Who won the War of 1812?
If you answered "not sure," you're on the right track. The so-called "second war for independence" between the United States and the British Empire didn't end with a clear victory for either side. Like so many sequels, this war didn't live up to the original. (We're looking at you, Anchorman II.)
Basically, the two sides signed an agreement—The Treaty of Ghent—that put things right back to where they were before the war. Both sides packed up, went home, declared victory, and that was that. The U.S. got a national anthem, a future prez, and lots of national pride out of the deal, but no land or other concessions that you usually want to bring home after signing a treaty.
Still wondering just what the war was even about? We're glad you asked.
As usual, Shmoop has everything you always wanted to know about the War of 1812 in our very own learning guide, but here's a recap:
Britain had been fighting France since forever—well, at least since 1793. In order to gain advantage, Britain tried to prevent the U.S. from trading with France; ditto France. The U.S. wanted to have their neutral shipping rights respected. It wasn't the first time since independence that the British had meddled in U.S. trade.
The Royal Navy was hurting for sailors since lots of them had deserted to work on U.S. merchant vessels because of better pay and less risk. So the British were in the habit of capturing U.S. ships to get their deserters back. In the process, they'd grab American sailors, too, forcing them to work on British navy ships, a policy called "impressment." It was an outrage to the U.S.—tyranny all over again.
So when France seemed willing to soften its stance on trade, President James Madison signed a bill forbidding all shipping trade with Britain.
Some young guns in Congress, fed up with the Brits, pushed for war. These guys called themselves the "War Hawks," and included some congressmen who'd go one to have storied careers in the Senate, like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun. President Madison declared war on June 18, 1812. With Britain bogged down in Europe fighting Napoleon, he figured this was as good a time as any to stand up to their dictating his nation's maritime policies.
What Madison didn't know was that the British government had just suspended the Orders in Council that had placed those serious trade restrictions that led to war in the first place. He couldn't know it. It took weeks and weeks for news to travel from Britain to the U.S.
Hardly an auspicious beginning to this war.
As an initial show of force, the Americans decided to march into Canada, then a British colony.
It was a disaster.
The American forces were chased back across the border by a combination of British and Indian tribal forces, and lost Detroit to Britain in the process. (Fortunately for Motown fans, they later got it back.)
Each side went on to win some key battles, but no one was clearly getting the upper hand. After Britain defeated Napoleon once and for all in 1814, the U.S. knew that the British would be free to ramp things up in North America, and the U.S. prepared for a British invasion of Baltimore.
No, not that British invasion.
The Brits sailed into Chesapeake Bay en route to Washington, D.C., where they burned down the White House and the Capitol. The Americans held out at Baltimore's Ft. McHenry, though, where Francis Scott Key hid out and watched the U.S. defend the fort. As we all know, the star-spangled banner made it through the night and inspired millions of people to make a complete mess of singing our national anthem.
Everyone was already tired of the fighting, especially the British, who'd been at war for 21 years and were crushed under a pile of war debt. The two sides met in the neutral city of Ghent (now in Belgium) to hammer out an agreement that would halt the hostilities.
The treaty officially ended the war returning everything to how it was before the war ("status quo ante bellum," in Latin). Any land, cities, or forts that were captured were returned to the original country that controlled them. It was like resetting the board after a friendly round of "Settlers of Catan"—only with thousands of casualties.
On Christmas Eve of 1814, the eight ambassadors completed the treaty. However, like Christmas packages that show up in the mail a few weeks later, the news didn't quite reach the battlefield in time. Before President James Madison signed off in February of 1815, officially ratifying the treaty, the British attempted to invade New Orleans, where they got thumped by General Andrew Jackson in a battle that's probably the only thing most people remember about the War of 1812.
On the face of it, the Treaty of Ghent presents an even exchange between the United States and Britain. But can you really go back to the way things used to be? The truth is that you can't. Otherwise, William Shatner never would have tried a musical career.
So who won the War of 1812? Now you know: it all depends on what you mean by "win."
Canada stayed Canada and America stayed 'Merica. The boundaries set in the Treaty have remained in place with only a few tweaks. Because of this, the War of 1812 is considered a seminal historical event for the formation of American and Canadian identity.
Canada went on to distinguish itself from the U.S. by developing a national health insurance plan and adopting extreme niceness as their official national character trait. In exchange, we never invaded them again.
The war made Andrew Jackson into the Hero of New Orleans, a reputation that he rode all the way to the White House.
