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The War With the United States: Chapter 1

Chapter I

Opposing Claims

International disputes that end in war are not generally questions of absolute right and wrong. They may quite as well be questions of opposing rights. But, when there are rights on both sides; it is usually found that the side which takes the initiative is moved by its national desires as well as by its claims of right.

This could hardly be better exemplified than by the vexed questions which brought about the War of 1812. The British were fighting for life and liberty against Napoleon. Napoleon was fighting to master the whole of Europe. The United States wished to make as much as possible out of unrestricted trade with both belligerents. But Napoleon's Berlin Decree forbade all intercourse whatever with the British, while the British Orders-in-Council forbade all intercourse whatever with Napoleon and his allies, except on condition that the trade should first pass through British ports. Between two such desperate antagonists there was no safe place for an unarmed, independent, 'free-trading' neutral. Every one was forced to take sides. The British being overwhelmingly strong at sea, while the French were correspondingly strong on land, American shipping was bound to suffer more from the British than from the French. The French seized every American vessel that infringed the Berlin Decree whenever they could manage to do so. But the British seized so many more for infringing the Orders-in-Council that the Americans naturally began to take sides with the French.

Worse still, from the American point of view, was the British Right of Search, which meant the right of searching neutral merchant vessels either in British waters or on the high seas for deserters from the Royal Navy. Every other people whose navy could enforce it had always claimed a similar right. But other peoples' rights had never clashed with American interests in at all the same way. What really roused the American government was not the abstract Right of Search, but its enforcement at a time when so many hands aboard American vessels were British subjects evading service in their own Navy. The American theory was that the flag covered the crew wherever the ship might be. Such a theory might well have been made a question for friendly debate and settlement at any other time. But it was a new theory, advanced by a new nation, whose peculiar and most disturbing entrance on the international scene could not be suffered to upset the accepted state of things during the stress of a life-and-death war. Under existing circumstances the British could not possibly give up their long-established Right of Search without committing national suicide. Neither could they relax their own blockade so long as Napoleon maintained his. The Right of Search and the double blockade of Europe thus became two vexed questions which led straight to war.

But the American grievances about these two questions were not the only motives impelling the United States to take up arms. There were two deeply rooted national desires urging them on in the same direction. A good many Americans were ready to seize any chance of venting their anti-British feeling; and most Americans thought they would only be fulfilling their proper 'destiny' by wresting the whole of Canada from the British crown. These two national desires worked both ways for war—supporting the government case against the British Orders-in-Council and Right of Search on the one hand, while welcoming an alliance with Napoleon on the other. Americans were far from being unanimous; and the party in favour of peace was not slow to point out that Napoleon stood for tyranny, while the British stood for freedom. But the adherents of the war party reminded each other, as well as the British and the French, that Britain had wrested Canada from France, while France had helped to wrest the Thirteen Colonies from the British Empire.

As usual in all modern wars, there was much official verbiage about the national claims and only unofficial talk about the national desires. But, again as usual, the claims became the more insistent because of the desires, and the desires became the more patriotically respectable because of the claims of right. 'Free Trade and Sailors' Rights' was the popular catchword that best describes the two strong claims of the United States. 'Down with the British' and 'On to Canada' were the phrases that best reveal the two impelling national desires.

Both the claims and the desires seem quite simple in themselves. But, in their connection with American politics, international affairs, and opposing British claims, they are complex to the last degree. Their complexities, indeed, are so tortuous and so multitudinous that they baffle description within the limits of the present book. Yet, since nothing can be understood without some reference to its antecedents, we must take at least a bird's-eye view of the growing entanglement which finally resulted in the War of 1812.

The relations of the British Empire with the United States passed through four gradually darkening phases between 1783 and 1812—the phases of Accommodation, Unfriendliness, Hostility, and War. Accommodation lasted from the recognition of Independence till the end of the century. Unfriendliness then began with President Jefferson and the Democrats. Hostility followed in 1807, during Jefferson's second term, when Napoleon's Berlin Decree and the British. Orders-in-Council brought American foreign relations into the five-year crisis which ended with the three-year war.

