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The War of 1812

The War of 1812

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Identify the components of the War of 1812.

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what's covered
Some Americans, most notably Federalists, looked eastward toward Great Britain as a model for the nation’s development. Others, including Thomas Jefferson, looked to the western frontier as the future for an “empire of liberty.” The origins of the War of 1812, one of the strangest and most misunderstood conflicts in American history, lay in both directions.

This tutorial examines the causes and consequences of the War of 1812, which is sometimes referred to as the “Second War of American Independence.”

Our discussion breaks down as follows:
  1. Challenges from the West
  2. Challenges from the East
  3. The War of 1812

1. Challenges from the West

Native Americans resisted encroachment by white settlers as the United States expanded westward, which presented important challenges.

American Indian policy took shape soon after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the creation of the federal government. Such a policy brought with it at least token recognition of American Indian sovereignty on western lands.

Henry Knox, who was President Washington’s Secretary of War, admitted that Indians had a right to the territory they occupied and that such territory could not be taken away without their consent. Knox, along with many others in Washington’s administration, also recognized that prolonged warfare against American Indians for land would be an expensive endeavor.

As a result, early American Indian policy treated each native tribe as a foreign nation. The federal government assumed the responsibility of acquiring additional land from western territories and negotiating treaties with native tribes. Such treaties compensated Indians for any lands they relinquished to the United States, and offered Indians protection on lands they still retained. They also contained significant civilizing components.


In exchange for native lands, federal treaties with Indian tribes often included provisions that allowed Indians to receive instruction in Christianity, English, and farming methods.

Assumptions of cultural and political superiority on the part of the United States were behind every treaty with native peoples, however. By including provisions that included instruction in Christianity and English, the framers of American Indian policy assumed that they could convince Indians to give up their traditions and embrace American culture. The treaties also made clear that Indians were not supposed to impede upon the development of the United States.

The Treaty of Greenville, signed in 1795 after an American force defeated a tribal coalition at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, required Indians to relinquish all claims to territory in southern and eastern Ohio. In addition, the treaty stipulated that native peoples in the Northwest Territory should be dependent upon no other foreign power besides the United States, which they were supposed to refer to as “our father.”

did you know
By 1800, approximately 400,000 Americans lived west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Most Indians had no desire to become citizens of the American Republic. Some were even determined to resist American cultural influences and encroachment on Indian lands. Two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, were among the most militant of these individuals.

Tecumseh was a chief who had refused to sign the Treaty of Greenville. During the first decade of the 19th century, he traveled the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys in the hopes of recreating a tribal coalition to the scale that Pontiac had established in the wake of the French and Indian War. By 1810, Tecumseh met with the American governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, and warned him of war if Americans continued to encroach upon native lands:

Tecumseh, Shawnee Chief

“The way, and the only way to check and stop this evil [of American encroachment], is, for all the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be yet; for it never was divided, but belongs to all, for the use of each. That no part has a right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers; those who want all, and will not do with less. The white people have no right to take the land from the Indians, because they had it first; it is theirs.”
think about it
  1. How does Tecumseh’s statement reflect the differences between Indian and American notions of land ownership?
  2. How does Tecumseh’s statement reflect growing distrust between Indians and the United States?

Tenskwatawa (also known as the Prophet) preached for a revival of Indian cultures and advocated for complete separation from white American culture. He argued for the abandonment of American and European manufacture goods, clothing, food, and alcohol. A number of his followers gathered at a site along the Wabash River in Indiana known as Prophetstown.

In 1811, after Tecumseh called for attacks on American frontier settlements, Governor Harrison destroyed Prophetstown in the Battle of Tippecanoe. There, Harrison discovered ample evidence that the British had supplied Tecumseh’s coalition with weapons, despite the stipulations of earlier treaties. Elsewhere, the frontier erupted in violence as native groups attacked American settlements.

Western Americans, especially a group of western politicians known as War Hawks, were convinced that such attacks were part of a British-led conspiracy to challenge the United States’ western claims. They spoke of the need to subjugate Indians on the frontier. They also insisted upon stopping British meddling entirely by arguing that the United States should invade Canada.

term to know
War Hawks
A group of western congressmen who called for war with Great Britain in order to subjugate American Indian tribes and acquire additional territory, most notably Canada.

