Modern history



THE NEW PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES IN MARCH 1809 WAS James Madison. As Jefferson’s Secretary of State he had had much experience of public office, and he was a political theorist of note. There was a stubborn side to his nature, and his practical skill and judgment were not always equal to that of his predecessor. Madison inherited an inflamed public opinion and a delicate state of relations with Great Britain. At first there were high hopes of a settlement. Madison reached a provisional agreement with the British Minister in Washington which was very favourable to British interests. But the Foreign Secretary, Canning, repudiated the document and recalled the Minister responsible for it. He was never so happy in his handling of America as he was in Europe. For three years Anglo-American relations grew steadily worse. Madison was deceived by Napoleon’s revocation of the Berlin Decrees which had closed all European ports controlled by France. He now tried to get England to reciprocate by annulling her Orders in Council against trade with ports in French hands. In vain wiser politicians warned him that Napoleon’s action was merely a diplomatic move “to catch us into a war with England.”

The unofficial trade war with the United States was telling heavily upon England. The loss of the American market and the hard winter of 1811-12 had brought widespread unemployment and a business crisis. Petitions were sent to Parliament begging the Government to revoke the Orders in Council. After much hesitation Castlereagh, now at the Foreign Office, announced in the House of Commons that the Government had done so. But it was too late. The Atlantic crossing took too long for the news to reach America in time. On June 18, 1812, two days after Castlereagh’s announcement, Congress declared war on Great Britain.

In the following week Napoleon began his long-planned invasion of Russia.

The root of the quarrel, as American historians have pointed out, lay not in rival interpretations of maritime law, but in the problems of the Western frontier. The seaboard states, and especially New England, wanted peace. Their main concern was America’s foreign trade, which had already gravely diminished. War with Britain would bring it to a stop. But American domestic politics had brought to power representatives of the West and South-West who were hostile to Britain, and it was they, not the merchants of the Atlantic coastline, who forced America into the conflict. On the frontiers, and especially in the North-West, men were hungry for land, and this could be had only from the Indians or from the British Empire.

Trouble with the Indians had been brewing for some time. The pioneers of the early nineteenth century were woodsmen. They had already occupied the forest lands held by Redskin tribes in Illinois and Indiana; they now coveted the forests of British Canada round the Great Lakes, with their unsettled Crown territory and tiny population of Loyalists. As the Western territories of America filled up, pressure mounted for a farther north-westerly move. In 1811 the Red Indians bordering on the Ohio united under their last great warrior leader, Tecumseh. On his orders the tribes now showed themselves impervious to the temptations of liquor and trade. Alarm spread along the frontier. A revival of Indian power would put an end to further expansion. Troops were called out by the Governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, who had been largely responsible for the recent westward push, and in November 1811 the Indian Confederacy was overthrown at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

It is one of the legends of American history that the resistance of the Indians was encouraged and organised from Canada—a legend created by the war party of 1812. A new generation was entering American politics, headed by Henry Clay from Kentucky and John C. Calhoun from South Carolina. These young men formed a powerful group in the House of Representatives, which came to be known as the “War Hawks.” They had no conception of affairs in Europe; they cared nothing about Napoleon’s designs, still less about the fate of Russia. Their prime aim and object was to seize Canada and establish American sovereignty throughout the whole Northern continent. Through the influence of Clay the President was won over to a policy of war. The causes of the conflict were stated in traditional terms: impressment, violations of the three-mile limit, blockades, and Orders in Council. Opinion in America was sharply divided, and New England voted overwhelmingly against the declaration of war, but the “War Hawks” with their vociferous propaganda had their way. The frontier spirit in American politics was coming in with a vengeance, and it was sure of itself. Moreover, the frontier farmers felt they had a genuine grievance. There was some good ground for the slogan of “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” which they adopted. British restrictions on American shipping were holding up the export of their produce. A short expedition of pioneers would set things right, it was thought, and dictate peace in Quebec in a few weeks. Congress adjourned without even voting extra money for the American Army or Navy.


On paper the forces were very unequal. The population of the United States was now seven and a half millions, including slaves. In Canada there were only five hundred thousand people, most of them French. But there were nearly five thousand trained British troops, about four thousand Canadian regulars, and about the same number of militia. The Indians could supply between three and four thousand auxiliaries.

The American Regular Army numbered less than seven thousand men, and although with great difficulty over four hundred thousand state militia were called out few were used in Canada. On the American side never more than seven thousand men took part in any engagement, and the untrained volunteers proved hopeless soldiers. Nor was this all. The Seven Years’ War had shown that Canada could only be conquered by striking up the St Lawrence, but the Americans had no sufficient Navy for such a project. They were therefore forced to fight an offensive war on a wide frontier, impassable at places, and were exposed to Indian onslaughts on their columns. Their leaders had worked out no broad strategy. If they had concentrated their troops on Lake Ontario they might have succeeded, but instead they made half-hearted and uncoordinated thrusts across the borders.

