EARLY AMERICAN HISTORY
The War of 1812 - American Independence
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Commonly called America’s Second War of
Independence, the War of 1812 was a major conflict with Great Britain
in the early years of the nineteenth century. Unlike the
American Revolution, the causes of the War of 1812 were far more economically
and politically motivated rather than idealistic.
Instead, the War of 1812 pitted the
fledgling United States, barely twenty years old, against Great
Britain in a conflict that centered on the recognition of American
commercial and political rights. Specifically, the reasons included
trade restrictions brought about by Britain's ongoing war with France,
the impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy,
British support of
Indian tribes against American expansion,
and outrage over insults to national honor after humiliations on the
The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783
Revolutionary War and established the United States among
the nations of the world. The treaty, however, neither guaranteed the
new nation’s survival nor ensured that the powers of Europe would
respect its rights. In upholding its rights to trade freely with all
of the world’s countries, the United States government struggled to
find a balance between military preparedness and diplomacy. The
prolonged wars between Britain and France (1793-1815), kicked off by
the French Revolution, greatly complicated America’s ability to
protect the rights of its shipping and sailors. Additionally, many
Americans along the nation’s western frontier believed that the
British in Canada encouraged Indian raids on their settlements.
American Revolution, the United
States sought to insulate itself from European affairs and focus on
building up the new nation.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address
of 1796, laid out this policy of American neutrality in European
"The great rule of conduct for us, in
regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations,
to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe
has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very
remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies
the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence,
therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by
artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the
ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities."
However, this would prove to be impossible, as the French Revolution
sent Europe into political upheavals. Both the British and the French
expected American support during the war and would not accept American
neutrality in the matter. Both sides attacked and impounded American
shipping, trusting that the United States Navy was unable to respond
effectively to this violation of American neutrality.
The British, confident that the
American experiment in democracy was doomed to failure, continued to
harass American merchantmen and impress American seamen. Desperate for
sailors to man their warships, British captains increasingly boarded
American ships and “impressed” sailors into service, claiming that the
merchant seamen were deserters from the Royal Navy. In the meantime,
British agents in North America supported insurrections by
American tribes against the United States government in the Old
Northwest. America’s efforts to preserve its neutral rights by
stopping all trade with the warring powers had no effect, other than
to hurt the U.S. economy.
At the same time, the American alliance with the French, dating back
American Revolution was beginning to unravel. The first forts
built in the United States, beginning in the 1790’s, were designed and
overseen by French military engineers. However, with the French
Revolution and the United States’ neutral stance, the alliance was
soon tossed aside. Attacks by the French on American shipping led to
an undeclared naval war from 1798 to 1801, known as the Quasi-War.
When war between Britain and France started up again in 1803, Britain
forbade neutrals, including the United States, from trading with
France and her allies. Many Americans believed Britain’s measures were
an attempt to re-impose colonial status on them.
With the breakdown with the French, the United
States badly needed to design and build its own fortifications and
Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams, the commandant of the Army Corps of
Engineers and the superintendent of the United States Military Academy at
West Point, was assigned the task. Williams was a relative of Benjamin
Franklin’s and while Franklin spent the
American Revolution in Paris
negotiating the French alliance, Williams studied military engineering
from the same engineers who would soon become America’s enemies. Full of
these ideas, Williams was selected to improve American coastal
fortifications in the years leading up to the War of 1812. From 1807 to
1811, Williams designed and completed construction of Castle Williams and
Castle Clinton in New York Harbor.
After all the diplomatic issues with Great
Britain, from preventing trade to impressing sailors, the United States
declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
President James Madison’s war message to
Congress echoed the language of the
Declaration of Independence.
Less than a month later, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams resigned
from the Army in July, 1812 because the Secretary of War, William Eustis,
refused to give him command of Castle Williams. At that time, the State of
New York appointed Williams in charge of
construction of fortifications for New York City.
Although the outbreak of the war had been preceded by years of diplomatic
disputes, neither Britain nor the United States was prepared. Britain was heavily
engaged in war with the French and in the United States, the military was
understaffed and the government did not have the money to finance the war
properly. President Madison assumed that the state militias would easily
seize Canada and that negotiations would follow. However, from the
beginning, the war was extremely unpopular, especially in New England,
which would later make threats of secession.
The U.S. Army, consisting of fewer than 12,000
men, was not nearly enough to achieve Madison's goals. Congress authorized
the expansion of the army to 35,000 men; however, the service was
voluntary, offered poor pay, and there were few trained and experienced
officers. Britain exploited these weaknesses, blockading only southern
ports for much of the war and encouraging smuggling.
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