The Revolutionary War began before there was a United States of America, so the first war declared by the USA began 200 years ago this month. On June 18, 1812, the day after its approval by the U.S. Congress, a declaration of war against the British Empire was signed by President Madison. That was the beginning of the War of 1812, America’s first war.
The subtitle of historian David R. Hickey’s definitive book The War of 1812 (1989) is “A Forgotten Conflict.” It is perhaps the least understood of all American wars. It was also probably the most controversial: some of the northeastern states even considered seceding from the Union because of it.
The primary slogan of the “War Hawks,” as the most vocal pro-war advocates were called, was “Free Trade & Sailors’ Rights.” British ships in the years prior to the war often interfered with U.S. merchant ships, hindering their “free trade” with European countries (mainly France).
A bigger problem was “impressment,” the British practice of capturing seamen on American ships and forcing them into service on British vessels. Hickey points out that perhaps as many as 6,000 American citizens suffered impressment by the British between 1803 and 1812 (p. 11).
There were other matters that lurked in the minds of at least some War Hawks, propelling them toward war. One was the desire to conquer Canada and, thus, to eradicate British land-holding on the North American continent. Similarly, there were others who wanted to fight in order to end British influence over and cooperation with Native Americans, with whom the young nation was constantly fighting.
And so the U. S. declared war on the British Empire. That led to the first, and only, invasion of the U.S. by a foreign country (unless you count the invasion of the Union by the Confederate States in 1863). The primary British invasions were into Maryland and Washington, D.C., in August 1814. That was a terrible time for the nation, for the British burned the Capitol, the President’s home (officially known only since 1901 as the White House), and other government buildings.
The following month, after a night of “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” in a decisive battle fought at Fort McHenry and in the harbor southeast of Baltimore, Francis Scott Key penned the words to “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Although a peace treaty to end the war was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, the final and one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought the following month. That was the Battle of New Orleans, led by General Andrew (“Old Hickory”) Jackson, a war hero who was later (in 1828) elected President. Finally, the War of 1812 was officially declared over in February 1815.
Perhaps the greatest losers in the War of 1812 were the Native Americans. In 1813-14, General Jackson led major battles against the Creek Indians in the southeast states. Later, President Jackson called for an Indian Removal Act in a 1829 speech. That Act was signed into law the following year, and it led to the removal of Indian tribes to federal territory west of the Mississippi River. The Native Americans’ sad trek west is known as “the trail of tears.”
While we rejoice that the War of 1812 preserved this nation and greatly increased its status among the nations of the world, we also painfully recognize how unjust was the treatment of the Native Americans after that war. Learning from mistakes of the past, let’s resolve to work now toward the removal, in ourselves and in society, of all harmful attitudes and actions toward people of other ethnic, racial, national, or religious groups.