Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: President Madison's 1812 War Message: A Documentary Review

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

The battle between the American warship U.S.S. Chesapeake (right) and the British warship H.M.S. Leopard (left)

The battle between the American warship U.S.S. Chesapeake (right) and the British warship H.M.S. Leopard (left) was the result of the British “impressing” (taking) both American seamen and British deserters from American ships, and helped lead to all-out war a few years later.

Credit: Painting by F. Muller. 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.

Guiding Questions

  • What kinds of documents shed light on President Madison's message?
  • In what way does each document reflect on President Madison's case for having Congress consider war with Great Britain?

Learning Objectives

  • Cite the key points in President Madison's argument for having Congress consider declaring war with Great Britain.
  • Point to documents and corresponding events that shed light on Madison's argument.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the Master PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • NOTE: Ten sections of President Madison's War Message that seemed most likely to need clarification have been included in the activity. Use any or all of them with the class, or assign some (or all) to small groups. Unless otherwise noted, all documents are from the EDSITEment resource American Memory.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. "The War in Which Great Britain is Engaged"

The situation of the United States as a neutral nation became increasingly hazardous as the conflict between Britain and France, which embraced the whole Western world, increased in ruthlessness and desperation. Both powers trampled on neutral rights, but Britain, because it commanded the sea, was the greater offender.

—From the article Thomas Jefferson on Grolier Online's The American Presidency, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library

Students may not know that an international war, with Britain and France as the central combatants, was waged in Europe from 1803 to about 1814. Students may also wonder how the U.S. was affected by a war waged an ocean away. Hostilities between Britain and France and their various allies resumed in 1803. In his third State of the Union Address, delivered in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson reflected on the effect of this international conflict on the United States. Share with the class the excerpt on the handout "President Jefferson's Third State of the Union, 1803," in the PDF (see Preparation Instructions for download instructions), or use the complete text, available online.

  • What were Jefferson's concerns about how the European war might affect neutral nations such as the U.S.?
  • How did Jefferson expect the belligerents to conduct themselves?
  • What did Madison's War Message indicate about the state of relations with Great Britain and France in 1812?
Questions for Analysis

What information or documents, if any, revealed so far in the lesson are helpful in answering the following:

  • In what ways was the U.S. affected by the European war? What differences, if any, were there in the attitudes and conduct of the British and the French?
  • What differences, if any, were there in the attitude and conduct of the U.S. government toward the British and the French?
  • Was there a bias in favor of France on the part of Democratic-Republican followers of Jefferson and Madison, as Federalists charged?
  • How did American concerns change, if at all, from 1803 to 1812?

What kinds of additional information or documents would be helpful to the analysis?

Extending this Activity
Activity 2. "A series of acts hostile to the United States as an Independent Nation"

For Madison and the War Hawks, the declaration (of war) amounted to a second war of independence for the new Republic.

James Madison: Foreign Affairs on the EDSITEment resource The American President

Students should understand that Americans were particularly sensitive to insults from the great European powers. They were perceived as slights on the status of the U.S. as a full-fledged member of the international community. Specific incidents were perceived as more than slights. In March 1812, just months before the declaration of war, President Madison presented to Congress a series of documents purporting to reveal a British plot to foment a rebellion of the New England states and dissolution of the Union. Some secondary accounts accuse the president of using these documents as a way of building the case for war.

NOTE: The War Hawks were a group of young, nationalistic congressmen who favored war with Great Britain. Students interested in learning more about the War Hawks should see the first item under Extending the Unit of Study, below. According to Donald R. Hickey's The War of 1812 (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1989):

The War Hawks hoped their legislative program would promote patriotism and prepare the American people psychologically and militarily for war. President Madison hoped for the same result, and he used the powers of his office to stimulate the war spirit further. On March 9, 1812, …the president informed Congress that a British plot to incite disunion in New England had been uncovered. The central figure in this plot was a handsome, if simple-minded and pretentious Irishman by the name of John Henry. …A French rogue… persuaded Henry to sell his correspondence to the U.S. government.

