Causes of the U.S.’s Second Struggle for Liberty

Most think that when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3rd, 1783, everything was hunky-dory. Our Founding Fathers had rebelled against arguably the richest and most powerful country in the world and had come out on top.

But like most peace treaties, enforcement is much more difficult than the negotiations. According to the treaty, the British were supposed to leave the territory they ceded to the new United States of America. Thanks to the treaty, the U.S. owned all British territory south of the Canadian border, east of the Mississippi and north of Florida.

In 1803, we bought what became the Louisiana Territory which, as a practical matter, doubled the size of the United States and extended its border with Canada. Unfortunately, none of the country’s original borders nor the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase were accurately surveyed and therefore could be disputed. Once the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned in 1806, Jefferson and the other leaders of the Federal government had more insight, but not a comprehensive “view” of what was purchased from France.

Relations with the U.K. in the first decade of the 19th Century ranged from tense to contentious. On this side of the Atlantic, war was inevitable. The most popular reasons historians give for the June 18th, 1812 declaration of war are:

  1. Stop British interference in U.S. trade;
  2. End impressment of U.S. seamen into the Royal Navy; and
  3. Cease British support for Native Americas resisting westward expansion.

Two more causes led Madison and his fellow “War Hawks” to declare war that don’t get nearly as much ink are:

  1. End British presence in North America and create an independent Canada or annex it;
  2. Restore U.S. honor after the S.S. Chesapeake was illegally boarded and four U.S. citizens impressed into the Royal Navy

The leading War Hawk was James Madison’s Secretary of State, John C. Calhoun from South Carolina who spoke of the need for a “Second struggle for our liberty….”

While Madison was Jefferson’s Secretary of State, he concluded that British policy toward the U.S. in North America was one of containment. By supplying Native American tribes in what we called the Northwest Territories (modern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana) with arms and encouraging them to attack American settlers, the British were in clear violation of Article 7 of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The Brits maintained the forts were trading posts. The U.S. made several diplomatic attempts to get the British to cease and desist and all failed.

Some historians contend that the British wanted to create a buffer state of Native Americans between British Canada and the U.S. Given the fact that many of the leaders of the U.S. and England participated in the American Revolution and remembered the U.S. invasion of Canada gives credence to this theory.

However, during the period leading up to the War of 1812, Great Britain was engaged in a titanic struggle for supremacy with the French. Given that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were global in nature, the last thing the Brits needed was new theater where they were fighting an enemy.

And yet, the British continued policies and actions that irritated the Americans. So the question is why?

This historian believes that it was a combination of arrogance (the Americans won’t fight back) and anger (we’re still pissed at losing the American Revolution). Many British leaders who were in power during the American Revolution believed England was embarrassed by its defeat and wanted revenge. They still had influence on British foreign and economic policies and helped concocted policies that stuck sharp needles into the eyes of the Americans with the goal of goading the Americans into a war in which they could reacquire the land they lost.

It didn’t turn out that way, but for the U.S. the War of 1812 was a near thing.

Image is British drawing of the bombardment of Fort William McHenry.

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