Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: President Madison's 1812 War Message: Answers Lead to More Questions


The Lesson


The "Western" frontier for the United States in the early 19th century

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.

Guiding Questions

  • How does President Madison build a case for having Congress consider declaring war with Great Britain?
  • What questions do students have about statements in the message?
  • What kinds of documents might help students find answers to their questions?

Learning Objectives

  • Cite key points in President Madison's argument for having Congress consider declaring war with Great Britain.
  • Hypothesize about documents that would be useful in clarifying questions about the message.

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Answers Lead to More Questions

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.

Extending The Lesson

  • Secondary accounts offer slightly different versions of the importance of the War Hawks in the run up to the War of 1812. According to The Encyclopedia of American History:
    The prowar feeling that swept the country in 1810-11 left its mark on the congressional elections.

    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)
    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.)

    According to American Military History: The War of 1812 on The United States Army website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Pubic Library:
    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.

    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.
    According to the article The Burning of Washington on the White House Historical Association website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Explore D.C.:
    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.
    • Did the War Hawks tend to come from certain regions of the country?
    • How did they promote a war agenda, if at all?
    • How did the Foreign Relations Committee advance the move toward war, if at all? How did it increase American preparedness for war?
    • What did the War Hawks hope the U.S. would gain from the war?
    • Were their goals reasonable? Legitimate?

      Students can begin their research by reading a speech on the Floor of the House by Felix Grundy, Representative from Tennessee, in Annals of Congress, 12th Cong., 1st Sess., pages 425-427 (from "What, Mr. Speaker, are we now called on to decide?" to "I therefore feel anxious not only to add the Floridas to the South, but the Canadas to the North of this empire") on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory.
    • What are Representative Grundy's chief complaints against the British?
    • What did he consider to be the advantages of war?
    • What did he hope the U.S. would gain from the war?
    • Were his goalsreasonable? Legitimate?

      Students can search A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, also on American Memory, for the names of any of the War Hawks to track their documented actions in Congress. In addition, students can search for the term "Foreign Relations Committee" for the congressional sessions prior to the war.
  • Students may be familiar with protests against wars in which the United States has fought, such as those which occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Vietnam War was by no means the first war against which many people objected. In fact, the declaration of war that received the closest vote ever in the House and Senate was that of the War of 1812. American citizens, especially on the East Coast and primarily in New England, voiced objections to that war.
    • What objections to the war were expressed, and by whom?
    • Why did the opposition exist?
    • Was opposition legitimate or merely partisan?

      A long protest against the 1812 Declaration of War was inserted into the Congressional Record by Samuel Taggart, a Federalist from Massachusetts. (The Federalists, in the minority, decided to "boycott" the debate by remaining silent because the majority insisted on debating in secret.) Taggart's speech begins on page 1638 of the Annals of Congress for the House of Representatives, 12th Congress, 1st Session, on the EDSITEment resource American Memory. His remarks end on page 1679.

      In the course of his speech, Representative Taggart gives a complete accounting of Federalist objections to the war. For example, he says the following about the ambitions of those who wanted to conquer Canada:
      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.
    • What were Senator German's objections to the war?
    • Did he blame the War Hawks for American entry into the war?

      Students can view the results of the vote for the House of Representatives: June 3, 1812, Declaration of War on American Memory. The vote in the House was 79-49, the closest vote ever on a declaration of war. Use the link to look at the names of those who voted for and against the 1812 Declaration of War. The vote in the Senate (Wednesday, June 17, 1812, Entry (The Senate Passes the Declaration of War) in the Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789-1873 on American Memory) was 19-13, also the closest vote ever on a declaration of war. If desired, use the Biographical Directory on the EDSITEment resource Congress Link to find the states and parties of those voting.
    • How did any War Hawks vote?
    • Did the legislators tend to vote along party lines?
    • Did legislators from certain regions tend to vote as a bloc?

      Average citizens also petitioned Congress to protest the move toward war. Here are three examples on American Memory:
    • Petition of the inhabitants of Nantucket, in the State of Massachusetts
    • Petitions of sundry inhabitants of Philadelphia county
    • Petition from the Citizens of Plymouth May 14, 1812

      What can be learned from these and other citizen protests?
    • What arguments were offered in objection to the war? Were they valid?
    • How did commercial concerns relate to the protests? Were these valid reasons for avoiding war? Were such concerns too localized to be effective?
    • From which states were most citizen protests coming? Why?
    • Why did the Plymouth protesters point to U.S. relations with France? Was the comparison legitimate?
    • What constitutional recourse do citizens have when they object to a war?

      The culmination of the war protest came in 1814 with the Hartford Convention. According to Madison's Presidency: Foreign Affairs on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The American President:
      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.
    • What immediate actions of the states did the Hartford Convention call for?
    • What amendments to the Constitution did the Hartford Convention recommend?
    • To what specific situations was each resolution a reaction?
  • Students with an interest in the military aspects of the War of 1812 can refer to the extensive information available in the article The War of 1812 on the website of The United States Army, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)


Activity Worksheets