…They persuaded the administration to buy the documents for $50,000—the entire budget of the secret service fund.

…Federalists considered the whole affair a tawdry political gimmick…

The Henry affair proved to be a tempest in a teapot. The letters were hardly worth $50,000 and scarcely a cause for war. It was common practice in those days for governments to use amateur spies…. The real significance of the Henry affair was …that it showed the administration's determination to whip up support for its war policy. "We have made use of Henry's documents," Monroe (James Monroe, Secretary of State) told the French minister, "as a last means of exciting the nation and Congress."

On March 9, 1812, President James Madison delivered a message to Congress.

I lay before Congress copies of certain documents …. They prove that at a recent period, whilst the United States, notwithstanding (despite) the wrongs sustained by them (the states), ceased not (continued) to observe the laws of peace and neutrality towards Great Britain, and in the midst of amicable (friendly) … negotiations on the part of the British Government, … a secret agent … was employed in certain states …for the purpose of bringing about resistance to the laws; and eventually, in concert with a British force, of destroying the Union and forming the Eastern part … into a political connection with Great Britain ….

Students can read a small selection of "Edited/Annotated Documents about John Henry," in the PDF (see Preparation Instructions for download instructions), and consider their relevance and importance.

Questions for Analysis

What information or documents, if any, revealed so far in the lesson are helpful in answering the following:

  • In what way was the "Henry" incident considered a threat to American independence?
  • What evidence, if any exists, would be necessary to show that the administration attempted with the "Henry" incident or at any other time to "whip up support for its war policy"?
  • What documents would be needed to prove that the administration had a war policy?

What kinds of additional information or documents would be helpful to the analysis?

Extending this Activity

The documents Madison submitted along with his message of March 9 are found in the Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 12th Congress, 1st Session, under the page heading British Intrigues, page 1161. A series of letters follows, ending on British Intrigues, page 1183. Interested students can review any or all of the documents.

Activity 3. "A Series of acts hostile to the United States as a neutral nation"

Discuss with the class what it means to be a neutral nation. From 1803 to 1814, our most important trading partners were engaged in the Napoleonic Wars. The U.S. frequently declared a desire to remain neutral. Why was it difficult for the U.S. to remain neutral? American complaints about threats to neutrality often mentioned The Orders in Council issued by the British king. Read with students the first seven paragraphs of the Orders in Council of November 11, 1807, as published in the American State Papers, Senate, 10th Congress, 2nd Session Foreign Relations: Vol. 3, p. 269.

  • What does the document cite as the impetus for the new British policy?
  • What was the new British policy?
  • What is the tone of the document?
  • What accommodations did the British offer in the seventh paragraph?

For more information on the neutral status of the United States, share the secondary account Entanglement in World Affairs on The Mariners' Museum, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.

NOTE: Succeeding mini-lessons will provide examples of some of the alleged hostile acts.

Questions for Analysis

What information or documents, if any, revealed so far in the lesson are helpful in answering the following:

  • In what ways, if any, were the policies of the British government insults to the neutral and/or independent status of the U.S.?
  • Why were the accommodations offered by the British considered insufficient by the U.S. government?

What kinds of additional information or documents would be helpful to the analysis?

Extending this Activity

Students can view many documents from Great Britain starting with the Orders in Council of November 11, 1807 and then using the PREV IMAGE | NEXT IMAGE function on the page.

Activity 4. "Seizing and carrying off persons"

To Americans the most grievous British wrong was the revival and vigorous application of the centuries-old system of impressments….

—From Blum, et.al. The National Experience (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1963), 170.

Impressment, the kidnapping of sailors—American and others—into the ranks of the Royal Navy, is often cited as an insult that particularly aroused the ire of the American people. How can one find the answer to such questions as:

  • Why was impressment perceived as particularly heinous?
  • How serious a problem was impressment?
  • Did the British have legitimate grievances that led to impressments?

If desired, begin by sharing the digitized image of A Letter of Impressment Protection on The Mariners' Museum, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library. Most of it is legible and can be read aloud, if desired. In the document, one Sam Bishop bears witness that one William Smith, an American seaman, was indeed born in the United States.

