Tag Archives: 1812

The US Declares War on Britain

There is no need to panic regarding this fanciful Daily Express style headline. For one thing, the President-elect has not yet got his hands on the nuclear codes, so we have some breathing room ahead of any US invasion of the United Kingdom. If this were to happen, I would assume it would be a bold mission to build a plethora of exclusive new golf courses across Scotland. In any case, this article is referring to a war which occurred over 200 years ago, when the British were doing the invading.

In what is a relatively little known event – far from the special relationship of today – back in 1812, the United States declared war on Britain. It was a conflict that lasted for almost three years, but the war has been overshadowed in the public consciousness by the preceding revolutionary war and the ongoing Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps most crucially in preventing the War of 1812 sustaining a wider appreciation is that – whilst it was far from being a sitzkrieg – it was certainly not the epic struggle on the scale of so many other wars, especially those of the 20th century. Furthermore, even though there was ferocious fighting on land and sea, when all was said and done, there were no significant land grabs or concessions. Neither side really lost, apart from, tragically, the Native Americans.  

After several years of tensions, the first war ever declared by the new United States of America was a byproduct of Britain’s life-or-death struggle with France. The British and French had both attempted to control the fledgling new democracy’s external trade, but it was the British restrictions that were proving egregiously untenable for the US. The Americans saw themselves as a proud new republic, whose honour was being challenged by its domineering former master. US President, James Madison, held a popular domestic view (though one certainly not held by all) that American interests were being trampled over and war was the only answer. Madison felt that the US was being treated as a trivial pawn in a battle between the British and the French, and this could not be tolerated.

The British imposition of financially injurious trade decrees were not the only reason for war. Now, you may think that you like to be impressed; we all do, right? But back in 1812, you might feel differently. Let me explain. The Royal Navy did not have too much trouble in acquiring enough sailors in peace time, but during war, it was trickier, So, if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you were liable to be impressed – that is, forced – to serve your country on the high seas. The real issue here was that the British were impressing naturalised US citizens, completely disregarding the men’s identification with their new homeland. The British stopped and searched American ships, and if you were formerly British, or still British but serving the US cause due to its better pay and conditions, you risked being scooped up. As far at the British saw it, war was war, and needs must. The Americans did not see it that way. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the US was distinctly unimpressed.

Another point of contention, quite a big one, as it goes, was Canada. Former US President, Thomas Jefferson, was confident that easy gains were up for grabs from the British, and predicted that acquiring Canada “will be a mere matter of marching.” Like so many American invasions since, it was not that simple. Jefferson wrongly believed that the Canadians would lay down their arms and welcome the Americans. This was not only inaccurate, but worse still, it stirred up an uprising from Native Americans. A conglomeration of tribes worked together against American settlers, and were given weapons by the British to assist them in their efforts. As ever, the British were nothing if not ruthlessly pragmatic, and hoped that the tribes could be utilised as a buffer between the US and Canada. As it turned out, the tribes were not only emphatically crushed, they were later forced to cede hundreds of thousands of acres of land to the US. History can be so very cruel. Much like the Americans, the British also shed no tears for the plight of their beleaguered allies. After all, British sovereignty of Canada remained secure. The trail of tears would belong only to the anguished native inhabitants.

Events in Canada would have striking consequences in Washington D.C. By modern contrast, from the genesis of his unlikely run for the Presidency, Donald Trump campaigned on an incendiary promise to tear down the establishment of American politics. But even the enigmatic future leader of the free world will be unable to outdo the glorious efforts of the British on August 24 1814. The British, in calculated vengeance for a US attack on Port Dover (near modern-day Toronto), dutifully burned down buildings across Washington, including the Presidential Mansion. This mansion was later repaired, and is now known by a more familiar name, the White House. It was the first and only time the US Capitol was occupied by a foreign power. The British were also responsible during the War of 1812 for another part of the American national identity, the national anthem. The famous Star Spangled Banner anthem originates from the British attack on Fort Henry in Baltimore during September 1814. The British bombardment was devastating, but it did not dislodge the US flag from flying defiantly above the fort. This observation was immortalised in the poetry of a witness, Francis Scott Key. The poetry was later put to a piece of music, which, ironically, was borrowed from a British drinking song.

As the war progressed, the Americans were fearful of the Imperial British retaking its former colony, and the hawkish British press were hopeful that such a result was achievable. However, this US fear was not something the British government thought was realistic. Certainly, the Americans, still finding their feet as a developing sovereign nation, had only a limited naval force. But both sides were not at full strength, with the British Navy fully stretched due to more prescient commitments against Napoleon’s forces. The paradox was that Britain could not fully commit to the War of 1812 because of its focus on the European scene, but of course, if it was not for the struggle with France, there would not have been a war with America to begin with.

Fortunately for both sides, and for the special relationship of later years, peace was not long in coming. With France’s collapse and Napoleon’s defeat, there was no longer any reason for the British to impose the inflammatory fiscal decrees and impressment. The rationale for both sides going to war had been extinguished, and talks took place to thrash out an agreement on Christmas Eve 1814 in Ghent. The signed treaty was rather scant in detail, which was apt for a war in which nothing was achieved by either side.

However, despite the stalemate, like a plucky lower league side securing a valiant nil-nil with Chelsea in the FA Cup, it could be argued that this was a moral victory for the US. The Americans had not fallen back into British hands. The invaders were gone and were not coming back. The times were quickly changing, and in the following century, the once all-mighty British turned to their former colony for assistance in balancing the power of Europe against the emergence of new aggressive coalitions.

In point of fact, one could argue that the US did not merely draw the War of 1812, but that they scored a dramatic winner in extra time. Communications were slow back in 1814, so despite the peace being agreed in Europe, the news had not yet reached the combatants in New Orleans, where the home side smashed the Brits in January 1815. If any one individual scored the winning goal, it was the US General, Andrew Jackson, whose man of the match performance during the battle would later assist in propelling him to the US presidency. This last-minute winning goal, although perhaps ruled offside by the peace treaty, was significant in forging US pride and nationalism, and further ensuring that the British respected the emerging American superpower as a force to be reckoned with.


Further information

The War Of 1812, In Our Time, (BBC Radio Four, 2013).

R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, (Baltimore: University of Illinois Press, 2012).