Constructing the Past


It is a vast generalization to say that all Federalists were anti-war, and that Federalist, anti-war feeling was centered in the Puritan northeast. It is equally an oversimplification to assume that all westerners and southerners were pro-war Republicans. But these assumptions were just as common at the time as they are today. The war of 1812, although not one of the most significant wars in the nation’s history, is one of the most complex. Over the years, dozen of causes have been suggested for the conflict: American merchants’ profits from the war in Europe, westerners’ attempt to further expand the country’s borders, or even a Napoleonic conspiracy against Britain. The simplified explanation is this: Despite avowed neutrality in the war between Britain and France, the United States was steadily being drawn into the conflict. American merchant ships traded with both countries and thus became the target of both the British and French navies. The British navy, suffering from a high desertion rate and desperate for sailors, began seizing American merchant ships and impressing American seamen to fill their ranks. A series of skirmishes with the British-backed Shawnee along the Canadian border solidified President James Madison’s conviction that open conflict was necessary, and Congress declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812.