The War of 1812: A Young America Asserts Itself
In the early years of the 19th century, the greatest foreign policy challenge facing the young American republic was the ongoing war between Great Britain and France, a conflict that began in 1793. Though President Thomas Jefferson followed a policy of neutrality in the conflict, both France and Britain interfered with American trade, seizing U.S. ships and cargoes. Jefferson responded with the Embargo Act of 1807, which cut off trade with both combatants. This measure failed to starve Britain into milder behavior and also angered American merchants, especially in the Northeast.
James Madison succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809. Relations with the British grew worse when Madison presented Congress with a report detailing instances in which the British had forced American citizens into service on British ships, a practice known as "impressment." In addition, Americans in the Northwest Territory were being attacked by Indians that the settlers suspected had been incited by British agents in Canada. By 1812, war fervor in the U.S. was raging everywhere except in the Northeast. On June 18, the United States declared war on Britain.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the Sept. 6, 1814, issue of the War (New York, New York)
Hostilities began with an American invasion of British Canada, which did not go well. On the sea, however, the U.S. Navy scored successes. In addition, privateers (legalized pirates) captured hundreds of British vessels during the fall and winter months of 1812-1813. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry continued this trend when he crushed the British fleet on Lake Erie. General William Henry Harrison led a successful campaign against the British-allied Indians of the Northwest. A year later Commodore Thomas Macdonough drove back a British invasion force of 10,000 men by depriving them of naval support on Lake Champlain. Nevertheless, the British fleet harassed the Eastern seaboard under orders to "destroy and lay waste." In August 1814, a British expeditionary force routed American militia in Maryland, marched to Washington, D.C., and left the city in flames. President James Madison and the whole government fled.
British and American negotiators conducted talks in Europe. The British envoys decided to concede, however, when they learned of Macdonough's victory on Lake Champlain. They accepted the Treaty of Ghent, and it was signed on Dec. 24, 1814. It provided for the cessation of hostilities, the restoration of conquests, and a commission to settle boundary disputes. However, word of the treaty did not reach a British invasion force in time to prevent the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815. Led by General Andrew Jackson, the United States scored the greatest land victory of the war, ending British hopes of reestablishing influence south of the Canadian border.
While the British and Americans negotiated, New England Federalists gathered in Hartford, Connecticut, to express opposition to "Mr. Madison's war." With a possibility of secession from the Union in the background, the convention proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would protect New England interests. Instead, the end of the war, punctuated by the smashing victory at New Orleans, stamped the Federalists with a reputation for disloyalty from which they never recovered.
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