The first American expedition ended in disaster. The ablest British commander, General Isaac Brock, supported by the Indian Confederacy, drove it back. By August the British were in Detroit, and within a few days Fort Dearborn, where Chicago now stands, had fallen. The American frontier rested once more on a line from the Ohio to Lake Erie. The remainder of the year was spent on fruitless moves, upon the Niagara front, and operations came to an inconclusive end. The British in Canada were forced to remain on the defensive while great events were taking place in Europe.

The war at sea was more colorful, and for the Americans more cheering. They had sixteen vessels, of which three surpassed anything afloat. These were 44-gun frigates, the Constitution, the United States, and the President. They fired a heavier broadside than British frigates, they were heavily timbered, but their clean lines under water enabled them to outsail any ship upon the seas. Their crews were volunteers and their officers highly trained. A London journalist called them “a few fir-built frigates, manned by a handful of bastards and outlaws.” This phrase was adopted with glee by the Americans, who gloried in disproving the insult. The British fleet on the transatlantic station consisted of ninety-seven sail, including eleven ships of the line and thirty-four frigates. Their naval tradition was long and glorious, and, with their memories of Trafalgar and the Nile, the English captains were confident they could sink any American. But when one English ship after another found its guns out-ranged and was battered to pieces the reputation of the “fir-built frigates” was startlingly made. The American public, smarting at the disasters in Canada, gained new heart from these victories. Their frigates within a year had won more successes over the British than the French and Spaniards in two decades of warfare. But retribution was at hand. On June 1, 1813, the American frigate Chesapeake, under Captain Lawrence, sailed from Boston harbour with a green and mutinous crew to accept a challenge from Captain Broke of H.M.S. Shannon. After a fifteen-minute fight the Chesapeake surrendered. Other American losses followed, and command of the ocean passed into British hands. American privateers however continued to harry British shipping throughout the rest of the war.

These naval episodes had no effect on the general course of the war, and if the British Government had abandoned impressment a new campaign might have been avoided in 1813. But they did not do so, and the Americans set about revising their strategy. The war was continuing officially upon the single issue of impressment, for the conquest of Canada was never announced as a war aim by the United States. Nevertheless Canada was their main objective. By land the Americans made a number of raids into the province of Upper Canada, now named Ontario. Towns and villages were sacked and burnt, including the little capital which has since become the great city of Toronto. The war was becoming fiercer. During the winter of 1812-13 the Americans had also established a base at Fort Presqu’île, on Lake Erie, and stores were laboriously hauled over the mountains to furnish the American commander, Captain Oliver H. Perry, with a flotilla for fresh-water righting. In the autumn Perry’s little armada sailed to victory. A strange amphibious battle was fought in September 1813. Negroes, frontier scouts, and militiamen, aboard craft hastily built of new green wood, fought to the end upon the still waters of the lake. The American ships were heavier, and the British were defeated with heavy loss. “We have met the enemy,” Perry reported laconically, “and they are ours.”

Harrison, American victor at Tippecanoe, could now advance into Ontario. In October, at the Battle of the Thames, he destroyed a British army which had beaten him earlier in the year, together with its Indian allies. The Indian Confederacy was broken and Tecumseh was killed. Thus the United States were established on the southern shores of the Great Lakes and the Indians could no longer outflank their frontier. But the invasion of Upper Canada on land had been a failure, and the year ended with the Canadians in possession of Fort Niagara.


Hitherto the British in Canada had lacked the means for offensive action. Troops and ships in Europe were locked in the deadly struggle against Napoleon. Moreover the British Government was anxious not to irritate the New England states by threatening them from the North. Even the blockade was not extended to cover Massachusetts until 1814, and indeed the British forces were almost entirely fed from the New England ports. But by the spring of 1814 a decision had been reached in Europe. Napoleon abdicated in April and the British could at last send adequate reinforcements. They purposed to strike from Niagara, from Montreal by way of Lake Champlain, and in the South at New Orleans, with simultaneous naval raids on the American coast. The campaign opened before Wellington’s veterans could arrive from the Peninsula. The advance from Niagara was checked by a savage drawn battle at Lundy’s Lane, near the Falls. But by the end of August eleven thousand troops from Europe had been concentrated near Montreal to advance by Burgoyne’s old route down the Hudson valley. In September, under Sir George Prevost, they moved on Plattsburg, and prepared to dispute the command of Lake Champlain. They were faced by a mere fifteen hundred American regulars, supported by a few thousand militia. All depended on the engagement of the British and American flotillas. As at Lake Erie, the Americans built better ships for fresh-water fighting, and they gained the victory. This crippled the British advance and was the most decisive engagement of the war. Prevost and his forces retired into Canada.

