War of 1812 Bicentennial

Home > Historic Works > Books > Annals of the War > The Causes of the War: Annals of the War

The Causes of the War: Annals of the War

The Causes of the War

The War of 1812 was a legacy of antipathies from the War of Independence. The latter came to an end in 1783; and a lapse of thirty years had hardly been sufficient to allay the suspicions, in the minds of those who had demanded their independence and had secured it after much shedding of blood, that Great Britain would be only too ready to make reprisal for what she had lost of colonial prestige on the continent of America, whenever opportunity presented itself. After the war was over, these suspicions were fomented by a spirit of intolerance towards every resident of the new independency who had sympathized openly or covertly with the mother country in her efforts to maintain her ascendency in transatlantic affairs; and when a way of escape from the local intimacies that made them a mark for the persecuting spirit was given to these residents, thousands of them making homes for themselves in Canada, it can readily be understood how the boundary-line between Canada and the new republic came to be more or less of a mere treaty-fence over which Anglo-Saxon enmities stared at one another with something like bloodshot in their eyes, waiting patiently or impatiently, for reprisal's sake, until war had again been declared between Great Britain and the United States. In the nature of things, there could hardly be much love lost between the United Empire Loyalist settled in Canada and his previous persecutors across the line, much as there was in earlier times no love lost between the French-Canadian and the New Englander. And thus it was, when President Madison declared war against England on the 19th of June, 1812, his invading armies found themselves face to face with a Canadian patriotism—Loyalist and French-Canadian—that was prepared to uphold to the death the British connection, as the Canadian yeomanry rallied in the open field with the redcoats of British birth and discipline, to save Canada from the invader. This the invading generals soon found out, even before a musket had been fired; their proclamations promising every advantage, should the Canadian colonists change their allegiance, having little or no effect save the arousing of scorn and indignation.

And yet, in face of the bitterness between the colony and the republic, there was anything but unanimity within the borders of the latter, when it culminated in the open strife of the battlefield. Indeed, but for the politicians, the proclamation of war might have been obviated, as far as the direct voice of the people was concerned. The claim advanced by the politicians that the republic had won its freedom but not its independence, when the Treaty of Peace had been signed at the close of the War of Independence, had come to be more of a party shibboleth than a national conviction. In President Madison's day, there was not a State in the Union without its "peace-party" as a set-off to its "war-party." Madison himself at first showed no great eagerness in favour of open hostilities; and it was not until he had been assured by his party intimates that there was no chance of his being re-elected to his high office, should he fail to implement the demands of those who had made up their minds to have war proclaimed, unless he undertook to favour open war. The influence of the so-called "war party" was paramount in Congress; and Madison took a first step to place his views concerning war on record, by incorporating certain phrases in a presidential message to Congress, which insinuated that Great Britain had virtually been at war with the United States for years back, even while the United States were the advocates of peace. And, as if to discover to the world the inconsistency of the message, with discretion finally thrown to the winds, Congress decreed, by a vote of nineteen to thirteen, on the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker's Hill, that the president should at once proclaim war in actual fact, the proclamation to be couched in these words: "War is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof and the United States and their Territories."

