The War of 1812

What was the War of 1812? If you ask most Americans, they will say that it was America’s second War of Independence. That we were defending ourselves against England’s attempt to re-colonize the United States. But was that really the case?

When we look carefully at the War of 1812, we find that U.S. involvement was really quite small and peripheral to a much larger war (the Napoleonic war) that lasted from 1805 to 1815 that was being waged in all of Europe, the eastern part of North America, the Caribbean and parts of South America. That the war extended to both hemispheres of the planet, it could easily be thought of as the first world war or the real World War I.

The War of 1812 was about Napoleon’s effort to conquer all of Europe including England and Russia. England and Russia were two of the few opponents that didn’t capitulate to Napoleon, and it was primarily England and Russia that defeated Napoleon. So how did the U.S. get involved?

The U.S. was primarily neutral in that war except that the U.S. traded heavily with France during that period. This trade was extremely beneficial to both countries and especially to Napoleon’s war effort. England, being at war with France, was blockading France and confiscated ships and cargoes destined for French ports. Americans, in the mean time, were also enticing English sailors (who had been pressed into service) to desert and join the American navy, offering money and freedom. The English retaliated by taking the English deserters from American ships and re-pressing them into service or hanging them for desertion. American traders, angered by the confiscation of cargoes, ships and sailors pressed Congress and President Madison to retaliate. In addition, Some Americans seeing England was engaged in all out war with France, saw it as an opportunity to expand U.S. territory into Canada and engaged in a small war with Canada along the St. Lawrence seaway.

A substantial portion of the resources for Napoleon’s war effort came from the French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Caribbean and South America as well as the U.S. England not only needed to stop the flow of resources to Napoleon but was in dire need of resources for its own war effort. That was the real reason for the English naval action against ships of all nations that supported or traded with the French.

Thus, as a result of the English confiscation of American cargoes destined for France, the sinking and/or capture of some of those ships, the capture of English navy deserters (who were deemed to be Americans because they deserted), and the opportunity for U.S. expansion into Canada, the U.S. Congress declared war on England. And that was our involvement in the War of 1812. Did English troops invade the U.S.? Yes, after the U.S. formally declared war on England. But it’s extremely unlikely any sane Englishman ever entertained the idea of re-colonizing the U.S.

So the War of 1812 was not just about an English invasion of the U.S., it was about a much, much larger war in which the U.S. played a small part. When teaching young American students about the history of the War of 1812, it would be good for them to connect the dots.