Archive for June 18, 2012
The War Begins
Lawmakers in Washington have been debating what action to take since June 1, 1812 when President James Madison sent a message to Congress describing the injuries and indignities suffered by the United States of America at the hands of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Madison makes no specific request for a declaration of war but outlined a series of grievances focusing on:
–the seizure of U.S. citizens on U.S. ships at sea by the Royal Navy for forced service (impressment) aboard British warships. Between 1803 and 1812, some 6,000 American sailors are taken from U.S. ships by the British, who were fighting a global war against France’s Emperor Napoleon and his allies. The British government believed anyone born a British subject was always a British subject – so anyone born in British territory before U.S. independence in 1783 was considered fair game for impressment.
–the interference with U.S. merchant ships on their way to European ports controlled by Napoleon. Both Britain and France mounted naval blockades of each other’s territories and neutrals like the U.S. were caught in the middle. American agriculture and maritime interests were being squeezed by the European conflict.
–the belief that British agents were stirring up Native American tribes in the Old Northwest (today’s states of Michigan, Indiana and Illinois) to attack U.S. outposts on the frontier. The “War Hawks,” a vocal group of congressmen from southern and western states – who sought to expand U.S. territory – said this provocation was grounds for war with Britain.
Historians say there were at least two other reasons why many in the U.S. wanted to go to war with Britain.
The first was the concept of national honor. Like many young nations that have come into being in the last 200 years, the U.S. in 1812 had a bit of a chip on its shoulder regarding national sovereignty and freedom of the seas. It had already fought undeclared naval wars with the Barbary States of North Africa and revolutionary France over interference with U.S. Maritime commerce.
Secondly, plenty of Americans wanted to expand the nation’s borders: north into Canada and south into Spanish-held Florida. Since the Revolution, Americans had coveted Canada. Even before the Declaration of Independence created the United States, American colonists attacked Montreal and Quebec in 1775. However, by 1812, many of eastern Canada’s residents were American Tories who remained loyal to the British crown and fled to Canada rather than be ruled back home by what they saw as the tyranny of rabble.
Finally, after four days of heated discussion, the House of Representatives voted June 4 to declare war on Britain – the first time U.S. lawmakers have declared war on anybody. The Senate took until June 17 to reach the same conclusion. The war legislation was signed by President Madison on this date (June 18) 200 years ago.
In one of several ironic turns during the war, within a few days of the U.S. war declaration – but before the news crossed the Atlantic — the British government decides to withdraw the Orders in Council that authorized the Royal Navy to stop and/or seize ships from neutral nations like the United States on their way to trade with Napoleon’s empire. In one such incident on June 22, 1807, the U.S. frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake was attacked by HMS Leopard just off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, when it refused to submit to a search for American sailors deemed British subjects.
Some Americans considered the conflict a Second War of Independence to show the British once and for all that the U.S. was to be taken seriously as a nation. But with a tiny Army and Navy, a shaky union and divided public opinion (most New Englanders wanted no part of the war) the 30 year-old republic was taking on the most powerful naval force in the world and one of its largest empires.
Next Week: The Starting Lineup