Thus it was that the politicians brought into service, for their own ends, the reciprocal antipathies that had been left as a legacy from the War of Independence. Through their husting-vapourings these antipathies became inflamed from New England to Virginia with varying intensity. "We have complete proof," said Henry Clay, "that England would do everything to destroy us"; while John C. Calhoun, in a moment of oratorical ecstasy, assured his hearers that the proof of Mr. Clay's statement was as palpable as would be the nation's degeneracy, were it any longer to submit to Great Britain's pretensions of superiority whenever international questions came up for consideration between the two countries. Yet, in face of all such pleading on the part of the leaders of the "war-party," the Legislature of Massachusetts passed a resolution against open warfare—a remonstrance followed up by the people of Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New York. John Randolph, from his place in Congress, implored the Madison administration to act with the greatest caution in proceeding to open hostilities; while that veteran statesman, Josiah Quincy, was not slow to maintain that a declaration of war with Great Britain was tantamount to placing the United States in vassalage to France and its ultra-ambitious autocratic emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon Bonaparte was at this time master of the continent of Europe. From victory to victory he had reached the zenith of his renown, as one of the greatest of potentates. But for England, nothing seemed to be able to withstand his prowess in the battlefield. In 1806, with no naval resources compete to wrest the ascendency of the seas from Britain, he thought to do an injury to that country's commerce, by issuing what is known as the Berlin Decree, which virtually forbade English vessels from trading with the ports of France or other countries under France's supposed guardianship. By way of retaliation, the British Government issued certain so-called Orders of Council, which had the effect of curtailing the trade of France and its allies. In the case of American commerce, it soon found itself falling between two stools. Britain was equipped to enforce its Orders in Council: Napoleon found himself impotent to enforce his Berlin Decree. And the merchants of the United States, with a foreign commerce of their own to foster in its infancy, at once began to cry out against the mistaken policy of the French emperor, interfering, as it did, with their sharing in the shipping trade of the Atlantic as competitors with British vessels. As a neutral nation, the United States were under a disadvantage. And, as this disadvantage seemed to emanate from the hostility of Napoleon to Britain, apparently to the advantage of the latter, there could not but be somewhat of a mixed public feeling throughout the States, one side blaming Napoleon and the other hating Britain all the more. Finally Congress passed a law entitled the "Embargo," thinking no doubt to assert for the American republic a political status of equal importance with that of the two great contending European powers. But the "Embargo" only came in for its share of denunciation with the "Berlin Decree" and the "Orders in Council." the three of them were declared to be interruptions to international trade. As Josiah Quincy put it, from his place in Congress, the said "Embargo" was more or less a ridiculous challenge alike to France and England, virtually saying to these two countries: "Rescind your Decrees and your Orders in Council, or we will in our wrath abandon the ocean." All this, however, did not prevent the politicians of the "war-party" from laying the blame for the annoying interruption to trade on Great Britain, possibly in terms of the legacy of distrust and enmity that had become embedded in the American national feeling from the time of the War of Independence.

And of the demands enforced by Great Britain, while asserting herself as mistress of the seas, none of them was so obnoxious to the people of the new republic as was that of "impressment," or the process of recruiting the British navy by whatever seamen happened to fall into the hands of the British recruiting agent on sea or land. Even before the birth of the American republic, the British system of impressment was looked upon as a grievance too heavy to bear by a people who prized their political freedom. And, when Britain continued to sanction, after the Treaty of Peace, the seizure of American citizens to act as British seamen, and more particularly the right to search American vessels for deserters from British vessels, there was no lack of touchwood to further inflame to the exploding point the national antipathies that had been left as a legacy from the War of Independence. Eventually, when everybody learned that the Leopard, one of the four men-of-war sent out from Halifax to keep watch on the coast-waters of New England, had enforced the right of search on the American frigate the Chesapeake, when that vessel happened to be out at sea, the politicians of the "war-party" were quickened into greater activity than ever, with an inflaming of the public mind which neither statesmanship nor diplomacy was allowed to overcome. Even when the British Minister of Foreign Affairs disavowed his responsibility in the affair of the Chesapeake, and had the admiral at Halifax recalled and the captain of the Leopard dismissed from the service, there was no staying of the pleadings of the "war-party" in fomenting the feeling against the mother country.

Another grievance that was made to take shape by the politicians of the republic against Great Britain had its basis in the suspicion that the Indian War of 1811 had been secretly encouraged by British emissaries from the Canadian side. Tecumseh, the best known of the Indian chiefs of these times, had ventured to accuse, with every show of resentment, the government of the United States of having deceived his fellow-tribesmen over the transfer of certain Indian lands. And, if his brother, "The Prophet" as he was called, was rightly accused of having relations with outside agencies urging him to raise the tribes against the new republic, his antipathies had no doubt a somewhat similar origin to Tecumseh's own, with a similar inclination induced by a sense of injustice to urge his fellow-warriors to become the allies of the British, when once the invasion of Canada had been decided upon by the Madison administration.