Emboldened by resisting the British, the United States now saw itself as an equal to the European powers. The Treaty brought the young U.S. together in a wave of patriotism and pride about being able to stand up to the British and take its place as a truly equal and independent nation, no longer a neutral piece of meat sandwiched between Britain and France.
Plus, we got a spiffy new White House and a catchy national anthem.
Note to self: what are ramparts, anyway?
You like potato, and I like po-tah-to
You like tomato and I like to-mah-to,
Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, to-mah-to,
Let's call the whole thing off.
The War of 1812 has a theme song, and it's not "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Apologies to George Gershwin, but that's about how the two sides felt about the War of 1812. The disagreements that caused the fighting just didn't seem worth the effort and expense to keep the war going. Neither nation was really getting the upper hand. Britain, especially, was sick of fighting after 21 years of war. So both sides just decided to say, "Never mind, then" and call it quits.
The takeaway? Well, studying the War of 1812 and the Treaty that ended it can make you think hard about why we go to war in the first place. How do we justify which wars are "worth fighting"? By what's at stake? By that measure, in the "worth it" column, most Americans would include WWII (fate of the free world), the Civil War (ending slavery and preserving the Union), and the Revolutionary War (freedom from tyranny, or at least from taxation without representation).
Similarly, we'd guess many of us would put the Korean War, whose peace treaty put things right back to where they were before the conflict, in the "didn't really have to happen" category—essentially, we got involved in Korea's civil war. Ditto WWI, which started out with an assassination in Sarajevo and escalated into a global conflict which tore Europe apart because of pre-existing treaties of alliance. In fact, one historian called the War of 1812 "America's first Vietnam," i.e. very unpopular and ending with not much to show for it.
Troops fought bravely in all those wars, courageously carrying out the policies of the leaders who directed the wars, but history sometimes hasn't judged those leaders or their policies very kindly.
Nationalism, economic competition, needing to defeat a truly evil aggressor, expansionist motives, protecting our way of life—they've all been motives for war throughout history. Some have been important and some seem more a matter of quién es más macho.
Everything tangible suggests that the Treaty of Ghent was an inconsequential end to an inconsequential war. In this case, however, the intangible effects were just as important.
Sometimes it's the thought that counts
Transcript, images, and summary for the Treaty of Ghent.
War of 1812 in the Library of Congress
A database for primary documents from the War of 1812, including the original declaration of war against Great Britain and the Treaty of Ghent.
War Hawk Resources
From the University of Indiana library, a collection of primary documents related to the lead-up to the War of 1812, including a report from the House Committee on Foreign Relations agitating for war.
War of 1812 – PBS Documentary
A full length treatment of the causes, events, and ramifications of the War of 1812.
Needless to say, the Treaty of Ghent wasn't exactly action movie material. Most of the films about that era were about the War of 1812. Charlton Heston plays Andrew Jackson in this remake of a 1938 flick about the dread pirate Jean Lafitte, who helped Jackson defend New Orleans in 1814.
Another film about the hostilities, not the peace, this time from the perspective of the Native American tribes le by the great warrior Tecumseh.
James Madison Address
From the University of Virginia's Miller Center, a transcript of James Madison's speech to Congress on the Treaty of Ghent.
"1812: A Nation Emerges"
This New York Times article covers a War of 1812 bicentennial exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and delves into the long-term effects of the war on national identity.
Treaty of Ghent Bicentennial Video
A documentary on the Treaty of Ghent made by the United States Embassy in Belgium.
Fort McHenry National Park Video
C-Span presents a discussion of the Treaty of Ghent from the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.
PBS has a short video that summarizes the causes and results of the war, narrated by British, American, and Native American historians.
BBC Radio Broadcast on War of 1812
Historians discuss the effect of the War of 1812 on forming United States national identity.
From the U.S. National Archives, an image of the original signed and sealed treaty.
Newspaper Article of Treaty of Ghent
A contemporary newspaper article in the Columbian Centinel reports on the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
James Madison Letter
In a letter to Thomas Jefferson from March of 1815, President James Madison discusses the Treaty of Ghent.
People Really Knew How to Dress in Those Days
Sir Amédée Forestiere's painting of the the signing of the Treaty. It's in the Smithsonian.
Here's an allegorical watercolor titled "Peace" by John Rubens Smith about the signing of the treaty, with two lovely ladies representing the U.S. and Great Britain holding olive branches. Awwww.
Alexis Chataigner's engraving of the Treaty signing showed Hercules strong-arming Britannia into accepting the treaty. He evidently had a more cynical view of the whole affair.
Fancier than IKEA
The real and actual table where James Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent. You can Photoshop the prez in if you want.