America’s Second Struggle for Liberty

When James Madison asked for a declaration of war on June 1st, 1812, the United States had been an independent country for one year shy of three decades. Since independence, the republic proved time and time again to European monarchs that “we the people” could govern ourselves without a noble class and a king and queen.

In the 29 years since our Founding Fathers won independence, the United States doubled in size with the Louisiana Purchase and fought two wars against the Barbary Pirates and one against the French. We also managed to stay out of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792 – 1802) and the Napoleonic War (it began in 1802 and ended in 1815) raging in Europe.

At the same time, the nascent United States economy was booming. Trade with England grew yearly, yet its share of the total was declining as U.S. merchants bought and sold goods in kingdoms throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. For U.S. merchants, the war in Europe was good for business since we could provide food and raw materials. On the return voyages, ships were loaded with immigrants who wanted to escape from the wars, the poverty, and the lack of choice and opportunity in “old Europe.”

As a country, the U.S. was blessed with abundant land (all of Europe could easily fit in the boundaries outlined in the 1783 Treaty of Paris) and natural resources. When the War of 1812 began, the Industrial Revolution was underway in the United States. Five more states had joined the union – Vermont in March 1791, Kentucky in June 1792, Tennessee in June 1796, Ohio in March 1803, and Louisiana in April 1812.

But all was not well in these United States. One, the Royal Navy, desperate for men to man its ships fighting the French, continued to impress (kidnap) American seamen.

Two, despite the clause in the Treaty of Paris saying the British would leave all its forts in what we called the Northwest Territories, they had not. Despite several diplomatic attempts to get the British to abandon the forts, they refused. Worse, they were arming and inciting the Native Americans against the settlers.

Three, British trade policies outlined in the British War Council placed restrictions on U.S. trade with Great Britain and interfered with our stated neutrality. British policies gave the Royal Navy the authority to seize any ship carrying any cargo headed for a port in a country allied with France.

Rather than confront the British and demand they stop impressing American citizens, Jefferson encouraged the Democratic-Republicans who controlled both houses in Congress to enact a series of measures that restricted trade with European nations that were at war. These were not popular and actually caused the U.S. economy to contract. (See 4/13/23 post We’ve Tried Embargoes Before – ).

Jefferson’s view was that to go to war meant that the U.S. would have a standing army and navy and to pay for them, the government would have to go into debt. Both concepts were anathemas to Jefferson and James Madison, who wanted the Federal Government to have a minimal role in U.S. society that they saw as primarily agrarian, not industrial. (See 7/17/22 post – Jefferson’s National Defense Conundrum – ).

Most Americans saw English policy as an affront to the U.S.’ honor. The majority believed the British were arrogant in thinking they could control trade from their former colony. (See 3/20/22 post – Jefferson’s Foreign Policy Mess – ).

Finally, after several incidents such as the U.S.S. Chesapeake and H.M.S. Leopard (see 7/31/22 post The Chesapeake-Leopard Incident ,, even James Madison had had enough. On June 1st, he went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war against England.

At the time, Henry Clay, one of the leaders of the War Hawks, succinctly summed up the reason for war as “a second struggle for our liberty,” Once again, the United States was about to take on the world’s richest, most powerful country. And once again, thanks to Jefferson’s policies of not funding a standing army and navy, the U.S. started with an untrained, ill-equipped army. Our navy, which had distinguished itself 10 years before in the Mediterranean, was a shadow of itself.

George Munger’s 1814 painting of the Capitol Building after being burned by the British Army.

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