Monday, January 10, 2011

The War of 1812: Free Trade and the Legitimacy of the United States

Per Scriptum E. Wesley – Mackinac Center Intern

As Americans celebrate the 196th anniversary of the most decisive day during the Battle of New Orleans, the causes of war are becoming obscure and bear remembering. By 1812, the British had effectually denied the rights of trade, neutrality, and legitimate nationhood to the United States. Great Britain decided to search American trade vessels for goods sold to Napoleonic France and seize American shipmen to fight in the English war against France under the charge that they were really deserted Englishmen. The very survival of the United States rested on the principles of free trade, and upon these grounds, it would stand or fall.

Causes of the War of 1812

Because the War of 1812 is now shrouded in myth, a return to the original source material is necessary to understand America’s perspective in the early 19th century. President James Madison’s address to Congress explains decisively the British atrocities committed against American shipmen, the frontier, and the Federal Government. Madison reminded Congress that the British in seizing American shipmen on neutral American trade vessels without “the exercise of a belligerent right founded on the law of nations against an enemy” were acting on the “municipal prerogative” of British subjects and putting Americans under British jurisdiction. Britain, in applying their own domestic rules to the open sea, was violating America’s just claim as a legitimate nation to traverse the seas according to the law of nations. In so arguing, Madison assumes that free trade determines the international existence of a nation. Without free trade, a nation is being denied nationhood. Although strange to modern ears, Madison believed this atrocity jeopardized American political existence.

Then, Madison transitioned from general to particular evils. American shipmen being seized for British military service were not given a trial before a tribunal to prove that they were American according to laws of war, and were instead subjected to the whims of British commanders. These Americans were deprived of their country and all that they held dear, while being forced on board British naval ships to fight the wars of the very people who had abducted them. The repeated petitions of the American government were met with indifference. Madison further related how, under British orders, British ships swarmed the American coasts, ignoring American territorial jurisdiction and hindering American importation and exportation. The British would only repeal these orders if France repealed certain domestic and international decrees not exclusively relevant to the United States. Madison concluded from this that the loss of American commerce was not based upon the war rights of Britain, but upon British attempts at monopoly beneficial to its own commerce. In other words, the conflict was between British monopolization and American free trade of the seas.

Transitioning from the Atlantic to the American Western frontier, Madison added that the frontier atrocities of Native Americans against United States citizens were supported and supplied by British garrisons and tradesmen. Regarding the brutal nature of these attacks, he called the aggression “a warfare which is known to spare neither age nor sex and to be distinguished by features peculiarly shocking to humanity.”

Madison concluded, “We behold ... on the side of Great Britain, a state of war against the United States, and on the side of the United States a state of peace toward Great Britain.” Would America defend its liberty or allow Britain to usurp it?

President Madison’s war proposition was given over to the Foreign Relations committee headed by John C. Calhoun. Calhoun addressed the House of Representatives on June 3, 1812 with a request for war. Echoing the arguments and sentiments of Madison, Calhoun declared, “from this review of the multiplied wrongs of the British Government since the present war, it must be evident to the impartial world, that the contest which is now forced on the United States, is radically a contest for their sovereignty and independence.” Given the choice between recognizing an already-existing war or giving up independence, Congress declared war on the same day. Conceived in liberty, the War of 1812 proved America’s strength to preserve the liberties of free trade. Oliver Hazard Perry's victory on Lake Erie, William Henry Harrison’s triumph in the Midwest, Thomas Macdonough on Lake Champlain, the siege of Fort McHenry, and the all-conclusive Battle of New Orleans served to rid the United States of British tyranny that had so long hindered American settlement and free trade. It is fitting that the Star-Spangled Banner was composed during the War. The United States had matured into national adulthood.

The War of 1812

However, American victory was perhaps least expected during the majority of the war. Two American campaigns to invade British Canada failed during 1812 and 1813. Detroit even surrendered to Britain in August of 1812, before Perry managed to liberate it in the Battle of Lake Erie (Sep. 10, 1813). Fleeing from Detroit, the British encountered American General William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames (Moraviantown) and lost on October 5, 1813. Chief Tecumseh died in the battle, and the frontier was now secured for the Americans. The East didn’t look so good.

Having just defeated Napoleon, the British in 1814 began concentrating their fleets and soldiers toward the United States in ever increasing numbers. They planned to strike New York, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson River in an attempt to split New England from Union. By winning the Battle of Bladensburg that August in the Chesapeake Bay, the British trooped on to Washington DC and burned the Capitol. President Madison fled, and complete destruction now faced the United States.

As the British marched on to Baltimore, they besieged Fort McHenry, but the fort withstood the siege. Seeing the American flag in the September morning breeze, Francis Scott Key wrote the hope-giving words of the Star-Spangled Banner. With 10,000 veterans from Montreal moving down to the United States, another victory was necessary. Such a victory came on September 11, 1814, when the American Captain Thomas Macdonough defeated the British in Plattsburg Bay on Lake Champlain. Not wishing the risk of severed communications, the British retreated back to Canada. Then, American General Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. The United States had achieved a stalemate with Britain. Although some claim that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the conclusion of the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent required that both countries sign it, and the United States didn’t sign it until February. The United States had beaten back the British from their shores, and was now ready to begin a century of industry and entrepreneurship unequaled in the world.

Image of USS Constitution vs Guerriere from Wikipedia
Image of Battle of New Orleans from Wikipedia,+a+free,+and+a+powerful+nation.&source=bl&ots=x-35ZIzIx2&sig=0CFbovKkmGmcseF3OIYlSWHOfAs&hl=en&ei=zhUnTaGyHaLunQekkrW4AQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CDoQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q&f=false


  1. Not only are the causes of the war becoming obscure, but the war itself (at least in America). So many history books go from the Rev. War to the "Civil War" with only a minimum on the War of 1812. I hope that the bicenntenial draws some attention to it.

    As a side note, isn't it ironic that a war fought over free trade on the sea would become the most unpopular in New England?

    -Peter Bringe
    Deo Vindice

  2. I think the bicentennial will certainly be big for reenactors (especially here in Michigan with the Battle of Lake Eire). My state owes its existence to the War of 1812. I can't wait...


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