Declaring war on Great Britain
By Peter A. Gilbert | June 20,2012
On June 18, 1812, James Madison, America’s fourth president, signed a formal declaration of war against Great Britain. The War of 1812 was under way.
Madison had sent a message to Congress on June 1 setting forth America’s grievances with Great Britain, but he did not explicitly ask for a declaration of war. The House of Representatives voted 79 to 49 for war; in the Senate the vote was 19 to 13. The war did not have bipartisan support: Not one of the 39 members of the Federalist Party in Congress voted in favor of war. Those opposed to the war referred to it derisively as “Mr. Madison’s war.” It would last almost three years.
The reasons for the war were several: In violation of international law, Britain had passed a number of orders that restricted America’s right to trade with France — because Britain was at war with France. Second, because Britain was unable to man its enormous navy during the Napoleonic Wars with France, it took to impressing American seamen. Not only did Britain claim the right to take British deserters back into the navy, even if they were American citizens, Britain did not even recognize the naturalized American citizenship of any former Brit. Native-born American sailors were also impressed into the British navy, unintentionally and intentionally.
In addition, the British supported and encouraged Native American tribes in the Northwest Territory to impede American expansion into the area — what’s now Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, which Britain had ceded to the United States in 1787 as part of the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the American Revolution.
We remember the war mostly for four things: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was inspired by the Battle of Baltimore; the British burning Washington, D.C., and plucky First Lady Dolley Madison fleeing the White House only after breaking the frame around Gilbert Stuart’s life-size painting of George Washington to get the masterpiece out; General Andrew Jackson’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought after a peace treaty had been signed; and the inspiring line “We have met the enemy, and they are ours,” even if few can remember who said it or when — it was the commander of the American fleet, Oliver Hazard Perry, after defeating the British in the Battle of Lake Erie.
Perhaps the war is little remembered now because its consequences were subtle. In 1815 Americans were asking themselves what the country had gained from the war. The answer, as summarized by a Vermont newspaper, was three intangibles:
“The fear of our late enemy;
The respect of the world; and
The confidence we have acquired in ourselves.”
But 200 years ago, all that was in the future as the fledgling United States, entirely unprepared for war, declared war on the world’s greatest military power, a nation that would soon defeat even Napoleon.
Peter A. Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. This essay was first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.