William Pitt, for the British, and John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States, are the two principal figures in the Accommodation period. In 1783 Pitt, who, like his father, the great Earl of Chatham, was favourably disposed towards the Americans, introduced a temporary measure in the British House of Commons to regulate trade with what was now a foreign country 'on the most enlarged principles of reciprocal benefit' as well as 'on terms of most perfect amity with the United States of America.' This bill, which showed the influence of Adam Smith's principles on Pitt's receptive mind, favoured American more than any other foreign trade in the mother country, and favoured it to a still greater extent in the West Indies. Alone among foreigners the Americans were to be granted the privilege of trading between their own ports and the West Indies, in their own vessels and with their own goods, on exactly the same terms as the British themselves. The bill was rejected. But in 1794, when the French Revolution was running its course of wild excesses, and the British government was even less inclined to trust republics, Jay succeeded in negotiating a temporary treaty which improved the position of American sea-borne trade with the West Indies. His government urged him to get explicit statements of principle inserted, more especially anything that would make cargoes neutral when under neutral flags. This, however, was not possible, as Jay himself pointed out. 'That Britain,' he said, 'at this period, and involved in war, should not admit principles which would impeach the propriety of her conduct in seizing provisions bound to France, and enemy's property on board neutral vessels, does not appear to me extraordinary.' On the whole, Jay did very well to get any treaty through at such a time; and this mere fact shows that the general attitude of the mother country towards her independent children was far from being unfriendly.

Unfriendliness began with the new century, when Jefferson first came into power. He treated the British navigation laws as if they had been invented on purpose to wrong Americans, though they had been in force for a hundred and fifty years, and though they had been originally passed, at the zenith of Cromwell's career, by the only republican government that ever held sway in England. Jefferson said that British policy was so perverse, that when he wished to forecast the British line of action on any particular point he would first consider what it ought to be and then infer the opposite. His official opinion was written in the following words: 'It is not to the moderation or justice of others we are to trust for fair and equal access to market with our productions, or for our due share in the transportation of them; but to our own means of independence, and the firm will to use them.' On the subject of impressment, or 'Sailors' Rights,' he was clearer still: 'The simplest rule will be that the vessel being American shall be evidence that the seamen on board of her are such.' This would have prevented the impressment of British seamen, even in British harbours, if they were under the American merchant flag—a principle almost as preposterous, at that particular time, as Jefferson's suggestion that the whole Gulf Stream should be claimed 'as of our waters.'

If Jefferson had been backed by a united public, or if his actions had been suited to his words, war would have certainly broken out during his second presidential term, which lasted from 1805 to 1809. But he was a party man, with many political opponents, and without unquestioning support from all on his own side, and he cordially hated armies, navies, and even a mercantile marine. His idea of an American Utopia was a commonwealth with plenty of commerce, but no more shipping than could be helped:

I trust [he said] that the good sense of our country will see that its greatest prosperity depends on a due balance between agriculture, manufactures, and commerce; and not on this protuberant navigation, which has kept us in hot water since the commencement of our government. . . . It is essentially necessary for us to have shipping and seamen enough to carry our surplus products to market, but beyond that I do not think we are bound to give it encouragement. . . . This exuberant commerce brings us into collision with other Powers in every sea.

Notwithstanding such opinions, Jefferson stood firm on the question of 'Sailors' Rights.' He refused to approve a treaty that had been signed on the last day of 1806 by his four commissioners in London, chiefly because it provided no precise guarantee against impressment. The British ministers had offered, and had sincerely meant, to respect all American rights, to issue special instructions against molesting American citizens under any circumstances, and to redress every case of wrong. But, with a united nation behind them and an implacable enemy in front, they could not possibly give up the right to take British seamen from neutral vessels which were sailing the high seas. The Right of Search was the acknowledged law of nations all round the world; and surrender on this point meant death to the Empire they were bound to guard.

