The War of 1812: you know when, but do you know why?
The War of 1812 is less familiar to many readers than the other wars which America has fought, as reflected in the subtitle of the definitive history of the war, Donald R. Hickey’s The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
While the causes of the war are summed up in the slogan “Free Trade & Sailors’ Rights!” the actual causes of the war were several and nuanced. The reasons the U.S. Congress voted (by a narrow margin) to declare war included not only British interference with foreign trade (with which France had at times interfered even more), a series of border disputes and incidents at sea insulting to U.S. sovereignty, lingering American gratitude for French help in the War of Independence, British encouragement of tribal resistance to white settlement in the Northwest Territory, and the dream of a conquest of Canada. Britain, on the other hand, regarded growing tensions with the United States as a distraction amidst its decades-long, global struggle with Republican and then Napoleonic France, and saw American “free trade” merely as war profiteering which supplied the French and their allies with vital supplies.
The “Sailors’ Rights” half of the slogan addressed the protection of crew-members on American merchant vessels from “impressment” into Britain’s navy. Shortfalls in naval manning levels as the struggle with France stretched on for decades led the British government to turn to impressment, or seizure of individual British subjects and their forcible enlistment in the Royal Navy. Within the British Isles, this was the function of the Impress Service, which was a sort of Selective Service mechanism in which the only element of selection was a merchant seaman’s bad luck in crossing paths with a Press Gang. At sea, Royal Navy ships stopped merchant vessels, particularly American ships and, under the pretext of recovering deserters and pressing British subjects, impressed American sailors as well.
No one knew exactly how many thousand American sailors had been taken hostage in this way, how many of them forced to face the dangers of life “before the mast,” a harsh system of naval justice that relied on flogging to enforce discipline, the perils of disease, and the threat of death from accident, illness, or in battle.
Want to know more? Beyond Donald Hickey’s definitive history and Theodore Roosevelt’s old but still gripping The Naval War of 1812 (1882; reprinted, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987), the fullest account of the long march to war remains Henry Adams’ History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison (New York: Library of America, 1986). More recent and more concise accounts are provided by Ralph Ketchum in James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990) and in Chapter 3 of Stephen Budiansky’s Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 (New York: Knopf, 2010). A good on-line summary of the War of 1812 and its causes is provided by the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission at its site: http://starspangled200.org/History/Pages/Welcome.aspx The United States Army’s official account of the War of 1812 (which mentions in passing the accomplishments of the United States Navy) is available on-line at http://www.history.army.mil/books/amh/amh-06.htm.