Over the years The United States of America has forged itself a reputation of declaring wars. Ironically, declaration of war was most justified in one of its least acknowledged conflicts, the War of 1812. The United States was justified in its attack on British North America, which was a colony of Great Britain at the time. The reasons for this justification were Great Britain’s breach of Maritime rights, their support for the Natives, who were waging war against the United States, and the impressments of American naval men.
One of the most profound reasons that the United States declared war on Great Britain in June of 1812 was because of Britain’s blatant disregard of the Maritime Rights guaranteed to the United States. In the year 1806, the Napoleonic war raged in Europe. Napoleon, the leader of France, was in complete economic, military, and social control of Continental Europe. Napoleon created the Continental System, which prevented continental Europe from participating in any trade with Britain, in the hope that this would cripple one of his last opponent’s economy. However, Napoleon lacked the naval power to enforce a decree such as this. On the other hand, Britain’s naval power was strong enough to enforce maritime law. Britain declared that no ships could proceed to continental Europe without first obtaining a license. This decree also entitled Britain to search ships at its discretion, and confiscate any cargo that they deemed ‘contraband’.
America took no part in the European conflict, and therefore practiced their right to freely trade with any country that offered economic benefits. Europe presented many lucrative trading partners, of which the United States sought to take advantage. However, as a result of the British decree, American trade was greatly hampered, and a negative economic effect was widely felt. Many American ship captains halted potential trading with Europe for fear that their ships would be boarded, and their cargo taken by British captains. The American public saw this as a breach of United States
neutrality, seeing as their choice was to take no part in the Napoleonic War. This abuse of Naval power by Great Britain was a powerful justification for the declaration of War by the United States so as to protect and establish fair maritime trading.
Eventually British naval pressure on the United States completely stopped American trade with Continental Europe. “If possible, England wished to avoid war with America, but not to the extent of allowing her to hinder the British war effort against France.”
The British trade embargo on the United States caused outrage among American citizens, particularly those who lived on the Atlantic coast. Their livelihoods were established through trade with Europe. The British decree was a clear violation of the neutral stance the Americans had taken in the European war. The impact felt by Americans played a very important role in the formation of the group known as “The War Hawks.”
The War Hawks were a group of people, who strongly believed it was the American government’s duty to declare war on Britain. They felt that through Britain’s violation of United States neutrality, they had already begun waging war. Tremendous pressure from the war Hawks was put on President Madison, and Congress. The War Hawks are credited for garnering the public support needed for the declaration of war. Britain’s blatant disregard for America’s Maritime Rights truly justified the War hawks argument that the United States needed to end their neutrality and declare war on Britain.
The popular anecdote, “an enemy of my enemy is a friend” often applies to wars, in which it is beneficial to form alliances. Yet, the euphemism “a friend of my enemy” might be more appropriate in the case of the War of 1812. This saying demonstrates how the British-Native relationship affected the United States decision to declare war. Up to the time of the War of 1812, the British had a very close trade partenership with the Native people. At the same time the United States was involved in a brutal and vicious territorial war with the Natives, who saught to halt the advancement of American colonists.
The British trade relationship with the Natives was not a common one. Not only did they simply trade with the Aboriginals, but the British gave gifts to the Natives as well. These gifts included food and clothing, and more importantly weapons and ammunition. The British were trading with an Amerian enemy, and were supplying them with the very weapons they used to wage their territorial war. Ironically, it was the British who were stopping American ships from crossing the Atlantic, on the grounds that they could not have them supporting an enemy of Britain. This hypocrisy was seen as extremely arrogant, and caused much pro war sentiment among the citizens of the United States.
There was a conception amongst most Americans, particularly the North-Western colonists who were the most affected, that the British were using the natives as a catalyst to wage war against the United States. In fact, the British “were widely believed to be fomenting anti-American sentiment among the Indians.” This support of a brutal enemy of American enemy was just another reason the Americans were justified in their declaration of war on Britain.
The support of the Natives was a reason for growing resentment among American colonists. The Natives were waging a bloody battle, which lead to the brutal murder of many colonists and their familes. Yet, it was unlikely that this war could have continued without the support of the British. The British had several deals with the Natives, which included the giving of gifts at certain times of the year. Natives were given access to British Forts where they would be given free weapons, and ammunion. In turn, they used these British “gifts” to wage war on American colonists. This practise was viewed upon by the American people as enticement to continue the American-Indian war. In fact the British were trying to encourage the formation of a Native People state, which would act as a buffer between the United States and British North America. The Government and people of America strongly opposed this idea, and this disagreement further promoted resentment towards Britain.
The War of 1812 was brought on by several arrogant and aggressive British acts. However, none had as great an implication as Britain’s impressment of United States Naval men. For hundreds of years, the British had relied on their seemingly invincible navy to protect themselves against invasion. They also used their mastery of the seas to set up trade blockades, and cripple there enemy’s economy. However, this Navy was very costly to maintain. Everytime a war ended, the British would lay off the majority of their naval men, and even burn some of their ships. So when war was declared, Britain often had to scramble to regain it’s mastery of the seas. To get the required man power to run their ships, the British often had to rely on impressment of their own citizens.
Impressment is defined as “the act or policy of seizing people or property for public service or use”. In Britain, during war time, Press gangs were known to roam the streets, and assaualt and capture drunks or other derelicts who stumbled out of taverns late at night. These people were forced into service with the British Navy, which in itself was an arduous life. In the Navy, living conditions were terrible, pay was almost non-existant, and life expectancy was short. This led to a great deal of British Navy desserters, who in most cases fled to America, to plead for American citezinship. The United States often employed these men in their own navy, where the pay and living conditions were considerably better. However, it was this practice of employing British deserters that lead to the mistakes that were the main cause of the War of 1812.
British Naval captains were notorious for their arrogance. Most were little better than pirates, confiscating cargo, and taking prisoners at will, without official government consent. Their tendency to board ships made many American captains anxious during an Atlantic voyage. Yet all this was eclipsed by British captain’s propensity for demanding that all British desserters be returned to a British ship, regardless of current citizenship. This lead to the mistaken impressment of many American-born navy men. The United States Government, and the pro-war group The War Hawks, viewed this as ai extreme violation of United State’s neutrality, and more than enough cause to go to war with Britain.
Despite the imposing might of the British Empire, the relatively new country of America declared war on them. In fact, many Americans to this day refer to the War of 1812 as the “Second War of Independence.” The British left the United States no choice in declaring war, because most of the citizens and Government of the United States were furious with the injustices commited on them by the arrogant and overzealous British. The violation of America’s Maritime Rights, the support of an American enemy, and most importantly, the kidnapping and impressment of American Naval men, was more than enough justification for the United States of America to declare war on British North America in June of 1812.
Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004, 39)
Adams Henry, The War of 1812 (New York: Cooper Square, 1999, 28)
Mark Zuehlke, For Honors Sake: The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace (Toronto: Random House Of Canada, 2006, 52)
Wesley B. Turner, The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won ( Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2000, 12)
Oxford: Canadian Dictionary, s.v. “Impressment”
George F.G. Stanley, The War of 1812: Land Operations (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1999, 26)