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Second War of Independence

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Second War of Independence

Why did the United States declare war on Britain in 1812? Resentment at British interference with American rights on the high seas was certainly the most loudly voiced grievance. "Free 'Trade and Sailors' Rights" was a popular battle  cry. British trade restrictions, impressment of thousands of American seamen, and British blockades humiliated the country and undercut ,America's national honor and neutral rights.

But if British harassment of American shipping was the primary motivation for war, why then did the pro-war majority in Congress come largely from the South, the West, and the frontier, and not from northeastern ship-owners and sailors? The vote to declare war on Britain divided along sharp regional lines. Representatives from western, southern, and frontier states voted 65 to 15 for war, while representatives from New England, New York, and New Yersey, states with strong shipping interests, voted 34 to 14 against war.

Northeastern Federalists and a handful of Republicans from coastal regions of the South regarded war with Britain as a grave mistake. The United States, they insisted, could not hope to successfully challenge British supremacy on the seas and the government could not finance war without bankrupting the country. Above all, a war carried serious international implications, placing the United States clearly on the side of Napoleon in his struggle with Britain. John Randolph, a Republican, pleaded that the United States not enlist "under the banner of the tyrant."

Southerners and westerners, in contrast, were eager to avenge British insults against American honor and British actions that mocked American sovereignty on land and sea. Many southerners and westerners blamed British trade policies for depressing agricultural prices and producing an economic  depression.

War with Britain also offered another incentive: the possibility of clearing western lands of Indians by removing the Indians' strongest ally the British. And finally, many westerners and southerners had their eye on expansion, viewing war as an opportunity to add Canada and Spanish-held Florida to the United States.

Weary of Jefferson and Madison's patient and pacifistic policy of economic coercion, voters swept 63 out of 142 representatives out of Congress in 1810 and replaced them with young Republicans that Federalists dubbed "War Hawks." These second-generation Republicans avidly supported national expansion and national honor. These young Republicans elected Henry Clay, a representative from frontier Kentucky, Speaker of the House on his very first day in Congress. Clay then assigned other young Republicans, such as John C. Calhoun, a freshman representative from South Carolina, to key House committees.

Having grown up on tales of heroism during the American Revolution, second-generation Republicans were eager to prove their manhood  in a "second war of independence." Even Thomas Jefferson same to share their eagerness. War, said the former president, would be "the second weaning from British principles. British attachments, British manners and manufactures." Staunchly nationalist and rabidly anti-British, eager for territorial expansion and economic  growth, the young Republicans regarded the Napoleonic Wars in Europe as an unparalleled opportunity to defend national honor, assert American interests, and conquer Canada and Florida.

Further contributing to their prowar fervor was the belief that the British incited frontier Indian attacks. Anti-British feeling soared in November 1811, when General William Henry Harrison precipitated a fight with an Indian alliance led by the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa, an Tippecanoe Creek in Indiana. More than American soldiers were killed and 100 were wounded. Since British guns were found on the battlefield, young Republicans concluded that the British were responsible for the incident.

Although Congress voted strongly in favor of war, the country entered the conflict deeply  divided. In the presidential election of 1812, Madison was reelected by a narrow margin: 128 electoral votes to 89. The toss of a single state Pennsylvania—would have thrown the election to the Federalists, many of whom were already vocal in their opposition to war. One Boston editor summed up the popular feeling in his region. No one, he wrote, "conceives it his duty to shed his blood for Bonaparte, for Madison or Jefferson, and that Host of Ruffians in Congress." Not only would many New Englanders refuse to subscribe to war loans, same merchants would actually ship provisions that Britain needed to support its army, which was fighting Napoleon in Europe.

Early Defeats

The United States was woefully unprepared for war. The array consisted of fewer than 7000 soldiers and the navy was grotesquely overmatched. Whereas the British navy had more than 100 warships with more than 90 cannons, almost 250 ships with 50 guns, and 32 frigates carrying 38 guns, the United States had 3 frigates with 44 guns and 3 others with 32 to 38 guns. Along with a grossly inadequate army and navy, the United States had very few trained officers. Most were, in Madison's words, "survivors of the revolutionary band ... disqualified by age or infirmities."

The American strategy called for a three pronged invasion of Canada and heavy harassment of British shipping. The attack on Canada, however, was a disastrous failure. At Detroit, 2000 American troops surrendered to a much smaller British and Indian force. An attack across the Niagara River, near Buffalo, resulted in 900 American prisoners of war when the New York State militia refused to provide support. Along Lake Champlain, a third array retreated into American territory after failing to cut undefended British supply Tines. By the end of 812, British forces controlled key forts in the Old Northwest, including Detroit and Fort Dearbom, the future site of Chicago. The only consolation for the Americans was a string of naval victories in single ship encounters.