  • Why did Mr. Smith carry such a document? (In hopes of preventing his impressment into the Royal British Navy.)
  • Why was impressment a particular problem between England and the U.S.? (English was the language in both countries. British deserters attempted escape on American ships. Britain was the world's greatest naval power, with serious manpower needs. When Britain chose to increase its manpower through kidnapping, it logically targeted American sailors.)

For background on impressments, read the Secondary Account: Impressment of American Sailors also on The Mariners' Museum. President Madison was quite familiar with the longstanding problem of impressment from his service as Secretary of State for Thomas Jefferson. In compliance with a Senate resolution of November 1807, Madison presented a report on impressment to Congress in February 1808. Students can benefit from viewing the first page of the report where Secretary of State Madison's Summary Chart of Impressments Begins, 1808 (page 36). What observations can students make about the information on the chart? Now look at the page where Secretary of State Madison's Summary Chart of Impressments Ends with a Tally of Totals (page 45). Note that in the previous two years, 697 sailors had been impressed, of whom 595 were Americans. Twenty-three were British subjects.

Questions for Analysis

What information or documents, if any, revealed so far in the lesson are helpful in answering the following:

  • Did the British have legitimate grievances?
  • Why were Americans particularly angry about impressment?
  • Is there any evidence to suggest that Americans were protecting sailors who had deserted the British navy?
  • Were there any changes in impressment policy or practices from 1808 to 1812?

What kinds of additional information or documents would be helpful to the analysis?

Extending this Activity

Interested students can search the American State Papers for "impressed" and "impressment" to see the frequency of documents on the subject and to link to documents for research. Students can view pages using search or browse or by starting with Secretary of State Madison's Summary Chart of Impressments Begins, 1808 and then using the PREV IMAGE | NEXT IMAGE function on the page.

Activity 5. "Hover over and harass our entering and departing Commerce and have want only spilt American Blood"

This sentence could refer to a number of incidents. For most Americans it probably brought to mind the incident of the U.S. frigate Chesapeake. Share with students a secondary account of the Chesapeake incident such as The Chesapeake Affair of 1807 and American Reaction to the Chesapeake Affair on The Mariners' Museum, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. Now share with the class Commodore Barron's Inquiry into the Presence of Deserters aboard the Chesapeake, also on The Mariners' Museum. The Chesapeake Affair occurred on June 22.

  • Why did Commodore Barron's Inquiry into the Presence of Deserters aboard the Chesapeake take place (April, 1807)?
  • What were Commodore Barron's conclusions?
  • What, if any, important information was missing from or incorrect in his report?
  • What is the tone of his report? How does that tone reflect the nature of U.S./British relations?

Admiral Berkeley's Orders to Search the Chesapeake (on The Mariners' Museum) were received by Captain Humphrey of H.M.S. Leopard from the British vice-admiral on June 1, 1807.

  • What were Admiral Berkeley's orders?
  • What is the tone of the orders? How does that tone reflect the nature of U.S./British relations?
  • What accommodations, if any, concerning the search do the orders specify?

If desired, students also can read the Messages Exchanged between the Chesapeake and the Leopard, June 22, 1807, also on The Mariners' Museum

  • What is the tone of these messages?
  • What, if anything, do they reveal about the state of U.S./British relations?
  • What, if anything, do they reveal about the attitude of the two captains concerning their part in the incident?

Students can read an edited, annotated version of the "Report to the House of Representatives on the Frigate Chesapeake," in the PDF (see Preparation Instructions for download instructions), or the complete text, available online.

  • What is the tone of the report? What attitude about the incident does it reflect?
  • In what ways, if any, does the account agree with the information presented so far in this lesson? Disagree?
  • If there are differences, what are they? How can the differences be explained?

The Chesapeake incident probably provided the strongest single impetus for President Jefferson's Embargo of 1807.

