Entering the War of 1812

The Failure of Neutrality

From the nation's infancy, American leaders tried to avoid entanglement 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. Europe was the major supplier of manufactured goods to the U.S., and a key market for crops from American farms. Britain and France blockaded each other's ports to disrupt trade and prevent war materials and supplies from reaching their enemy. American sailors and shipping were caught between the competing powers—neither recognized American neutrality—with the result that the economy of the young nation was severely hampered.


Great Britain also resumed the practice of impressment, or forced enlistment, in the British navy. Britain had the world's most powerful navy, with thousands of ships—and it needed thousands of sailors to man those ships. Service was harsh, violent, long, and often fatal.

The British targeted American (and other nations') merchant vessels in search of deserters or others believed to be British subjects. In the decade before the war, American officials estimated that the British navy impressed more than 6,000 Americans. The British claimed the number was around 3,000—and that they were not Americans but British deserters.

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

The dispute between the U.S. and Britain intensified in 1807. In June, off the Virginia coast, officers of the British frigate HMS Leopard demanded to board the USS Chesapeake, not a merchant vessel but a warship of the U.S. navy, to search for deserters. Its captain refused, and the Leopard fired upon the Chesapeake. Four American sailors were killed and seventeen wounded; four men were seized as British deserters. Americans were outraged.

Jefferson's Embargo

In December, President Jefferson managed to push Congress to pass the Embargo Act, which banned all international trade on American vessels. Jefferson hoped that the European deprived of American goods, would come to their senses and respect the trade rights of neutral nations. It was Americans, not Europeans, who suffered most. Port cities were destitute; merchants went bankrupt; ships sat at anchor; unemployed sailors and dockworkers roamed the streets. Though some Americans evaded the law by smuggling goods, the loss of business was soon felt throughout the country—particularly in New England, where the economy was based on the Atlantic trade. The Embargo Act was unsuccessful in changing British and French policies. Congress repealed the unpopular law in early 1809, as James Madison was about to be inaugurated president. 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 somewhat, but had no effect on British or French policies.

In May 1810, Congress passed Macon's Bill Number 2, which allowed the president to resume trade with whichever of the two countries first stopped harassing American shipping. Napoleon immediately pronounced that he would ease French targeting of American ships. Madison, declared that Americans were prohibited from trading with Britain. France, meanwhile, continued to seize American vessels. The official U.S. approach of using trade and economic policies to affect foreign relations was simply not working.

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 caused 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.

Americans were split largely along party lines and regions. The South and West were in favor of expanded settlement, which was impeded by Native American resistance. These regions strongly supported war with Britain. The Northeast, coastal regions, and along the Canadian border were mostly Federalist. These areas maintained deep cultural connections to Britain, and their economies relied on international trade. New Englanders believed that any trade disruptions due to war would be much worse and longer-lasting than any economic problems brought by British policies—so most residents there opposed war. The mid-Atlantic region was mixed.

In June, President Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against Britain. The House of Representatives approved war by a vote of 79–49; the Senate, 19–13. The divided vote was largely along regional and economic lines. That same month, Britain repealed the regulations that authorized impressment—one of the main causes of the war—but by the time news of the repeal arrived in Washington, the declaration of war had been passed.

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

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