In 1813 America suffered new failures. In January, an American army advancing toward Detroit was defeated and captured in the swamps west of Lake Erie. Then, in April, Americans staged a raid across Lake Ontario to York (now Toronto). American soldiers set fire to the two houses of the provincial parliament, an act that brought retaliation in the burning of Washington, D.C., by the British. A plan to capture Montreal in the fall of 1813 also ended without an attack.

Only a series of unexpected victories at the end of the year raised American spirits. On September 10, 1813, America won a major naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie near Put-in-Bay at the western end of Lake Erie. There, Master-Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, who had built a fleet at Presque Isle (Erie, Pennsylvania) successfully engaged six British ships. Though Perry's flagship, the Lawrence, was disabled in the fighting, he went on to capture the British fleet. He reported his victory with the stirring words, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

The Battle of Lake Erie was America's first major victory of the war. It forced the British to abandon Detroit and nearby Fort Malden in Canada and retreat toward Niagara. On October 5, 1813, Major General William Henry Harrison overtook the retreating British army and their Indian allies at the Thames River. He won a decisive victory in which the Indian leader Tecumseh was killed, thereby ending the fighting strength of the northwestern Indians.

The Tide Turns

In early 1814, prospects for an American victory dimmed. In the spring, Britain defeated Napoleon in Europe, freeing 18,000 veteran British troops to participate in an invasion of the United States. The British planned to invade the United States at three points: upstate New York across the Niagara River and Lake Champlain, the Chesapeake Bay, and New Orleans. The London Times accurately reflected the confident English mood: "Oh, may no false liberality, no mistaken lenity, no weak and cowardly policy interpose to save the United States from the blow! Strike! Chastise the savages, for such they are.... Our demands may be couched in a single word—Submission!"

At Niagara, however, a small American army stopped the British advance in hard-fought battles at Chippewa and Lundy's Lane. Then, at Plattsburgh Bay on Lake Champlain, American naval farces commanded by Thomas Macdonough placed British supply lines in jeopardy, forcing 11,000 British troops to retreat into Canada. Outnumbered more than three to one, American forces had halted Britain's invasion from the north.

In a second attempt to invade the United States, Britain landed 4000 soldiers on the Chesapeake Bay coast. But no one knew if the British planned to march first on Baltimore or on Washington, D.C. The answer was Washington, where untrained soldiers lacking uniforms and standard equipment were protecting the capital. The result was utter chaos. While President Madison was inspecting the troops and offering encouragement, he narrowly escaped capture by British forces.

On August 24, 1814, the British humiliated the nation by capturing and burning Washington, D.C. President Madison and his wife Dolley were forced to flee the capital—carrying with them many of the nation's treasures, including the Declaration of Independence and Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. For 72 hours, the president was forced to hide in the Virginia and Maryland countryside. The British arrived so soon after the president fled that the officers dined on a White House meal that had been prepared for the Madisons and 40 invited guests.

Britain's next objective was Baltimore. To reach the city, British warships had to pass the guns of Fort McHenry, which was manned by 1000 American soldiers. Waving atop the fort was the largest garrison flag ever designed-30 feet by 42 feet. On September 13, 1814, British warships began a 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry.. British vessels anchored two miles off shore—close enough so that their guns could hit the fort, but too far for American shells to reach them.

All through the night British cannons bombarded Fort McHenry, firing between 1500 and 1800 cannon balls at the fort. In the light of the "rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air," Francis Scott Key, a young lawyer detained on a British ship, saw the American flag waving over the fort. At dawn on September 14, he saw the flag still waving. The. Americans had repulsed the British attack, with only 4 soldiers killed and 24 wounded. Key was so moved by the American victory that he wrote a poem entitled "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the back of an old envelope. Soon, the words of the poem were sung to an old English tune, "To Anacreon in Heaven." The song was destined to become the young nation's national anthem.

The country still faced grave threats in the South. In 1813, the Creek Indians, encouraged by the British, had attacked American settlements in what are now Alabama and Mississippi. Frontiersmen from Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, led by Major General Andrew Jackson, retaliated and succeeded in defeating the Creeks in March 1814, at the battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. When the Creek War ended, Jackson proceeded to cut British supply lines in the South. He knew that Spain, supposedly neutral, had allowed Britain to use the Florida port of Pensacola as a base of operations for a planned invasion of New Orleans. In a week, Jackson marched from Mobile, Alabama, to Pensacola and seized the city, forcing the British to delay their invasion.

