Mr. Madison’s War of 1812

This week (June 18) in 1812, President James Madison signed a war declaration against America’s former colonial ruler, Great Britain, after Congress — for the first time in American History — voted to declare war against another nation.  It became known as the War of 1812, although its many detractors, mostly members of the opposition Federalist Party, preferred calling it “Mr. Madison’s War,” especially when, in 1814, the war was going so badly for America that the British faced little resistance when they invaded Washington, D.C., and burned down several government buildings, including — famously — the White House.

America’s casus belli was Great Britain’s attempt to blockade all trade, including American trade, with Britain’s traditional enemy, France, which was badly hurting America’s fledgling economy.  Also, needing crews to man its expanding navy, British ships were stopping American ships on the high seas and “impressing” — essentially hijacking — American seamen to serve as crew on British ships, which was a violation of international law and an affront to America’s pride.

The actual war was a see-saw affair and although British military forces dwarfed America’s, as they did during the American Revolution, the British army (like all invading armies) faced myriad logistical, communications and re-supply disadvantages.   What’s more, its navy, by far the world’s greatest, was unable to impose its will on an overmatched but scrappy American navy that gained a number of victories in the Great Lakes and Atlantic.  At the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, for example, American frigates defeated a British fleet and gained control of the key city of Detroit, while another American fleet wrestled control of Lake Champlain from the British, thereby thwarting their intended invasion of New York.

It also helped the American cause that British attempts to prevent neutral nations from trading with France necessitated that much of the British fleet be devoted to that effort.  As a result, Britain was essentially fighting two wars on both sides of the Atlantic costing, by some estimates, 11 million pounds a year.  Roughly speaking that meant it cost Britain $50,000 a year for every American seaman its navy “impressed,” which was hardly a cost-effective way to staff its ships.

Thus Great Britain was as amenable to ending the war as America, actually approving the war-ending Treaty of Ghent two months before the U.S. Senate did.  That treaty satisfied neither party, although it ultimately led to the permanent end of the British presence in America and gained for America a new international respect.  Thus “Mr. Madison’s War” not only did not hurt him politically, as his Federalist opponents hoped, it gave America a new sense of confidence that it was finally an independent member of the family of nations.