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The War of 1812

In 1793, England entered the war against France, and for the next 22 years both countries were locked in a desperate life-and-death struggle into which this country was drawn. In addition to regular military campaigns, both countries waged economic warfare by proclaiming blockades and other trade-restricting devices. These measures interfered with the commerce of nonbelligerents, and they were especially irritating to the United States, which then possessed the largest and most active neutral trading fleet.

Although the United States had serious controversies with both England and France, the former became the chief target of our resentment, because the unchallenged superiority of the Royal Navy enabled her to enforce rigidly her blockades. American exasperation was further intensified by the manner in which the Royal Navy discharged this duty. British warships patrolled our shores and frequently intercepted American vessels in American territorial waters. Our ships were ordered to distant admiralty courts for adjudication. Many Americans were also embittered by the superior attitude, haughty demeanor, and arbitrary decisions of British officers.

Impressment was another fertile source of friction. Because of the meager pay, harsh discipline, and brutal life in the British Navy, desertion was widespread. As a means to maintain the necessary quota of seamen, England claimed the right to halt American vessels and remove both suspected deserters and former subjects of His Majesty, although the latter, in American eyes, had legally acquired American citizenship. Our Government continually protested against this practice, both on principle and on the grounds that American citizens were forcibly removed by the press gang and compelled to serve aboard foreign warships.

From 1793 to 1812, this country attempted to define and secure recognition of its neutral rights by diplomacy. To avoid friction, embargoes and nonintercourse acts were enacted, but with indifferent success. The lack of military strength and the split in public opinion regarding the propriety of declaring war against England precluded armed hostilities.

If the East was reluctant to go to war, the West and South, where a strong anti-British sentiment prevailed, felt no such restraint. A strong expansionist feeling grasped the land-hungry settlers along the Canadian and Florida borders. They talked of occupying Canada and acquiring Florida, a province of England's ally, Spain. In addition, the West and South, in 1812, were experiencing a depression, a decline in the fur trade, and trouble with the Indians. In the popular mind, England was directly responsible for these difficulties.

These sections sent to Congress young, aggressive, and vigorous representatives, who, by 1812, gained control of Congress. Labeled "War Hawks" because of their martial ardor, they were skillfully led by Henry Clay, Felix Grundy, and John C. Calhoun. In response to a message from President Madison, the War Hawks succeeded in forcing a declaration of war against England through a wavering Congress, in June 1812.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the military unpreparedness of the United States in 1812. The country was gravely deficient in arms and equipment. The army was small, disorganized, badly trained, and lacking leadership. The Navy, consisting of a handful of ships, was asked to contend with a rival which was the undisputed master of the seven seas. New England, bitterly opposed to the war, refused to furnish its share of manpower and financial support, and Congress committed a most serious blunder by failing to pass legislation for the vigorous prosecution of the war.


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