President Madison and the War of 1812

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

James Madison was president of the United States during the War of 1812. Explore the issues America was facing at the time Madison was elected, discover key people and their significance to the war, and learn about the important battles. Updated: 08/19/2021

Madison's Trouble in the West

When Thomas Jefferson announced his retirement, his secretary of state and the 'Father of the Constitution,' James Madison, was easily elected the fourth president of the United States, continuing the Virginia dynasty. He inherited a mess. The economy was struggling, he essentially had a war on two fronts and the political system was in shambles. Sounds like the kind of problems modern presidents have had to deal with.

First, let's go back - back to the beginning. Native Americans had lived up and down the East Coast until Europeans came. Ever since that time, they'd been pushed steadily westward into conflict with whites and each other. They had been safe beyond the Proclamation Line after 1763, but then the 1783 Treaty of Paris delivered all of that land into American hands, and white settlers poured in. It seemed there was nowhere safe for many tribes to go. Native Americans found themselves faced with a dilemma: join 'em or beat 'em? Madison had taken office when a group based in present-day Indiana finally decided to try and beat 'em.

Tecumseh and his brother organized violent opposition against the U.S. government
Tecumseh Opposition

A Shawnee leader named Tecumseh and his brother (who was commonly called 'The Prophet') organized a social network to revive native religion, resist all white ways and oppose the U.S. government. They believed they would gain a northwest state for themselves. After building Prophetstown at the junction of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers, they began attacking settlements. The governor of the newly created Indiana Territory was General (and future president) William Henry Harrison. After learning that the British were supplying money and weapons to Tecumseh, Harrison attacked and destroyed Prophetstown at the Battle of Tippecanoe. However, the resistance and attacks on settlements continued on as part of the broader War of 1812 until Tecumseh himself was killed.

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  • 0:10 Madison's Trouble in the West
  • 2:10 Madison's Trouble in the East
  • 4:05 Fighting the War of 1812
  • 6:25 Ending the War of 1812
  • 8:25 Lesson Summary
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Madison's Trouble in the East

The War of 1812 is kind of a black hole in American history. Most people know that it happened, but not many people seem to know anything about it. So let's start with some big things: Two future presidents were heroes of the War of 1812. The White House was burned down. America's national anthem, the 'Star-Spangled Banner', was written during one of its battles. And, it's why the Native Americans ended up west of the Mississippi River. If you can accept that these events make the War of 1812 worth understanding, maybe you can believe that this so-called 'second war of independence' is when Britain finally acknowledged that the United States had grown up and moved out, so to speak.

Since taking office, Madison had been trying to maintain U.S. neutrality in the Napoleonic Wars. But Britain seemed determined to drag its former colonies into war. Congress lifted the Embargo Act of 1807, but then Britain interfered to keep America from trading with France. More importantly, the British navy had a desertion problem. Many sailors who had been pressed into service jumped ship as soon as they had the chance, so for years the British fleet had been stopping American ships to search for their deserters, sometimes pressing American citizens into service to boot.

The trade restrictions and impressment controversy were frustrating, but each of them alone wasn't really enough for President Madison to want to declare war on Britain. But then you add in the fact that Britain had been helping the Indians fight on the frontier, and together all of these factors were just a little too much for some people. The so-called 'War Hawks' in Congress convinced President Madison to declare war in June 1812. Federalists in the Northeast strongly opposed the war, but they didn't have enough clout to keep the President from being reelected that year.

Fighting the War of 1812

President Madison hadn't really been prepared for a prolonged war. He was under the delusion that with Britain at war with France, the state militias could easily capture Canada, and a treaty would quickly follow. But Britain had its own army and navy, plus the coalition under Tecumseh and Canadian troops. The invasion of Canada was a total failure. But three battles in 1813 did help the U.S. get control of the western frontier. First, William Henry Harrison secured Detroit and finally defeated Tecumseh in the same fight. Then Commodore Oliver Perry captured an entire British naval squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie. Farther south, General (and another future president) Andrew Jackson defeated the Creek nation in 1814, subduing the Indian resistance. It wasn't a moment too soon for the Americans, since the war in the East was about to get a lot more difficult.

The White House and Capitol building were set on fire by British troops
White House Burned

Britain's Royal Navy had finally run Napoleon out of town and put France in its place. Now they turned all of their attention to fighting America. The British navy waged fierce war at sea, and troops poured into the East Coast, fighting costly battles against weak American militia forces. They set fire to Washington, D.C., including the Capitol building and the White House. Thankfully, most of the city was saved by a freak rainstorm, and the president's wife, Dolly Madison, had the foresight to rescue some treasured items from their home, including George Washington's portrait and possibly an original copy of the Constitution.

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