Extending this Activity

According to Morris and Morris's Encyclopedia of American History (New York: Harper Collins, 1996):

The British 38-gun frigate Guerriere overhauled (1 May 1811) off Sandy Hook the American brig Spitfire and impressed a native-born American. Captain John Rodgers, commanding the U.S. 44-gun frigate President, was ordered (6 May) to cruise off Sandy Hook to give protection to American vessels. En route Rodgers sighted a ship he mistook for the Guerriere (actually the craft was the British 20-gun corvette Little Belt) … The pursuit ended in an evening engagement (16 May) off Cape Charles. The broadsides of the President disabled the Little Belt, killing nine and wounding 23 of her crew. (P. 137-138)

Use the “FIND” function on your browser to find "Little Belt" in the American State Papers: INDEX TO FOREIGN RELATIONS. VOL. III. Read about the American investigation into this incident, one that was not unlike the Chesapeake Affair, with the roles reversed. Americans had killed British subjects.

Activity 6. "…Our commerce has been plundered in every sea, the great staples of our country have been cut off from their legitimate markets"

President Madison referred to exports when he said, "The great staples of our country have been cut off from their legitimate markets." Reports to Congress found in the American State Papers (Volumes 1 and 2) document U.S. exports from each state. Analyze the documents with the whole class or assign the following sets of charts to groups:

Set 1
  • Exports by State for Fiscal 1806 (Total value of exports 101,536,963)
  • Exports by State for Fiscal 1807 (Total value of exports 22,430,960)
  • Exports by State for Fiscal 1808 (Total value of exports 16,022,790)
Set 2
  • Exports by State for Fiscal 1811 (Total value of exports 61,316,833)
  • Exports by State for Fiscal 1812 (Total value of exports 38,527,936)
Set 3
  • Exports by State for Fiscal 1814 (Total value of exports 6,927,441)
  • Exports by State for Fiscal 1815 (Total value of exports 52,557,753)
Questions for Analysis

What information or documents, if any, revealed so far in the lesson are helpful in answering the following:

  • In what years were there significant changes in total exports?
  • In what way, if any, do the data by state help explain why objections to the War of 1812 were strongest in the New England states?
  • In what way, if any, do the data support the contention that the War of 1812 was fought to bolster American commerce?
  • Is it possible to tell from the export data which states suffered the most from declines in exports in 1807 and 1812? Is it possible to tell from the export data which states suffered the least?
  • What information would be helpful in determining a relationship between voting patterns/party affiliation by state and maritime commerce?
  • What information would be helpful in determining a relationship between voting patterns in the House and Senate on the 1812 Declaration of War?
  • What other conclusions can be drawn from the data? What kinds of additional information would be helpful in drawing conclusions?
  • What data would be necessary to determine if the Embargo of 1807 benefited American manufacturing or agriculture in any way?

What other kinds of additional information or documents would be helpful in analyzing the relationship between commerce and other events/conditions/movements in the U.S. during this period?

Extending this Activity
Activity 7. "…Great Britain formally avowed (declared) a determination to persist in them (insults to American Maritime rights)"

The British insisted that American ships would continue to be seized until France lifted all restrictions on British trade.—James Madison: Foreign Affairs on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President

Share with the class the edited version of "President Madison's State of the Union, 1811," in the PDF (see Preparation Instructions for download instructions), or the complete text, available online.

Questions for Analysis
  • What was the state of foreign affairs according to President Madison?
  • What is the tone of Madison's remarks about the British? About the French? What differences, if any, do you detect?
  • What insults to American commerce or neutrality did Madison cite?
  • What actions did Madison say the country was undertaking?
  • What sense did Madison communicate about the chances of war? With whom?
Activity 8. "Warfare just renewed by the savages (Native Americans) on one of our extensive frontiers"

Hostilities between Native Americans and American settlers were a longstanding problem on the frontier. A long history of accusations existed that the British were inciting such hostility. In the American State Papers, Indian Affairs: Vol. 1, p. 108, students can get an idea of the kind of reports received in Washington by reading the Extract of a Letter from Governor Harrison to the War Department at Vincennes, September 17, 1811 (located in the middle of the page) and the Extract of a Letter from J. Rhea, captain 13th regiment of infantry, dated Fort Wayne, March 14, 1812

