The “Western” frontier for the United States in the early 19th century was what is now the upper Midwest. The people in this region favored war with Britain because they felt it would lead to greater expansion and settlement for Americans.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
According to the essay James Madison, 'Creating the Balance' on the EDSITEment resource The American President, "Madison's presidency was dominated by a crisis with Great Britain, which for years had been grossly violating American shipping rights." This crisis over U.S. shipping rights actually began while George Washington was president and grew during Thomas Jefferson's term in office (1800-1808), when Madison served as Secretary of State. Between 1805-07, a large number of American ships were seized and impressments of American sailors into service on British ships increased, leading Congress to pass an extreme measure, the Embargo Act of 1807. The act restricted trade with foreign nations. A state of war that began in 1803 and would continue until after Napoleon's abdication in 1814 resulted in a loss of commerce that devastated the American economy while doing little to change the policies of France and Britain.
Abuses to American commerce on the part of Britain and France continued. But in 1810 Napoleon's announcement that France would no longer seize American ships convinced President Madison to allow trade with France. The announcement had conditions attached, and France continued to interfere with American shipping. In the end, however, the U.S. declared war only on Great Britain.
The decision to go to war is one of the most serious an American president faces. On June 1, 1812, President Madison sent a letter—later dubbed his war message—to both houses of Congress. In it, he listed a series of transgressions Great Britain had committed against the U.S. He also explained his decision not to recommend war with France at that time. EDSITEment resources offer primary documents that illuminate key points in President Madison's War Message. Help your students understand the reasons the president gave for going to war, while heightening their appreciation of the value of archival sources.
Briefly review the list of troubling passages and questions in President Madison's War Message that the class compiled in Lesson One, above. Then read with or to the class "President Madison's War Message, Edited/Annotated Version," on pages 1-2, or "President Madison's War Message, Full-Text Version" in the PDF. When you come to previously troubling sections in the text or those relating to student questions, determine if the concerns/questions have been clarified.
Ask students to assume the role of newspaper reporters present when President Madison's message was read in the House of Representatives. Have them write a concise, accurate account of what the message contained. Students should remember to begin the account using the reporter's formula, a brief paragraph summarizing the key elements: who, what, where, when, and why of the event. The text of Madison's message should be available to students as they compose their articles.
The prowar feeling that swept the country in 1810-11 left its mark on the congressional elections.According to Donald Hickey's The War of 1812 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), "By directing debate and interpreting the rules, by packing key committees and acting forcefully behind the scenes, he [Henry Clay, Speaker of the House and an important War Hawk] insured that the War Hawks dominated the 12th Congress." (P. 30) Among the legislators Hickey lists as War Hawks are Henry Clay and Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky; Felix Grundy of Tennessee; Langdon Cheeves, William Lowndes, John C. Calhoun, and David R. Williams of South Carolina; George M. Troup of Georgia; Peter B. Porter of New York; and John A. Harper of New Hampshire. (Students can look for these names as they read documents from Congress.)
Most of the War Hawks came from the agrarian areas of the South and West whose people were hardly affected by maritime issues (although some Westerners claimed that the orders in council had crippled their markets for agricultural produce); yet they chose to view maritime seizure and impressments as outrages upon national rights and honor. Northern and Southern War Hawks found common ground in expansionism, (J.W. Pratt, 1925). Those from the Northwest, eager to destroy the frontier Native American menace they attributed to British intrigue and incitement, equated security with land hunger and demanded the conquest of Canada. The Southerners wanted to wrest Florida from Spain, Britain's ally.
Despite expansionist pressures, the U.S. would not have been involved in war had it not been for maritime and commercial issues. Madison was no tool of the war party (see Theodore Clark Smith, 1931), although he ultimately supported its program. (P. 1548-1549)
The seat of anti-British fever was in the Northwest and the lower Ohio Valley, where the land-hungry frontiersmen had no doubt that their troubles with the Indians were the result of British intrigue. Stories were circulated after every Indian raid of British Army muskets and equipment being found on the field. By 1812, the westerners were convinced that their problems could best be solved by forcing the British out of Canada.According to the article The Burning of Washington on the White House Historical Association website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Explore D.C.:
While the western War Hawks urged war in the hope of conquering Canada, the people of Georgia, Tennessee, and the Mississippi Territory entertained similar designs against Florida, a Spanish possession. The fact that Spain and England were allies against Napoleon presented the southern war hawks with an excuse for invading Florida. By this time, also, the balance of political power had shifted south and westward; ambitious party leaders had no choice but to align themselves with the war hawks, and 1812 was a Presidential election year.
These repeated affronts to the dignity of a free and sovereign people were insufferable for proud young Americans like Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, both of whom were born after the Declaration of Independence. The elections of 1810 sent this formidable duo and other young War Hawks to Congress, and it quickly became evident that what was tolerable for older Americans had become untenable for the new generation. They preferred "war with all its accompanying evils to abject submission." The wound to national pride had festered for so long that appeals to transatlantic ties made no impression. The leader of those opposed to war, Representative John Randolph of Roanoke, argued in vain against a fratricidal war against those who shared the same blood, religion, language, legal system, representative government, and even the works of Shakespeare and Newton. The war hawks carried the day in June 1812, and with his signature to the congressionally approved declaration of war, President James Madison locked the snippety transatlantic upstart into battle against the mightiest power on earth.Research can offer insight into questions about the War Hawks and their influence.
The conquest of Canada has been represented to be so easy as to be little more than a party of pleasure. We have, it has been said, nothing to do but to march an army into the country and display the standard of the United States, and the Canadians will immediately flock to it and place themselves under our protection. They have been represented as ripe for revolt, panting for emancipation from a tyrannical government … But to invade a country with any prospect of success, the power of the invader needs to be much greater than that of the party invaded. (P. 1663)
Further Objections to the War in the Senate, also on American Memory, were voiced by Obadiah German, a senator from New York State.
Not all Americans, however, had wrapped themselves in the flag of patriotism. New England states seldom met their quotas of militiamen, and many New England merchants and farmers traded freely with the enemy. After the British offensive included northern ports, some New England Federalists talked about seceding from the Union. In an attempt to block secessionist sentiment, moderate Federalists called a convention in Hartford, Connecticut, to propose a series of constitutional amendments protecting sectional rights. The convention leaders brought their proposals to Washington just as news broke of New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent. To most of the nation, the participants of the Hartford Convention looked like traitors, or at least unpatriotic troublemakers. Their antiwar criticism and regional concerns helped to doom the weakened Federalist Party as a national entity on the political scene.The Hartford Convention went so far as to propose Amendments to the Constitution, available on the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project.
1 class periods