In 1795, James Madison had written that war is the greatest enemy of “true liberty.” “War,” he explained, “is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes, and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.” Nonetheless, Madison became a war president. Reports that the British were encouraging Tecumseh’s efforts contributed to the coming of the War of 1812. In June 1812, with assaults on American shipping continuing, Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war. American nationality, the president declared, was at stake—would Americans remain “an independent people” or become “colonists and vassals” of Great Britain? The vote revealed a deeply divided country. Both Federalists and Republicans representing the states from New Jersey northward, where most of the mercantile and financial resources of the country were concentrated, voted against war. The South and West were strongly in favor. The bill passed the House by a vote of 79-49 and the Senate by 19-13. It was the first time the United States declared war on another country, and was approved by the smallest margin of any declaration of war in American history.

Benjamin Hawkins Trading with the Creek Indians. Painted around 1805 by an unidentified artist, this work depicts Hawkins explaining the advantages of settled agriculture as part of a plan to promote “civilization” among Native Americans. Having served in the Continental army during the War of Independence and as a senator from North Carolina, Hawkins was appointed in 1795 Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the southeastern United States. He supplied the Creeks, Cherokees, and Choctaws with agricultural training and farm implements and married a Creek woman.


1. In what ways does the artist depict Indians having adopted the kind of social order Hawkins is encouraging?

2. What elements of traditional Indian culture remain?

The lid of a chest decorated with scenes from the War of 1812. Images of Hope, on the left, and Liberty flank a picture of the naval battle in which the USS Constitution defeated a British warship. Liberty holds a paper that reads, “Free Trade and Sailors Rights,” two of the issues that drew the United States into the war.

In retrospect, it seems remarkably foolhardy for a disunited and militarily unprepared nation to go to war with one of the world’s two major powers. And with the expiration in 1811 of the charter of the Bank of the United States and the refusal of northern merchants and bankers to loan money, the federal government found it increasingly difficult to finance the war. Before the conflict ended, it was essentially bankrupt. Fortunately for the United States, Great Britain at the outset was preoccupied with the struggle in Europe. But it easily repelled two feeble American invasions of Canada and imposed a blockade that all but destroyed American commerce. In 1814, having finally defeated Napoleon, Britain invaded the United States. Its forces seized Washington, D.C., and burned the White House, while the government fled for safety.

Americans did enjoy a few military successes. In August 1812, the American frigate Constitution defeated the British warship Guerriere. Commodore Oliver H. Perry defeated a British naval force in September 1813 on Lake Erie (a startling result considering that Britain prided itself on having the world’s most powerful navy—although the Americans outgunned them on the Great Lakes). In the following year, a British assault on Baltimore was repulsed when Fort McHenry at the entrance to the harbor withstood a British bombardment. This was the occasion when Francis Scott Key composed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” an ode to the “land of the free and home of the brave” that became the national anthem during the 1930s.

Like the War of Independence, the War of 1812 was a two-front struggle—against the British and against the Indians. The war produced significant victories over western Indians who sided with the British. In 1813, pan-Indian forces led by Tecumseh (who had been commissioned a general in the British army) were defeated, and he himself was killed, at the Battle of the Thames, near Detroit, by an American force led by William Henry Harrison. In March 1814, an army of Americans and pro-assimilation Cherokees and Creeks under the command of Andrew Jackson defeated hostile Creeks known as the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, killing more than 800 of them. “The power of the Creeks is forever broken,” Jackson wrote, and he dictated terms of surrender that required the Indians, hostile and friendly alike, to cede more than half their land, over 23 million acres in all, to the federal government.

Although the British burned the nation’s capital, the War of 1812 essentially was a military draw.

Jackson then proceeded to New Orleans, where he engineered the war’s greatest American victory, fighting off a British invasion in January 1815. Although a slaveholder, Jackson recruited the city’s free men of color into his forces, appealing to them as “sons of freedom” and promising them the same pay and land bounties as white recruits. A number of prominent political careers flowed from American victories. Jackson and Harrison would ride their reputations as military heroes all the way to the White House. Colonel Richard M. Johnson, who claimed to have actually killed Tecumseh, would later be elected vice president.

The Taking of the City of Washington, an 1814 engraving produced in London, portrays the assault during which British forces captured the undefended city and burned the White House, the Capitol, and several warships.

With neither side wishing to continue the conflict, the United States and Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent, ending the war. Although the treaty was signed in December 1814, ships carrying news of the agreement did not reach America until after the Battle of New Orleans had been fought The treaty restored the previous status quo. No territory exchanged hands, nor did any provisions relate to impressment or neutral shipping rights.

Considering that the war had not been a military success for the United States, the Treaty of Ghent was about as good an outcome as could be expected.

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