Their 'no surrender' on this vital point was, of course, anathema to Jefferson. Yet he would not go beyond verbal fulminations. In the following year, however, he was nearly forced to draw the sword by one of those incidents that will happen during strained relations. In June 1807 two French men-of-war were lying off Annapolis, a hundred miles up Chesapeake Bay. Far down the bay, in Hampton Roads, the American frigate Chesapeake was fitting out for sea. Twelve miles below her anchorage a small British squadron lay just within Cape Henry, waiting to follow the Frenchmen out beyond the three-mile limit. As Jefferson quite justly said, this squadron was 'enjoying the hospitality of the United States.' Presently the Chesapeake got under way; whereupon the British frigate Leopard made sail and cleared the land ahead of her. Ten miles out the Leopard hailed her, and sent an officer aboard to show the American commodore the orders from Admiral Berkeley at Halifax. These orders named certain British deserters as being among the Chesapeake's crew. The American commodore refused to allow a search; but submitted after a fight, during which he lost twenty-one men killed and wounded. Four men were then seized. One was hanged; another died; and the other two were subsequently returned with the apologies of the British government.

James Monroe, of Monroe Doctrine fame, was then American minister in London. Canning, the British foreign minister, who heard the news first, wrote an apology on the spot, and promised to make 'prompt and effectual reparation' if Berkeley had been wrong. Berkeley was wrong. The Right of Search did not include the right to search a foreign man-of-war, though, unlike the modern 'right of search,' which is confined to cargoes, it did include the right to search a neutral merchantman on the high seas for any 'national' who was 'wanted.' Canning, however, distinctly stated that the men's nationality would affect the consideration of restoring them or not. Monroe now had a good case. But he made the fatal mistake of writing officially to Canning before he knew the details, and, worse still, of diluting his argument with other complaints which had nothing to do with the affair itself. The result was a long and involved correspondence, a tardy and ungracious reparation, and much justifiable resentment on the American side.

Unfriendliness soon became Hostility after the Chesapeake affair had sharpened the sting of the Orders-in-Council, which had been issued at the beginning of the same year, 1807. These celebrated Orders simply meant that so long as Napoleon tried to blockade the British Isles by enforcing his Berlin Decree, just so long would the British Navy be employed in blockading him and his allies. Such decisive action, of course, brought neutral shipping more than ever under the power of the British Navy, which commanded all the seaways to the ports of Europe. It accentuated the differences between the American and British governments, and threw the shadow of the coming storm over the exposed colony of Canada.

Not having succeeded in his struggle for 'Sailors' Rights,' Jefferson now took up the cudgels for 'Free Trade'; but still without a resort to arms. His chosen means of warfare was an Embargo Act, forbidding the departure of vessels from United States ports. This, although nominally aimed against France as well, was designed to make Great Britain submit by cutting off both her and her colonies from all intercourse with the United States. But its actual effect was to hurt Americans, and even Jefferson's own party, far more than it hurt the British. The Yankee skipper already had two blockades against 'Free Trade.' The Embargo Act added a third. Of course it was evaded; and a good deal of shipping went from the United States and passed into Canadian ports under the Union Jack. Jefferson and his followers, however, persisted in taking their own way. So Canada gained from the embargo much of what the Americans were losing. Quebec and Halifax swarmed with contrabandists, who smuggled back return cargoes into the New England ports, which were Federalist in party allegiance, and only too ready to evade or defy the edicts of the Democratic administration. Jefferson had, it is true, the satisfaction of inflicting much temporary hardship on cotton-spinning Manchester. But the American cotton-growing South suffered even more.

The American claims of 'Free Trade and Sailors' Rights' were opposed by the British counter-claims of the Orders-in-Council and the Right of Search. But 'Down with the British' and 'On to Canada' were without exact equivalents on the other side. The British at home were a good deal irritated by so much unfriendliness and hostility behind them while they were engaged with Napoleon in front. Yet they could hardly be described as anti-American; and they certainly had no wish to fight, still less to conquer, the United States. Canada did contain an anti-American element in the United Empire Loyalists, whom the American Revolution had driven from their homes. But her general wish was to be left in peace. Failing that, she was prepared for defence.

