Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

President Madison's 1812 War Message (3 Lessons)



The Unit


Whether the United States shall continue passive under these … accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the Almighty Disposer of Events, … is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government. In recommending it to their early deliberations I am happy in the assurance that the decision will be worthy the enlightened and patriotic councils of a virtuous, a free, and a powerful nation.
—President James Madison, War Message to Congress Washington, June 1, 1812

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

  • How did Madison build the case for war in his message to Congress?
  • What were the issues in maritime disputes between the U.S. and Great Britain?
  • What were the accusations against the British in North America?
  • Why did Madison not include a specific declaration of war in his remarks?
  • Why did Madison not recommend that Congress should decide whether to wage war on France?

Learning Objectives

  • Paraphrase Madison's case against the British.
  • Cite important examples of insults to American maritime rights and explain the ways in which they were troubling to the U.S.
  • Explain the position of the U.S. in the maritime disputes.
  • Discuss accusations made against the British in North America.
  • Restate Madison's reasons for asking Congress to postpone making a decision on war with France.

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.
  • This unit consists of three parts. First, students will read President Madison's War Message (in either an edited/annotated or full-text version) and be given the opportunity to raise questions about its contents. Then the teacher—in a series of optional mini-lessons—will share with the class pertinent examples of primary documents (and some secondary accounts) that illuminate key points in President Madison's letter. The lesson identifies 10 statements in the message about which students are likely to have questions, and it provides relevant materials. If students raise questions about other sections of the letter, class members may be able to locate pertinent documents on their own, once they become familiar with some of the sources available in the records of Congress. In the end, students will return to the War Message, review its contents, and consider what documents might be useful in making further analyses of the text.
  • Students can use the Biographical Directory on the EDSITEment resource Congress Link to obtain information (including his party affiliation, when he served, and a link to a brief biography) on any member of Congress mentioned or to explore the influence of party or section of the country on any particular vote mentioned in a document from the House or Senate.
  • Throughout this unit, students read and analyze a variety of primary documents. The following materials from EDSITEment resources may be useful to teachers seeking expert advice on the use of primary documents:

The Lessons

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources