Was the War of 1812 Pointless?
Length: 1255 words (3.6 double-spaced pages)
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The War of 1812 proved to be the most serious challenge to face the United States since the country's birth. This 'Second war of Independence' perhaps changed American history as we know it though. This essay will discuss the causes for this war assessing whether there actually were valid reasons for the United States and Britain going to war or whether the whole 1812 war was just born out of "pointless aggression"
The war of 1812 was a very unnecessary war. It broke out just as one of its chief causes (The Orders in Council) was removed and its greatest battle (New Orleans) was fought just after peace was signed. The war was unnecessary from a British point of view but for the Americans it was inescapable. The Royal Navy had kidnapped 3,800 American sailors and pressed them into service. The Orders In Council had deprived the United States of a profitable trade with France and can be seen as having ruthlessly subordinated American economic interests to the political interests of the British Empire. American farmers also blamed the orders, perhaps unfairly, for a fall in agricultural prices that produced a depression in the West in the years immediately before the war. On the frontier it was universally believed that Indian restlessness war stirred up by British agents although really American oppression has to be seen as a big cause of this too.
America's war with Britain seemed inevitable although the Americans did everything they decently could to avoid it, although there seemed to be endless provocation by Britain, for example in 1807 when a British frigate, the leopard opened fire on an American frigate the Chesapeake. The choice before America, Jefferson the former president and his successor Madison agreed was war or submission - to fight or to undo one of the main achievements of the revolution and accept total defeat in international affairs to England. As John Quincy Adams put it "It was not a matter of dollars and cents, no alternative was left but war or the abandonment of our right as an independent nation" The offences committed against the United States were the major provocation's for the war, reasons other then vindication can be regarded as rationalisation. There was an obvious anger for what British had done to America and many Americans merely wanted revenge but the war was fought for much more then that.
The radical expansionism and the belief that Canada would inevitably be annexed to the United States also has to be a major cause for America going to war. Another primary cause of the war was the rise of Tecumseh the Indian chief who was believed to be backed by the British. This caused an urgency for the Americans to expel the British from Canada. The War Hawks, the congress at the time of Madison's presidency, were pushing for the invasion of Canada and an attack upon the "Savages" who had been tormenting homes on the frontier. Madison never really expected or desired the annexation of Canada and neither did his colleague Monroe (Secretary of State)
A compromise with Britain would have been very difficult due to the increasing sectionalism in America. It might have been true as George Washington had said in his farewell address that East, West, North and South had more in common then points of difference but since the long Napoleonic wars which had been fought and there repercussions for America the differences seemed to mount rapidly. New England had virtually everything in common with British Maritime interests but the further South and West you travelled the more opinion leaders you found who wanted a war with Britain as the road to expansion. It was these Southern and Western states that formed part of Madison's constituency and had elected him in 1808 and when he was elected again in 1812, therefore Madison was very dependent on these states - much more so than the Northern New England states.
The opinions of these Southern and Western states reflected the ideas of Henry Clay, the leader of the War hawks, who himself was from Kentucky a Western state. The war hawks desire for land, Canadian or Indian, fear of a British backed Indian conspiracy, concern over the declining prices of agriculture products and the restrictions of markets abroad have all believed to have been basic cause of the war. When asked about his reasoning for the push for war, Henry Clay would answer "What are we to gain by peace ?" His rationalisations had to do with a mentality that they would lose their country's character, commerce and nations best treasure if they didn't go to war. He believed that what they had to gain was reduced revenue to nearly ten million dollars. Clay could also not ignore the impressment of American sailors by British fleets, this was another driving force. Henry Clay assumed a leading role in the war against Britain. He then affected President Madison's decision about the war and more or less pushed madison from being indifferent to declaring war. Clay saw the British as an intrusive and unwanted force that was trampling on the feet and violating the rights of his countrymen.
The Treaty Of Ghent which was signed in December 1814 ended a war which by now both sides were silently admitting should never have started. The treaty though proved to be a great act of statesmanship. After the signing Adams remarked to one of the English delegates "I hope this will be the last treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States" And it was. The very fact that both sides withdrew to their prewar positions, that neither could describe the war as a success or a defeat, and that the terms could not be presented, then or later, as a triumph or a robbery - all worked for permanency and helped to erase from the national memory of both countries a struggle which had been bitter enough at the time. The absence of any recrimination too meant that the treaty could serve as a basis on which to build a friendly, common sense relationship between two English speaking peoples.
The statement that the war of 1812 was born purely out of a "Pointless aggression" is true - to an extent. In the build up to the1812 war Britain seemed to provoke the United States through every means possible exploiting there own position. The United States did try to avoid a war with Britain but they saw how a war could fulfil there own ambitions and so used the war to pursue there own objectives which were increasing the size of the United States whilst reinforcing the economy through trade. The fact was though that neither side managed to achieve there pre-war ambitions and when the Treaty of Ghent was signed all actual issues of the war were dropped and both sides agreed to just stop fighting. The war of 1812 had such a great effect on the United States that it is sometimes referred to as The Second War Of Independence. This did not refer to Great Britain attempting to gain control of the United States, instead, it marked the end of the United States dependence on Europe. Great Britain fully accepted American independence. 1815 was marked as a turning point. Before, American foreign relations were conditioned by the shifting power structure and the almost continuous wars in Europe. After the year 1815, the United States could choose war or peace according to its interests.