Questions for Analysis

What information or documents, if any, revealed so far in the lesson are helpful in answering the following:

  • What were the accusations against the British in North America? Were they valid?
  • What inducements did the British offer to the Indians?
  • What indications were there of Indian sympathies? Were they more favorably disposed to the British or the Americans (or neither)?
  • What is the tone of the American documents?
  • Could the American documents have been false accusations used for propaganda purposes by those in favor of war with the Indians and/or the British?
  • Was the motive of those in favor of war the acquisition of additional land from the Indians? The safety of Americans living on the frontier? Both? Another motive?

What kinds of additional information or documents would be helpful to the analysis?

Extending this Activity

Many documents—such as the following—indicate the long history of accusations that the British incited the Indians to hostile actions:

The Index to the Extracts of Letters to the War Department is a series of extracts of letters from the Northwest. Senders include Governor William Henry Harrison, who later became a war hero in battles against the Indians and the British as well as president of the United States. Use the PREV IMAGE | NEXT IMAGE function on the page to view documents between the first page and last page.

Activity 9. "Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the government"

President Madison, as a strict constructionist of the Constitution, never formally asked for a declaration of war. Instead, he asked Congress to consider the issues he raised in his message and to decide a course of action. Why? Review ARTICLE 1: Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, available on the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project.

Activity 10. Repealing the Embargo on France

"I ABSTAIN (REFRAIN) AT THIS TIME FROM RECOMMENDING TO THE CONSIDERATION OF CONGRESS DEFINITIVE MEASURES WITH RESPECT TO THAT NATION (FRANCE), IN THE EXPECTATION THAT THE RESULT OF … DISCUSSIONS BETWEEN OUR MINISTER … AT PARIS AND THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT WILL SPEEDILY ENABLE CONGRESS TO DECIDE WITH GREATER ADVANTAGE ON THE COURSE DUE TO THE RIGHTS, THE INTERESTS, AND THE HONOR OF OUR COUNTRY"

Napoleon's clever diplomacy and outright deception kept the American government from reinstating the embargo on France and from including France in its 1812 Declaration of War. Napoleon announced the end of French restrictions on American commerce on November 1, 1810. In accordance with American policy, President Madison repealed the embargo of France. Share with the class the edited, annotated "Repeal of the Embargo of France (and Not Great Britain)," in the PDF (see Preparation Instructions for download instructions), or the complete text, available online. Napoleon did not announce the conditions he had attached to the end of French restrictions. His navy continued to seize American ships. According to The Encyclopedia of American History:

Napoleon's duplicity was revealed after Joel Barlow, whom Madison had named minister to France, arrived at Paris (19 Sept. 1811) in order to seek clarification… The Duc de Bassano, Napoleon's foreign minister, showed Barlow the "Decree of St. Cloud," supposedly signed by Napoleon 28 Apr. 1811. It stated that his earlier decrees had been declared nonexistent in regard to U.S. vessels since 1 Nov. 1810. The decree had never been published and, despite French assurances, had never been communicated to the U.S. government. (P. 156)

Students can read the cover letter Joel Barlow wrote when he sent the "Decree of St. Cloud" in Barlow Transmits Document He Had Never Seen Before from the American State Papers (Foreign Relations: Vol. 3, p. 613). Barlow's letter is followed by a series of Letters Confirming That No One Recognizes The French Document (American State Papers, Foreign Relations: Vol. 3, p. 614).

Discussion and Analysis
  • How had the edicts of France and Great Britain been affecting American commerce in 1810?
  • How had the edicts of France and Great Britain been affecting American neutrality?
  • In what way was President Madison changing U.S. policy? Why?
  • Presidents Jefferson and Madison had been ardent supporters of the French Revolution. What would you need to know to evaluate the charge that their policies were biased in favor of France?

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

2-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
Authors
  • MMS (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media