At sea, in spite of their reverses of the previous years, the British were supreme. More ships arrived from European waters. The American coast was defenceless. In August the British General Ross landed in Chesapeake Bay at the head of four thousand men. The American militia, seven thousand strong, but raw and untrained, retreated rapidly, and on the 24th British troops entered the Federal capital of Washington, President Madison took refuge in Virginia. So hasty was the American withdrawal that English officers sat down to a meal cooked for him and his family in the White House. The White House and the Capitol were then burnt in reprisal for the conduct of American militiamen in Canada. Washington’s home on the Potomac was spared and strictly guarded by the British. The campaign ended in an attempt to land at Baltimore, but here the militia were ready; and General Ross was killed and a retreat to the ships followed.

In December the last and most irresponsible British onslaught, the expedition to New Orleans, reached its base. But here in the frontier lands of the South-West a military leader of high quality had appeared in the person of Andrew Jackson. As an early settler in Tennessee he had won a reputation in warfare against the Indians. When the British now tried to subsidise and organise them Jackson pursued them into Spanish West Florida, and occupied its capital, Pensacola.

Meanwhile eight thousand British troops had landed at New Orleans under Sir Edward Pakenham, who had commanded a division at Salamanca. The swamps and inlets in the mouth of the Mississippi made an amphibious operation extremely dangerous. All men and stores had to be transported seventy miles in row-boats from the Fleet. Jackson had hastened back from Florida and entrenched himself on the left bank of the river. His forces were much inferior in numbers, but composed of highly skilled marksmen. On the morning of January 8, 1815, Pakenham led a frontal assault against the American earthworks—one of the most unintelligent manœuvres in the history of British warfare. Here he was slain and two thousand of his troops were killed or wounded. The only surviving general officer withdrew the army to its transports. The Americans lost seventy men, thirteen of them killed. The battle had lasted precisely half an hour.

Peace between England and America had meanwhile been signed on Christmas Eve, 1814. But the Battle of New Orleans is an important event in American history. It made the career of a future President, Jackson, it led to the belief that the Americans had decisively won the war, and it created an evil legend that the struggle had been a second War of Independence against British tyranny.


On the American domestic scene events had been moving fast. New England, dependent upon shipping and commerce, was suffering heavily and her leaders were embarrassed. They had supported the Federalist Party, now in disarray; they resented the predominance of the Western states and territories which had pushed them into war, and they began to contemplate leaving the Union. In the summer of 1814 Massachusetts had been thrown upon her own resources. British troops were in Maine; the harbours were blockaded by British ships. The burden of taxation fell largely upon the New England states, yet the Federal Government seemed incapable of providing even a local defence. In October a Convention of delegates from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut was summoned to meet. They assembled at Hartford in December. They wanted a separate peace with Great Britain and no further connection with the fast-growing West. They believed that the British expedition to New Orleans would succeed and that the West, cut off from the sea, would probably leave the Union on its own initiative. The President was alarmed and the war party feared the worst. Fortunately for the United States the moderate New England politicians gained the upper hand at Hartford and the Convention only drew up a severe arraignment of Madison’s administration. For the time being secession was killed. “To attempt,” they declared, “upon every abuse of power to change the Constitution would be to perpetuate the evils of revolution.”

Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and the success of the peace negotiations produced an outcry against the disloyalty of New England and attached a permanent stigma to the Federalist Party. Yet the doctrine of State Rights, to which the Hartford delegates held, was to remain a vivid force in American politics. The war had also done much to diversify New England’s economy. To her shipping and commercial interests were added great and rewarding developments in manufacture and industry.

Peace negotiations had been tried throughout the war, but it was not until January 1814 that the British had agreed to treat. The American Commissioners, among them Henry Clay, reached Ghent in June. At first the British refused to discuss either neutral rights or impressment, and they still hoped for an Indian buffer state in the North-West. It was Wellington’s common sense which changed the atmosphere. The previous November he had been asked to take command in America, but he had studied reports of the Battle of Plattsburg and realised that victory depended on naval superiority upon the lakes. He saw no way of gaining it. He held moreover that it was not in Britain’s interest to demand territory from America on the Canadian border. Both sides therefore agreed upon the status quo for the long boundary in the North. Other points were left undetermined. Naval forces on the Great Lakes were regulated by a Commission in 1817, and the disputed boundary of Maine was similarly settled later. By the time the British Navy went to war again impressment had been abandoned.

Thus ended a futile and unnecessary conflict. Anti-American feeling in Great Britain ran high for several years, but the United States were never again refused proper treatment as an independent Power. The British Army and Navy had learned to respect their former colonials. When news of peace reached the British army in the New World one of the soldiers wrote, “We are all happy enough, for we Peninsular soldiers saw that neither fame nor any other military distinction could be acquired by this type of milito-nautico-guerrilla-plundering warfare.”

The results of the peace were solid and enduring. The war was a turning-point in the history of Canada. Canadians took pride in the part they had played in defending their country, and their growing national sentiment was strengthened. Many disagreements were still to shake Anglo-American relations. Thirty years later in the dispute over the possession of Oregon vast territories were involved and there was a threat of war. But henceforward the world was to see a three-thousand-mile international frontier between Canada and the United States undefended by men or guns. On the oceans the British Navy ruled supreme for a century to come, and behind this shield the United States were free to fulfil their continental destiny.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!