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Early United States: 1791–1815

War of 1812

British Impressment

In 1804 the British Navy continued its policy of stopping and boarding U.S. cargo ships to impress American citizens into military service as a way to identify and punish deserters.

By 1804 France and Britain were at war. At first American merchants and traders were able to take advantage of the United States' neutral status, guaranteed by a treaty signed in 1793, to trade with both sides. In 1806, however, Britain decided to block American ships from entering European ports, and France seized all merchant ships heading to Britain. To make matters worse for the United States, the British started a widespread campaign of the impressment of American citizens.

Impressment was the forced enlistment of civilians into military service. It had been a strategy routinely employed by the British navy when it needed to increase its ranks. Royal "recruiters" would arrive in a port town and kidnap men to serve at sea. Impressment was usually a death sentence. There was no escape from a ship at sea, and life as a seaman on a British warship was dangerous and often brutal. Beginning in 1806, the British navy halted American ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean on the pretext of looking for deserters. Whether or not they found deserters, the British would often impress able-bodied American citizens.

In 1807 the commander of a British warship demanded to board the U.S.S. Chesapeake. When the Americans refused, the British ship fired on the Chesapeake, killing three and injuring over a dozen people. In addition Britain took four sailors captive—a British deserter and three Americans who had earlier been impressed and escaped. Although Britain formally apologized for the incident, the American public was outraged and called for President Jefferson to declare war on Great Britain. Between 1808 and 1811 the British impressed around 6,000 Americans.
Claiming they were searching for deserters, British officers would board American ships and impress American seamen into the Royal Navy. About 10,000 Americans were forced into service during the Napoleonic Wars.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-75535

Early Foreign Policy Actions Taken by Congress

The Non-Importation Act and the Embargo Act were intended to put economic pressure on the British to get them to stop attacking American cargo ships. Both acts failed to achieve the desired result and led to domestic conflict.

Since 1804 Britain and France had been seizing American cargo ships at sea. To address Britain's violation of American trade neutrality, Congress proposed the Non-Importation Act in 1806. The Non-Importation Act banned American merchants from importing British manufactured goods, including those made with leather, hemp, silk, wool, and glass. The goal was to put economic pressure on Britain so that it would stop seizing U.S. ships. The law harkened back to the nonimportation agreements American colonists had used prior to independence to force Britain to repeal burdensome taxes and unfair laws.

Before the act could be enacted, however, the attack on the U.S.S. Chesapeake in 1807 inflamed American public opinion against the British. President Jefferson was reluctant to go to war against the world's most powerful navy. Instead, he called for an embargo, or a ban on trade with a particular country or a group of countries. He believed depriving Britain and France of U.S. goods and raw materials would compel them to respect American neutrality and end hostilities toward the United States. In 1807 Congress passed the Embargo Act. The Embargo Act was the official prohibition of the export of goods from the United States to all nations. It also continued the ban on imports from Britain.

The Embargo Act had an immediate and disastrous effect on the U.S. economy. Without a foreign market to sell their goods to, American manufacturers, merchants, and farmers faced financial ruin. A black market emerged as goods were exported illegally through Canada. Additional laws were passed to enforce the embargo and curb the illegal exportation of goods. Many Americans found these laws to be oppressive and unhelpful. Meanwhile, Britain and France were hardly affected by the embargo. They quickly found new sources of needed goods in Europe and Latin America.

In the face of public outcry and political opposition, Congress repealed the failed Embargo Act just days before Jefferson left office in 1809. In its place came the Non-Intercourse Act, which allowed the United States to trade with all foreign nations except Britain and France. It also gave Jefferson's successor, James Madison, the authority to resume trade with Britain or France when either nation agreed to respect American neutrality.

Battles and Outcomes of the War of 1812

To defend its national honor and its right to neutral trade, the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Neither side was fully prepared for the conflict.

The War of 1812 was a military conflict between the United States and Britain lasting from June 8, 1812, to February 17, 1815. President James Madison asked Congress to declare war on Britain in June 1812. Both Congress and the American public were divided on the issue. Those in favor argued a war would restore the United States' national honor on the matter of impressment and reestablish its right to neutral trade abroad. Those who opposed the war argued it would only weaken the country.

Both the United States and Britain were unprepared for war. The United States did not have a trained army and only a small navy. Britain was preoccupied with its conflict with France and had few resources to send to another front. As a result the fighting was sporadic and characterized by assaults followed by withdrawals.

The American strategy was to invade British-held Canada to the north and northwest. In August 1812 General William Hull led American troops into Canada from Michigan, but the British easily rebuffed the Americans and forced them to surrender Detroit. Attempts by Americans to take Montreal were also foiled. In their only successful foray into Canada, U.S. troops captured and burned the city of York (now Toronto) in April 1813.

In 1814 Britain concluded its war with France and turned its full attention to the United States. It began by setting up a naval blockade of the entire East Coast for the purpose of stopping trade and facilitating British land raids. In August 1814 British troops advanced on Washington, D.C. They ransacked government buildings and set fire to the newly built U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the White House in an act of reprisal for the Americans' destruction of York the previous year. Despite this humiliating defeat, the United States did not surrender.

In September 1814, British warships bombarded Fort McHenry, and British troops made landfall during the Battle of Baltimore. American defenses withstood the assault, and the British withdrew. At the same time, U.S. warships drove British forces out of New York and back into Canada during the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay.

For their final assault on the United States, the British invaded the port city of New Orleans. Unaware a peace treaty had already been signed, the British attacked on January 8, 1815. Led by General Andrew Jackson, a force of some 5,000 Americans killed close to 300 British troops in half an hour. A month later, the war was officially over.
The British bombarded Fort McHenry for 24 hours but ultimately lost the Battle of Baltimore. This decisive defeat led the British to sue for peace in 1814.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-35544

Treaty of Ghent and American Nationalism

The Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. In the aftermath of the war came a swell in American nationalism as the fledgling nation asserted itself as a formidable power that had defeated the British not once, but twice.

After their defeat at Plattsburgh, New York, and Baltimore, Maryland, the British were ready to enter peace talks. Representatives from Britain and the United States met in the city of Ghent in what is now Belgium. Although the Americans had scored several victories over the British, the conflict was essentially at a stalemate. Both sides could have kept on fighting with neither winning decisively for the foreseeable future. As a result, neither side could win any concessions from the other. The United States had entered the war to regain trade neutrality and to end British impressment of American citizens, but the British would not agree. Britain wanted to maintain territory and ties with the Native Americans in the American Northwest, but the United States would not agree. In the end, the Treaty of Ghent—signed on December 24, 1814—left the Anglo-American relationship much as it had been before the war.

Word of the treaty did not reach British warships in time to avert the Battle of New Orleans. The combination of the U.S. victory at New Orleans and the treaty's signing caused many Americans to overlook the fact that the United States had not achieved any of its war objectives. In their mind, there was much to celebrate. The British had decided the costs of remaining in the United States were too high and had made the decision to permanently withdraw from the northwest territories, thus severing ties with the Native Americans there. Now western expansion could begin in earnest. In addition, the British blockade was lifted, and trade could resume. The United States became a major world power. The British military had conquered France, but it couldn't beat the United States. The Americans felt great national pride in having defeated Britain not once, but twice, within 32 years.