it did the same.


III.            Declaration of War

a.      After months of debate, Madison yielded to pressure from the “War Hawks” in Congress


b.      After a close vote in favor of war by Congress, Madison signed the war declaration on June 18, 1812.


c.       Two days later, after realizing the British economy was suffering from the lack of American food and markets, repealed the Orders in Council  Too little, too late.  Diplomacy (which had lasted since 1789) had failed.


IV.            Summary of the Causes of the War of 1812

a.      British violations of neutral rights

                                                              i.      Britain felt that in the case of two world powers warring, there could be NO neutral countries

                                                           ii.      US felt they were on a moral high ground, even with a very weak military.  European wars were not of concern to them.

b.      Impressment

c.       British Recruitment of Native Americans (Mr. McHale)

d.     Recession (1808) in the South and West.  Recognition that British policy was affecting the U.S. economy.

e.      War Hawks:  Land Hunger and Expansionism (Mr. McHale)


f.        Ultimately Madison was swayed into believing Britain was truly out to strangle the American economy (Jefferson had disagreed.)