Anti-British feeling probably animated at least two-thirds of the American people on every question that caused international friction; and the Jeffersonian Democrats, who were in power, were anti-British to a man. So strong was this feeling among them that they continued to side with France even when she was under the military despotism of Napoleon. He was the arch-enemy of England in Europe. They were the arch-enemy of England in America. This alone was enough to overcome their natural repugnance to his autocratic ways. Their position towards the British was such that they could not draw back from France, whose change of government had made her a more efficient anti-British friend. 'Let us unite with France and stand or fall together' was the cry the Democratic press repeated for years in different forms. It was strangely prophetic. Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1808 began its self-injurious career at the same time that the Peninsular War began to make the first injurious breach in Napoleon's Continental System. Madison's declaration of war in 1812 coincided with the opening of Napoleon's disastrous campaign in Russia.

The Federalists, the party in favour of peace with the British, included many of the men who had done most for Independence; and they were all, of course, above suspicion as patriotic Americans. But they were not unlike transatlantic, self-governing Englishmen. They had been alienated by the excesses of the French Revolution; and they could not condone the tyranny of Napoleon. They preferred American statesmen of the type of Washington and Hamilton to those of the type of Jefferson and Madison. And they were not inclined to be more anti-British than the occasion required. They were strongest in New England and New York. The Democrats were strongest throughout the South and in what was then the West. The Federalists had been in power during the Accommodation period. The Democrats began with Unfriendliness, continued with Hostility, and ended with War.

The Federalists did not hesitate to speak their mind. Their loss of power had sharpened their tongues; and they were often no more generous to the Democrats and to France than the Democrats were to them and to the British. But, on the whole, they made for goodwill on both sides; as well as for a better understanding of each other's rights and difficulties; and so they made for peace. The general current, however, was against them, even before the Chesapeake affair; and several additional incidents helped to quicken it afterwards. In 1808 the toast of the President of the United States was received with hisses at a great public dinner in London, given to the leaders of the Spanish revolt against Napoleon by British admirers. In 1811 the British sloop-of-war Little Belt was overhauled by the American frigate President fifty miles off-shore and forced to strike, after losing thirty-two men and being reduced to a mere battered hulk. The vessels came into range after dark; the British seem to have fired first; and the Americans had the further excuse that they were still smarting under the Chesapeake affair. Then, in 1812, an Irish adventurer called Henry, who had been doing some secret-service work in the United States at the instance of the Canadian governor-general, sold the duplicates of his correspondence to President Madison. These were of little real importance; but they added fuel to the Democratic fire in Congress just when anti-British feeling was at its worst.

The fourth cause of war, the desire to conquer Canada, was by far the oldest of all. It was older than Independence, older even than the British conquest of Canada. In 1689 Peter Schuyler, mayor of Albany, and the acknowledged leader of the frontier districts, had set forth his 'Glorious Enterprize' for the conquest and annexation of New France. Phips's American invasion next year, carried out in complete independence of the home government, had been an utter failure. So had the second American invasion, led by Montgomery and Arnold during the Revolutionary War, nearly a century later. But the Americans had not forgotten their long desire; and the prospect of another war at once revived their hopes. They honestly believed that Canada would be much better off as an integral part of the United States than as a British colony; and most of them believed that Canadians thought so too. The lesson of the invasion of the 'Fourteenth Colony' during the Revolution had not been learnt. The alacrity with which Canadians had stood to arms after the Chesapeake affair was little heeded. And both the nature and the strength of the union between the colony and the Empire were almost entirely misunderstood.

Henry Clay, one of the most warlike of the Democrats, said: 'It is absurd to suppose that we will not succeed in our enterprise against the enemy's Provinces. I am not for stopping at Quebec or anywhere else; but I would take the whole continent from them, and ask them no favours. I wish never to see peace till we do. God has given us the power and the means. We are to blame if we do not use them.' Eustis, the American Secretary of War, said: 'We can take Canada without soldiers. We have only to send officers into the Provinces, and the people, disaffected towards their own Government, will rally round our standard.' And Jefferson summed it all up by prophesying that 'the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.' When the leaders talked like this, it was no wonder their followers thought that the long-cherished dream of a conquered Canada was at last about to come true.

[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.