As unpopular as it may be to say, the United States both caused and lost the War of 1812. It was a horrible war. A stupid war. A war of idiocy and greed, and we were to blame.
And it isn't just historians of the modern era who feel this way. Reality is that the War of 1812 was an incredibly unpopular war in the eyes of those who witnessed it. In the official congressional declaration of war, the House voted in favor 79-59, while the Senate was 19-13. This was the closest vote for a declaration of war in American history. Of the 50,000 slots authorized for the U.S. Army, only 10,000 volunteers came forth. In many states (particularly in the New England area) people flew the flag at half-mast, closed up shops, and protested in the mob-like fashion that was typical of the early 19th century. Even Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong attempted to conduct secret negotiations with England, and suggested that the northern states should secede from the Union.
So if the War of 1812 was so unpopular, why did we fight it in the first place? The answer is simple: Greed.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the United States was a nation that was beginning to flirt with what would eventually become the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The lands to the west seemed like an endless source of wealth, resources and prosperity just waiting to be plucked. In addition, the lands to the north (Canada) and Florida (which was controlled primarily by Native Americans) were equally as enticing. For many Americans there was a real sense of entitlement to these lands. In Congress, influential leaders like Henry Clay (who was Speaker of the House) and John C. Calhoun led a crusade to claim these neighboring lands at whatever the cost. Having been given the nickname "War Hawks," these congressional leaders ignited a fever for war among the Democratic-Republicans by invoking the "savagery" of the Indians and their rightful claim to neighboring lands. As historian Walter Borneman states in his book 1812: The War That Forged a Nation:
These twin issues of Indian unrest and a lust for additional territory beyond the Great Lakes heated the pot of war sentiment on the western frontier. Thoughts of quelling Indian influence for good and ousting Great Britain from Canada became the rallying cry for Henry Clay and his close-knit circle of political compatriots who came to be called "war hawks."
Nationalistic in policy, prompt with a dueling pistol when polite discussion failed, the war hawks were the young Turks of the era: too young to remember the devastation of the last war and certain of their invincibility in the next. (Pp. 28-29).The arrogance of the "war hawks" is one of the most underrated aspects of the War of 1812. Case in point, Secretary of War William Eustis stated publicly that America would "take Canada without soldiers. We only have to send officers into the province and the people will rally round our standard." John C. Calhoun echoed those sentiments when he said that America would win "in four weeks from the time that a declaration of was is heard on our frontier, and the whole of Canada will be on our possession." Henry Clay arrogantly boasted that "I trust I shall not be deemed presumptuous when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet."
Another justification that is regularly cited as a cause for the War of 1812 was the alleged impressment practices of the British Navy. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not uncommon for nations to impress (force) other sailors they encountered to join their fleet. For many Americans, the thought of U.S. naval merchants being obligated to join the British navy via impressment was unacceptable. But just how prevalent was this practice? According to Smithsonian historians Tony Horwitz and Brian Wolly, these allegations were greatly sensationalized:
One of the strongest impetuses for declaring war against Great Britain was the impressment of American seamen into the Royal Navy...President James Madison's State Department reported that 6,257 Americans were pressed into service from 1807 through 1812. But how big a threat was impressment, really?
"The number of cases which are alleged to have occurred, is both extremely erroneous and exaggerated," wrote Massachusetts Sen. James Lloyd, a Federalist and political rival of Madison's. Lloyd argued that the president's allies used impressment as "a theme of party clamor, and party odium," and that those citing as a casus belli were "those who have the least knowledge and the smallest interest in the subject."
Other New England leaders, especially those whit ties to the shipping industry, also doubted the severity of the problem. Timothy Pickering, the Bay State's other senator, commissioned a study that counted the total number of impressed seamen from Massachusetts and slightly more than 100 and the total number of Americans as just a few hundred.Needless to say, the notion that impressment was a legitimate cause for war was more the stuff of sensationalized rhetoric than actual fact.
Regardless of the unpopularity and the ridiculous rhetoric, President James Madison and the "War Congress" took the nation into a war that had no legitimate justification. It was a decision that would come to haunt the United States for a generation. American forces learned almost from the start that the war wasn't going to be a walk in the park. Attempts to invade Canada failed in spectacular fashion. General William Hull, who commanded the primary American invasion of Canada, surrendered his entire army to the British at Detroit without firing a single shot. Hunger, cold, and the superior forces and tactics of the British had backed General Hull into an impossible corner. In addition, Canadian (British) citizens proved to not be as willing to join the American cause as had been thought by the War Hawks. Canadians opposed American forces at virtually every opportunity.
The massive failure to capture Canada was only part of the story of how the U.S. lost the War of 1812. Throughout the course of the war, British forces systematically dismantled American forces throughout the countryside, leaving towns and communities completely destroyed in their wake. In 1813, Buffalo and large portions of New York were burned to the ground, while the budding communities of Detroit and Chicago were captured. In 1814, almost all of Maine was captured by the British, who forced the citizenry to swear an oath of allegiance to King George. Later that same year, the British conquered Maryland and burned the Capitol city to the ground. In fact, President James Madison barely made it out of town before the city fell. In short, the superior forces of the British had virtually strangled the United States to death.
So why did the British stop? The answer is simple: Napoleon. Though the British had virtually dominated the war of 1812, they had bigger fish to fry in Europe. As a result, a petition of peace was issued by the British. With the threat of an invasion to Boston, Richmond and New Orleans, President Madison and the now subdued War Hawks accepted the invitation to cut their losses and conclude their stupid conflict. The only saving grace of the Treaty of Ghent was that it restored relations between the two nations to Status Quo Ante Bellum (the state in which things were before the war). All of the lost lands and cities were restored to the United States and British forces, who were desperately needed in Europe, left without resistance. In essence, this treaty allowed the United States to call the war a draw, when in reality the war was anything but. Sure, the United States had a few small victories to call their own but they were largely insignificant. Oliver Hazard Perry's naval victories had little impact on the overall outcome of the war, just as Andrew Jackson's attack on New Orleans (which came after the treaty of Ghent) was more of a moral victory than anything substantial. Even the defense of Fort McHenry (where the Star-Spangled Banner was born) was more a survival of a bombardment than an actual victory. The "rockets red glare" and "bombs bursting in air" reveal that the British onslaught was severe, but fortunately "the flag was still there" at the end of the conflict. Whew!
And though it is clear that the United States lost the War of 1812, we can take solace in the fact that much good came from the conflict. This "second war of independence" helped to unite a nation that was still in its infancy. It gave birth to patriotic symbols like our National Anthem (which didn't become our anthem until 1931), Uncle Sam and Andrew Jackson. With all of that said, the War of 1812 was an American disaster. It was a war of greed. A war of pride. A war of stupidity. We were lucky that things didn't turn out worse than they did. I've often wondered why the War of 1812 wasn't given a better name. Could it be due to the fact that we cannot put a positive spin on its outcome? On its origins? What else would we call it? The War of American Idiocy? The "Bit Off More Than We Could Chew War?" It's time that Americans face the facts: the War of 1812 was largely a waste.