June 18th marks the bicentennial of the beginning of the War of 1812. Americans are largely indifferent about this date, although the state of Maryland is planning a huge celebration. Canadians, by contrast, seem to be much more excited, with a reenactment being planned that will consist entirely of people from Canada. Yet I think it would be unfortunate if we did not stop and examine the significance of the War of 1812. Specifically, I want to examine whether or not the War of 1812 was actually necessary. Back in April, I did a series of blog posts about the Civil War. One of the goals of these posts was to demonstrate that it was necessary for the North to fight the war, though not for the reasons that most Northerners fought. Today, I will attempt to demonstrate that, unlike the Civil War, the War of 1812 was unnecessary. I will attempt to demonstrate that, not only was it unnecessary, but that part of the American motivation for fighting it was actually downright insidious. Additionally, I will recount the story of blacks who fought for freedom by joining the British Army. An interesting exercise for historians is to look at situations in which one country chose to go to war with a much stronger country and try to determine why. The situation of the United States in 1812 was similar to that of Japan in 1941, when Japan chose to attack Pearl Harbor despite having one-tenth of America’s industrial power. So why did the United States, having miraculously beaten Britain during the Revolutionary War largely due to the fact that the British concluded that keeping the American colonies was more trouble than it was worth, apparently tempted fate by fighting Britain a second time? While the South had one primary reason for seceding, the United States had several for fighting the War of 1812. At least two of these reasons can be tied in with the Napoleonic Wars.
Reason#1: In the early 1800s, Britain was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, fighting against French military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. Hence, Britain was none too pleased that some men were deserting the Royal Navy and joining United States merchant ships. Britain reacted by beginning a practice of seizing American ships and forcing sailors to serve in the British Navy. Obviously, Britain’s way of reacting to desertion from the Royal Navy and into the United States military was excessive. On the other hand, consider how the United States would react if people were deserting from our military and joining Chinese businesses. Would not the United States frown upon this and take aggressive action if China failed to stop it? Let us also assume that, in this scenario, the United States is involved in a major war and can ill afford the loss of soldiers. The best argument in defense of the United States is that some of these deserters may have been conscripts. A conscript, of course, has a right to desert, since they are not violating an agreement they willingly entered into, and the practice of conscription is essentially kidnapping. However, the United States had no moral high ground here. Federal law allowed state militias to conscript men in the United States, and James Madison, the president who fought the War of 1812, was a slave master. All things considered, justifying America’s decision to go to war with Britain in 1812 for the reason described above requires a great deal of chutzpah. If we are to justify the War of 1812, a better reason must be given.
Reason #2: More than one war has been fought because a country could not or would not produce more goods domestically. With the United States federal government as we know it having only been in existence since 1788, America’s economy in 1812 was still in infancy. Hence, the United States wished to exercise free trade. New England merchants wished to trade with Britain, while many other Americans wanted to trade with France. Britain, however, was attempting to blockade France in order to strangle the country’s economy and help beat Napoleon. The United States wished to trade with France, and this Britain would not tolerate. Hence, the United States went to war largely to preserve free trade. Here, I have to do something I don’t like to do: give Thomas Jefferson credit. Serving as president immediately before James Madison, Jefferson signed legislation enacting an embargo against both France and Britain. The American public balked, and eventually Madison chose to resort to war. However, if the embargo had continued, and war had been avoided, many lives would have been saved, and the United States’ economy would likely have grown much more self-sufficient than it is today. Think of how dependent we are on countries with terrible human rights records, such as China and Saudi Arabia. Would it not be better if we could produce most goods here rather than having to import them? More importantly, free trade is simply not a sufficient reason to go to war. By enforcing an embargo against France, Britain was not trying to take over the United States. A war ought to be fought either against an unprovoked invasion (which has virtually never happened to the United States) or an internal threat to freedom (like slavery.) Fighting a war for free trade privileges profit above human life. Sadly, the U.S. failed to heed the lessons of the War of 1812 and later entered World War I for similar reasons.
Reason #3: As the United States expanded westward, conflict between whites and Native Americans abounded. One of the areas where conflict was very aggressive was what is now the Midwest. In Ohio, Tenskawatawa and his brother Tecumseh led Native Americans against white encroachment and allied themselves with the British. The British had an intriguing history with Native Americans. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), most Native Americans sided with the French, due to the fact that France did not attempt large-scale white settlement into its colonies, while Britain did. After the war, however, events such as Pontiac’s Rebellion persuaded the British to ban white settlement West of the Appalachian Mountains. Many American colonists, hungry for new land, balked, and when the Revolutionary War came, most Native Americans understandably supported the British. Still smarting from their defeat at the hands of the colonists, Britain encouraged Native Americans raids on white settlements after the Revolutionary War. Of course, this infuriated many whites in the South and West, who felt the Native Americans should move aside and allow their land to be taken. It is no surprise that Southerners, who were more supportive of Westward expansion, were much more likely than New Englanders, who were more ambivalent about expansion, to support the War of 1812. One should not look at Britain’s support for Native American raids through rose-colored glasses. Britain’s motivation was to hurt the United States, not help Native Americans. Britain had shown itself willing to betray its Native American, as well as its African American allies. Still, from an objective standpoint, the British had the right idea about supporting Native American raids. Native Americans were defending their land and culture from an invasion. Again, if the positions were switched, nobody would deny the right of white Americans to defend themselves from such an invasion. Thus, a part of the United States’ motivation for going to war with Britain in 1812 was to be able to continue crushing Native American tribes.
It must be clear to anyone reading this (and I imagine it is clear to most Canadians!) that it was absolutely unnecessary for the United States to fight the War of 1812. There are two other factors, however, that must be considered to fully understand the disastrous nature of the war. First of all, the war may have helped Andrew Jackson become president. Jackson became highly distinguished as a general in the United States Army during the war. Not only was Jackson a slave master and slave trader, but his administration also promoted vicious policies removing Native Americans from their homeland. Additionally, the actions of many African Americans during the War of 1812 call the idea that the United States was fighting for freedom into question. Many blacks fought for the United States, especially for the Navy. Others fought for the British, often being promised freedom in exchange for service. For instance, a two hundred-man unit of black Marines fought for the British in major Chesapeake military campaigns. The great Lydia Maria Child recounted a story of a group of slaves in South Carolina who plotted to join the British. Often, the promise of freedom turned out to be a lie. Sometimes, however, the British made good. After the war, the British relocated 3,000 former slaves from the Chesapeake Bay region to Nova Scotia. Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in response to events he witnessed during the War of 1812, further illustrates the contradictions between rhetoric and reality with regard to the United States during the conflict. Key had serious misgivings about slavery, but he owned slaves himself. In the 1830s, he served as the prosecutor against a man charged with distributing abolitionist literature and attempting to stir up a slave rebellion. Key invoked the right of “the whole slaveholding community to self-protection.” In addition to the War of 1812 being a very unnecessary war, it was arguably one of our most racist wars as well.