And a further suspicion that other secret missions had been sent from Canada of the purpose of promoting a better or worse feeling between the two peoples on both sides of the boundary-line, seemed to gain strength from the allegations of the adventurer John Henry, who claimed that he had in his possession certain letters that had passed between him and Sir James Craig, the Governor-General of Canada, and which he eventually sold to President Madison for fifty thousand dollars. Henry claimed for his secrets that they revealed a plot on the part of the British authorities to bring about the secession of the New England States; whereas all that has been historically established from them is that they were used, possibly concocted, to advance the personal interests of Henry himself, who had been unable to secure a government appointment he had his eye on during his temporary residence in Quebec and Montreal, and who, for purposes of revenge, had only been too willing to make public certain confidences that had passed between him and the governor's set in Canada. The governor himself was naturally anxious to find out the state of public opinion in the republic near by. The elections were on in Boston when Henry arrived in that city; and so great was the excitement at that time, that the "war-party" stood eager to make whatever political capital they could out of the so-called disclosures of the Irishman who, it was said, had come all the way from England to make them. As he found things, Henry had no difficulty in getting closeted with Madison, who bestowed on him for his information the large gratuity referred to out of the secret service fund. The so-called revelations soon set fire to the touchwood the "war-party" had been so strenuously heaping up against Great Britain for years back; and immediately there was a hastening to arms for a projected invasion of Canada by way of Lake Erie and the Niagara frontier.

At that time war was proclaimed, the population of Great Britain did not exceed eighteen millions. The population of the republic was not more than seven and a quarter millions; while Canada, the proposed seat of war on land, had only about a million and a quarter of a population scattered over its far-reaching territory. To guard this far-reaching territory, there were less than five thousand British troops, mostly stationed at Halifax, St. John, Kingston, and Quebec, with further military posts at Montreal, Prescott, York, Niagara, Fort Malden, and St. Joseph's Island at the remote end of Lake Huron. On the other hand, the American had military stations in the Maumee or Miami district, with Fort Meigs as a nucleus, and Presque Isle as a naval station. Along the frontier they had troops stationed at one or two places on the Niagara, at Sackett's Harbour, and in the neighbourhood of Plattsburg on Lake Champlain. In addition to the regulars, the British military officers had the Canadian militia to count upon as a supplementary force, including the fencibles and the voltigeurs, further supplemented as these were by the Indian warriors who had taken the field, on their own account, against the United States government some time previous to the declaration of war against Canada. And, when a full estimate was being made of the military resources at hand to contend with an invading army, the Governor of Upper Canada had to confess that the loyalty of the residents around the great lakes, who had come from the south to take up lands in Canada, was in many instances hardly to be depended upon; while General Brock seems to have had something of a similar misgiving concerning the French-Canadians. These forebodings were happily unfounded. Yet the outlook was anything but auspicious for a safety of Canada as a British colony. But for a prospect that Great Britain would come to the immediate saving of Canada with all the troops to be spared from the battlefields of Europe, it seemed as if Canada was on the verge of being forced into joining its fortunes with those of the republic to the south of it. And it is only after a diligent examination of the greater and minor events of the war, from its first campaign to its last, that one comes to appreciate at its right value the Canadian pluck and perseverance which did so much to check the military operations that sought to overwhelm the faith of Canada in itself, as a helpmate to Great Britain in saving the country from the hands of an invader who had so little of a justification for his intrusion. It was a war incited by the too often misunderstood idea that to him who hath, it shall be given, irrespective of all sense of justice or injustice.

[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: This work was published in 1922 or earlier. It has therefore entered the public domain in the United States.
[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act.