But, on January 8, 1815, the British fleet and a battle-tested 10,000-man army finally attacked New Orleans in an attempt to seize control of the mouth of the Mississippi River. To defend the city, Jackson assembled a ragtag army, including French pirates, Choctaw Indians, western militia, and freed slaves. Although British forces outnumbered Americans by more than 2 to 1, American artillery and sharpshooters stopped the invasion. American losses totaled only 8 dead and 13 wounded, while British casualties were 2036, including their commanding officer. Almost 400 British soldiers were killed. Ironically, Jackson's astonishing victory at the battle of New Orleans took place two weeks after the signing of the peace treaty ending the War of 1812.

These negotiations had commenced in Ghent, Belgium, in August 1814. Having just defeated Napoleon in Europe, Britain was eager to punish its one remaining enemy—the United States. Therefore, British negotiators demanded retention of British forts on United States soil, cessions of territory in Maine and New York, and an independent state for Britain's Indian allies in the American Northwest. American negotiators, who had been told to accept no treaty that did not explicitly end Britain's impressment policy, rejected these demands. But when the negotiations dragged on, the Americans decided to ask Britain for a return to the conditions that existed before the war. Britain, now convinced that the American war was so difficult and costly that nothing would be gained from further fighting, accepted the American proposal. On December 24, 1814, a peace treaty was signed. None of the issues over which Americans had fought the war  ---impressment, naval blockades, or the British Orders in Council—were mentioned in the peace treaty.

The Wars Significance

Although often treated as unimportant, a minor footnote to the bloody European war between France and Britain, the War of 1812 was crucial for the United States.

First it effectively destroyed the Indians' ability to resist American expansion east of the Mississippi. Native Americans were crushed in the North by General William Henry Harrison and in the South by General  Andrew Jackson. Abandoned by their British allies, the Indians made the best treaties - they could. Reluctantly, they ceded most of their lands north of the Ohio River and in south and west Alabama to the U.S. government.

Second, the war strengthened America's position relative to Spain in the South and Southwest. It allowed the United States to rewrite its boundaries with Spain and solidify control over the lower Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Although the United States did not  succeed in conquering Canada or defeating the British empire, it had fought the world's strongest power to a stalemate. Spain recognized the significance of this fact, and in 1819 Spanish leaders abandoned Florida and agreed to an American boundary running clear to the Pacific Ocean.

Third, the Federalist party never recovered from its opposition to the war. Many Federalists believed that the War of 1812 was really fought to help Napoleon in his struggle against Britain, and they had opposed the war by refusing to pay taxes, boycotting war loans, and refusing to furnish troops. In December 1814, delegates from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and several counties in New Hampshire and Vermont gathered in Hartford, Connecticut. There they recommended a series of constitutional amendments to restrict the power of Congress to wage war, regulate commerce, and admit new states. The delegates also supported a one-term president (in order to break the grip of Virginians on the presidency) and abolition of the three-fifths compromise (which increased the political clout of the South), and talked of seceding if they did not get their way.

The proposals of the Hartford Convention became public knowledge at the same time as the terms of the Treaty of Ghent and the American victory in the Battle of New Orleans. Euphoria over the war's end led many people to brand the Federalists as traitors. The party never recovered from this stigma and disappeared from national politics.


Early in the evening of February 11, 1815, the British sloop Favourite, flying a flag of truce, entered New York Harbor bearing copies of the peace treaty ending the War of 1812. By 8:30 P.M., the news had spread throughout the city. Bells pealed and cannons boomed. Cheering crowds congregated in the streets, carrying candles. Despite bungling, incompetence, and threats of disunion, the new nation had fought Britain to a draw and affirmed its independence. Niles' Register summed up the prevailing mood: "Who would not be an American? Long live the Republic! All hail! Last asylum of oppressed humanity."

Between 1800 and 1815, the Jeffersonian Republicans had increased the nation's size, opened new lands to western settlement, and won international respect for American independence. In a climate of war and revolution, the new nation acquired Louisiana and the Southeast, defeated powerful Indian confederations in the Northwest and South, and evicted British troops from American soil. What emerged from this period was a strong, confident, and united nation.


      Bron America and Its People Second edition    James Kirbin Martin e.o. Uitgeverij harper Collins 1993 ISBN 067346363X student edition. De pagina’s  250 en 251, 254 t/m 257 en  260   in Shapter 8 The Jeffersonians in Power, 1800/1815.