Entering the War of 1812

The Failure of Neutrality

American leaders tried to avoid involvement in European affairs.

In 1803, France and Britain renewed their conflict as Napoleon tried to build an empire across Europe. President Jefferson hoped to remain neutral so that U.S. trade with Europe would continue. However, Britain and France blockaded each other's ports to prevent war materials and supplies from reaching their enemy. Neither recognized American neutrality, and the economy of the young nation was severely hampered.


Great Britain resumed impressment (forced enlistment) in the British navy. Britain needed thousands of sailors. Service was harsh and often fatal.

The British targeted American merchant vessels in search of deserters.

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

In 1807, officers of the British frigate HMS Leopard demanded to board the USS Chesapeake warship off the Virginia coast to search for deserters. Its captain refused, and the Leopard fired upon the Chesapeake. Four American sailors were killed, and four men were seized as British deserters. Americans were outraged.

Jefferson's Embargo

President Jefferson passed the Embargo Act, which banned all international trade on American vessels. Jefferson hoped that the Europeans, deprived of American goods, would respect the trade rights of neutral nations, but Americans suffered the most. Merchants went bankrupt, ships sat at anchor, and sailors and dockworkers were unemployed. Although some Americans started smuggling, the loss of business was crippling, and the embargo failed to change British and French policies. Congress repealed the unpopular law but relations with Britain and France were still sour. Congress replaced the embargo with the Non-Intercourse Act, which allowed Americans to trade with all nations except Britain and France. The Non-Intercourse Act did improve the American economy but had no effect on British or French policies.

Congress passed Macon's Bill Number 2, which allowed the president to resume trade with the first of the two countries to stop harassing American shipping. Napoleon immediately announced that he would stop, and so Americans could not trade with Britain. France, meanwhile, continued to seize American vessels.

Americans Disagree over Joining the War

By 1812, impressment, interference with trade, and Native American raids on white settlements in the West (thought to be encouraged by the British) were major American issues. It seemed clear that the U.S. would have to back down from its demands on Britain, or fight.

The South and West were in favor of expanded settlement, which was impeded by Native American resistance, so they supported war with Britain. The Northeast, coastal regions, and settlements along the Canadian border were mostly Federalist, maintaining deep connections to Britain, so most of these residents opposed war. The mid-Atlantic region was mixed.

The House of Representatives approved war. That same month, Britain repealed the regulations that authorized impressment. By the time news of the repeal arrived in Washington, the declaration of war had already passed.

Source: Entering the War of 1812
© 2017 The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Back to top