2. Challenges from the East

Relations between the United States and Great Britain were also deteriorating on the Atlantic Ocean. During its wars with France (also known as the Napoleonic Wars), Great Britain seized a number of American ships on the high seas and instituted the policy of impressment.

term to know
The kidnapping of sailors, including many American citizens who had emigrated from Great Britain, to serve in the British navy.

The issue of impressment came to a head as early as 1807, when a British ship fired on an American ship, the Chesapeake, off the coast of Maryland. The British then boarded the ship and took four sailors.

By the end of 1807, the British had seized more than 6,000 American sailors, claiming that they were British citizens or that they had deserted the Royal Navy.

did you know
The controversy over impressment stemmed in large part over different understandings of citizenship. The British insisted that one’s birthplace determined citizenship, whereas the United States argued that residency in a country for a specified number of years (a process commonly known as naturalization) was sufficient for citizenship.

In response, President Thomas Jefferson persuaded Congress to enact the Embargo Act of 1807.

term to know
Embargo Act of 1807
Banned all American ships from sailing to any foreign port, in an attempt to convince the British and French to stop seizing American sailors and ships.

Jefferson’s logic behind the Embargo Act was similar to that of revolutionaries who signed non-importation pacts during the imperial crisis of the 1760s and 1770s. Jefferson hoped that cutting off all trade would so severely hurt Britain and France that the seizures of ships and men at sea would end. Unfortunately, Britain and France paid little notice to the Embargo and it had disastrous consequences for the American economy.


Under the Embargo Act, American business activity declined by 75 percent from 1808 to 1809.

In addition, enforcement of the Embargo Act took place on a scale that had not been seen since the Intolerable Acts of 1774. The U.S. navy sealed off American ports and seized goods without warrants. A number of smugglers were also arrested.

In this political cartoon from 1807, a snapping turtle (holding a shipping license) grabs a smuggler in the act of sneaking a barrel of sugar to a British ship. The smuggler cries, “Oh, this cursed Ograbme!” (“Ograbme” is “embargo” spelled backwards.)

did you know
At the very end of his term, Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act of 1808, which lifted the unpopular embargoes on trade except with Britain and France.

3. The War of 1812

In the election of 1808, American voters elected another Democratic-Republican, James Madison, as President. Madison inherited Jefferson’s foreign policy challenges, especially those that pertained to Great Britain.

By the spring of 1812, with France and Great Britain still at war, American ships and sailors remained subject to search and seizure in the Atlantic. This, combined with the British support of Indian resistance on western lands, led to strident calls for war against Great Britain. For a number of Americans, including the War Hawks in Congress, it seemed as if the actions of Great Britain were infringing upon the very honor and independence of the United States. This was a point that Madison highlighted when he asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain.

With the nation facing threats on the frontier and the high seas, it appeared that American independence was at stake. According to Madison, the question was whether the United States would remain independent or become “colonists and vassals” of Great Britain. After a narrow vote, Congress authorized President Madison to declare war against Britain in June 1812. This war became known as the War of 1812. It was the first time that the United States declared war on another country.

In hindsight, it was incredibly unwise for the United States to declare war on Great Britain, and the young nation was perhaps lucky that Great Britain was preoccupied with Europe for much of the conflict. Still, Great Britain was able to impose a blockade that brought the American economy to a standstill and, with assistance from native allies (including Tecumseh), repelled two American invasions of Canada. In 1814, after having defeated Napoleon in Europe, Great Britain sent 4,500 troops to invade the United States. In July 1814, they captured Washington, D.C. and burned it to the ground.

did you know
Tecumseh was killed in 1813 during the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, during which an American force led by William Henry Harrison defeated a combined force of British soldiers and Indian allies.

Nevertheless, U.S. forces did score several notable victories during the War of 1812, as seen in the table below.

Notable U.S. Victories During the War of 1812
September 1813 Captain Oliver Hazard Perry and his naval force defeated the British on Lake Erie.
1814 After the British captured Washington, D.C., American forces successfully defended an attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry.

During this time Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “In Defense of Fort McHenry,” a poem that later provided inspiration for the American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
January 1815 A force under Andrew Jackson defeated a British invading force at the Battle of New Orleans.

