War of 1812: Causes & Effects

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  • 0:01 America's Second War…
  • 0:15 The Road to War
  • 2:19 Reasons for War
  • 4:54 The War
  • 7:13 The Effects of War
  • 8:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Lobb
In this lesson, you'll examine the events that led to the War of 1812, as well as the effects that the war had on a young American nation. Then, you'll be able to test your understanding with a short quiz.

America's Second War for Independence

The War of 1812 with Great Britain is often referred to as America's Second War for Independence. Although President James Madison asked Congress to declare war in 1812, the stage for war had been set at least a decade before.

The Road to War

In the early part of the 19th century, France and England renewed hostilities endemic in the previous century. American shippers reaped the benefits of such hostilities, taking over trade with French and Spanish territories in the Caribbean. In 1807, the British put in place the Orders of Council, meant to impede American trade with France because they were at war.

Any goods shipped in violation of that rule could be seized, according to the British, and throughout the first years of the 19th century, British interference with American shipping increased. Although risky, the prospect of huge profits compelled American shippers to roll the dice. Sailors faced the scary prospect of being imprisoned by the British Navy if captured. British Naval vessels even harassed American Navy vessels.

In 1807, the British vessel Leopard attempted to seize the U.S. frigate Chesapeake. The captain of the Chesapeake refused to be boarded and the British fired on the ship, killing three Americans and wounding several others. The British clearly saw the U.S. as a threat to their maritime supremacy and did not have a problem restricting U.S. trading, despite U.S. neutrality. President Thomas Jefferson responded by persuading Congress to pass an embargo, but trade was too profitable and, despite the risks, violating the embargo brought almost no consequences, as enforcement was seriously lacking.

In 1808, James Madison became president, carrying on the dynasty of Virginian presidents. Forced to deal with foreign affairs from the start, Madison followed Jefferson's policy, but reopened trade with countries other than France and Great Britain. Madison also made a provision allowing the president to re-engage warring countries in trade depending on which one relaxed restrictions on American shipping and goods. The British would give in, hoping to avoid war, but by June of 1812, Madison moved forward asking Congress for war.

Reasons for War

The main cause of the conflict was neutral rights, or freedom of trade and the right to remain neutral. This theme dominated Madison's message to Congress and was the rallying cry of Americans against the British. However, the young American nation was not united in this push to war, and it became divided along geographic lines.

The farm regions of Pennsylvania and areas south and west were filled with supporters of war. The maritime states of New England and New York, which bore the brunt of British seizures, interestingly voted largely against war. The reason for this anomaly was clear. The farming regions suffered damage to their markets for cotton, tobacco, and grain, and American shippers in the Northeast made huge profits in spite of British seizures and harassment of ships.

In addition, conflict with Native Americans on the frontiers of the Southern farming regions was frequent. Settlers were moving faster and further west ahead of government surveys, often persuading Native Americans to sign treaties that worked against their interests. Under the leadership of the Shawnee activist Tecumseh, many of the tribes affected by the westward push of settlers attempted to unite in an effort to fight such expression.

Governor William Henry Harrison of the Native American territory gathered a force and set out to attack Tecumseh's capital. Native Americans conducted a pre-emptive strike, attacking Harrison at the Tippecanoe River. The Native Americans lost a bloody battle that also left about a quarter of Harrison's men dead or wounded. It was only later that Harrison realized he had, in fact, defeated the Native Americans, most of whom fled to Canada after the fighting.

The Battle of Tippecanoe reinforced suspicions that the British were aiding the Native Americans on the frontier and inciting them to fight westward expansion by settlers. To stop such hostilities, Americans living on the frontier reasoned that foreign influence in the region must be removed. Many even saw the complete conquest of Canada as a way to rid the continent of British influence and open land for settlement and farming.

Such concerns generated a war fever. When the Congress met in late 1811, there were many new Southern members who began calling for war in defense of what they referred to as 'national honor.' Representatives such as Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina were quickly labeled 'war hawks.'

The War

The hawks would, of course, not get Canada. Madison had thrust a country into war that was ill-prepared for a fight. At the outset of the war, the American Army had about 6,700 men who were ill-trained and poorly equipped. Most of the senior military leadership had fought in the Revolution. The Navy, however, was in comparably good shape. The ships were well-maintained, all sixteen of them, and American sailors had real-world experience fighting in Tripoli and against French raiders.

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