Yet the Battle of New Orleans should never have been fought because, one month earlier, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war. Despite the signing of the treaty, neither side made significant gains. The boundaries between the United States and British Canada remained as they were before the war. Nor did the treaty address the issue of impressment and shipping because, with the war in Europe over, Great Britain no longer had a need to seize American ships and sailors.

At war’s end, many Americans referred to the conflict as a “Second War of Independence,” and they did so for good reason. The war secured American claims to the areas east of the Mississippi River originally bestowed to them under the Treaty of Paris (1783). The British no longer posed a threat in the region and, with the death of Tecumseh, the war broke much of the remaining Indian resistance in the Northwest Territory.

A number of Americans also felt tremendous pride in the fact that their government, based on republican principles, had stood up to Great Britain once again. Many commentators remarked that the nation became more united in the process, overcoming the partisan divides that had heretofore dominated American politics.

Such remarks were not entirely true, because the war was unpopular among Federalists in the Northeast. In December 1814, at the same time that the Treaty of Ghent was signed, a group of 26 Federalists met in Hartford, Connecticut to express their opposition to the war, which had damaged the Northeast’s maritime economy. Some members of this group went so far as to issue calls for New England to secede from the United States.

Nonetheless, one could find evidence of a surge in national pride and optimism throughout the United States. Consider the examples below.

First, take a look at the last verse of Francis Scott Key’s famous poem, “In Defense of Fort McHenry:”

Francis Scott Key, "In Defense of Fort McHenry"

“O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand, Between their loved home and the war’s desolation! Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n-rescued land Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust' And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
think about it
What images does Key use to convey American national pride?

Second, examine the painting by John Archibald Woodside titled “We Owe Allegiance to No Crown,” which was completed during the War of 1812. An American sailor stands at the center of the image, holding the American flag, while a depiction of lady liberty looks over him:

painting by John Archibald Woodside titled “We Owe Allegiance to No Crown

think about it
What symbols of American freedom do you see in the image?
Compare the verse of Francis Scott Key’s poem with the above image.
  1. Based on the evidence provided, what seems to have been the cause of the War of 1812?
  2. What evidence do you see that Americans considered the War of 1812 as a “Second War for Independence?”
The origins of the War of 1812, often called the Second War of American Independence, lay in unresolved issues between the United States and Great Britain. On the frontier, the United States confronted challenges from American Indians, who resisted white encroachment and relied on assistance from Great Britain to do so. The other major cause was the British practice of seizing American ships and sailors. Although the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, did not address the challenges that the United States faced on the Atlantic, it generated tremendous national pride and secured American western land claims. The United States was unequivocally separate from Britain and could now turn as never before toward development and expansion.

This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D

Source: Tecumseh on Indians and Land (1810), from Foner, E. (2014). Voices of freedom: a documentary history (4th ed., Vol. 1). P. 159. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Image “We Owe Allegiance to No Crown” (1814), Public domain,, Derived from Openstax tutorial 8.4. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.

Terms to Know
Embargo Act of 1807

Banned all American ships from sailing to any foreign port, in an attempt to convince the British and French to stop seizing American sailors and ships


The kidnapping of sailors, including many American citizens who had emigrated from Great Britain, to serve in the British navy

War Hawks

A group of western congressmen who called for war with Great Britain in order to subjugate American Indian tribes and acquire additional territory, most notably Canada

People to Know
Francis Scott Key

Author of the Star Spangled Banner, which he wrote while witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812


Leader of a Native American coalition the Ohio River Valley who refused to sign the Treaty of Greenville and resisted American claims to the area

William Henry Harrison

American governor who defeated Tecumseh and his coalition at the Battle of Tippecanoe

Dates to Know

The Treaty of Greenville asserts American control of Ohio.


Britain fires on the Chesapeake; Congress enacts the Embargo Act.


Congress enacts the Non-Intercourse Act; James Madison is elected president.


Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa resist American settlers' presence in the Midwest.


Tecumseh calls for attacks on frontier settlements; Prophetstown is destroyed in the Battle of Tippecanoe; William Henry Harrison discovers evidence of British support for the Native Americans.


James Madison declares wars against Britain.


The Treaty of Ghent ends the War of 1812.


A British invading force is defeated at the Battle of New Orleans.