Study Guide

The War of 1812

The War of 1812 Introduction

Sometimes it's hard not to admire that crazy guy who parks it down on the corner with his megaphone and his messages of impending doom. We've all seen these people, and while it's easy to write them off as one card short of a full deck, at least they have a cause, right?

The War of 1812 started out with a cause: to get the British off our backs and out of our business. No matter how much the Federalists disliked it, the war was on.

So, in 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain. For the previous 20 years, Britain had claimed the right to intercept American ships on the high seas, seize their cargoes, and search their crews for British navy deserters. At war with France since 1793, Britain defended these actions as necessary wartime measures. Indignant Americans called them violations of their rights as a neutral and sovereign nation. In many ways, this was a "second war of independence." 

It kind of felt like the British hadn't taken us seriously the first time and were still treating us like their property.

And the United States had become a heckuva lot stronger since the Revolutionary War. With a real army and navy, the United States was eyeing the Colony That Got Away: Canada. In particular, congressional representatives in western regions wanted an excuse to expand into the Niagara and Great Lakes region of Canada. They also wanted to cut off British support to indigenous nations that resisted westward expansion.

This seems like a pretty solid cause for war and one that patriots could really get behind. However, the War of 1812 is often called a "forgotten war" because, well, do you know anything about it? Most Americans can't remember what it was about, and it sort of just fizzled into uselessness by the end. 

Speaking of the end, it didn't end in great victory or great loss. It didn't add new territories to the United States. It just kind of ended in a draw.

The war ended in 1815 with a treaty that was little more than a cease-fire. None of the major issues that had caused the war were addressed. Nevertheless, the war had profound effects on American politics and national identity. And it generated a cast of new American heroes, including two future presidents.

What is The War of 1812 About and Why Should I Care?

For many Americans today, the War of 1812 is all but unknown. 

  • Maybe you'll remember that it gave us our national anthem. (Oh, Whitney Houston didn't write that one?)
  • Or you'll recall that it ended with an unnecessary but victorious battle at New Orleans.

But beyond this historical trivia, the War of 1812 has left little to the popular memory.

Even though the War of 1812 didn't result in a major military victory, and our northern brothers are still Canadian and not American, there were some interesting battles that took place in the war as well as some real shows of heroism and some individuals who stood out as real Tough Mudders.

The war was a shot in the arm for many Americans, and it taught us a lot about ourselves as a nation—our strengths, our weaknesses, and our need for a new White House. The outcome of it all was a huge swell in patriotism. We may not have "won" in the strictest—or any—sense of the word, but we held our ground. We proved again that we could and should be taken seriously as a nation. 

But as we mentioned, amid the high-fives and feelings of patriotism, we realized that there were a few things that needed our attention. For instance, we probably needed to put some more focus on maintaining an army and a navy in times of peace. Turns out war can happen at any time and it's pretty useful to have a strong military in place. 

Who knew?

We also discovered that this whole "moving out west" thing wasn't a dying fad and that we were going to need some focus on internal improvements to support all these settlers. Roads are very useful things. Thousands of people continued to pour west, and America needed to make sure they were taken care of in the same way as the more developed parts of the nation.

Speaking of those developed parts of the nation, the North discovered through the war that they were pretty dog-gone good manufacturers. Where they had relied on British manufacturing for so long, the trade restrictions between the British and Americans had forced New England to break into the manufacturing game. And by golly, they weren't half bad. This growth in manufacturing and factories led to population growth and technological advancement, and the cycle just continued from there. 

Perhaps the craziest thing to come out of this war was the role reversal of Federalists and Republicans. Republicans had always been those freedom-loving, government-hating Mavericks, but all of a sudden, they were seeing the need for more government involvement in the economy, the military, western expansion, and more. 

The War of 1812 Resources

Books

Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (2000)
Only a small portion of this book deals directly with the War of 1812. Its larger purpose is to explore the roles women played in the political life of the nation's capital between 1801 and 1832. But it focuses largely on Dolley Madison and makes an interesting, if perhaps overstated case, that her contributions were essential to the completion of the American political order.

James Banner, To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815 (1970)
This book covers far more than the War of 1812, but it nicely traces the evolution of the Federalist Party through its self-destructive policies during the war.

R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (1983)
Tenskwatawa, the younger brother of Tecumseh, the legendary Shawnee leader, is the focus of this book. Edmunds explores the nationalist vision of this Native American prophet, the conditions that contributed to his ascendance, and the rise and fall of the movement he initiated. 

Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Short History (1995)
If you want a short, bare-bones history of the war written by a leading scholar, this is your book. Just 100 pages long, this is an abridged version of Hickey's The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (1989).

Robert Allen Rutland, The Presidency of James Madison (1990)
Well-written and straightforward in its analysis, this volume within the American Presidency Series published by the University Press of Kansas is a good place to start in sorting out the domestic and international challenges of Madison's presidency.

J.C.A. Stagg, Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early Republic, 1783–1830 (1983)
Stagg, a leading Madison scholar, argues that the War of 1812 was an extension of the anti-British trade policies Madison advanced in the first session of Congress in 1790. He places less emphasis than other scholars on the bellicose nationalism of the War Hawk Congress. Instead, he concludes that this was, as we might guess from the title, "Mr. Madison's War."

Music

United States Military Academy Band, West Point on the March (2008)
The West Point Band, the most celebrated of all American military bands, was first assembled during the years of the War of 1812. Back then, the band performed a thrilling array of battle hymns, overtures, marches, and country tunes during each of its public appearances.

Various, The Voice of America (2003)
Some remember the War of 1812 for no other reason than that it gave us our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." This collection includes a wealth of songs that illustrate the growth of American bands during the war years, the very bands that helped popularize that most distinguished of American compositions.

The Chestnut Brass Company and Friends, Music of Francis Johnson & His Contemporaries: Early 19th Century Black Composers (1994)
African-American bandleader Francis Johnson of Philadelphia was a star during the early-19th century. He attracted large audiences in public and private events of all kinds, particularly during the war years. This collection captures his genius.

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture (1991)
Although Russian composer Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky penned this exquisite overture not to celebrate American success in the War of 1812, but to commemorate his country's valiant defense against Napoleon's invasion, the orchestral piece has long provided the soundtrack for patriotic celebrations in the United States.

Images

The Burning of the Capital
This engraving by G. Thompson, entitled "The Taking of the City of Washington in America," was printed just weeks after the British burned Washington, D.C. in 1814. Despite the celebratory nature of the engraving, many British citizens criticized their government for looting the American capital.

Old Ironsides
The USS Constitution was one of six ships funded by Congress in 1794 in an effort to build a viable navy. The ship was dubbed "Old Ironsides" after winning a ferocious battle against the HMS Guerriere in 1812.

John Armstrong
President James Madison's much maligned Secretary of War, by Daniel Huntington after John Vanderlyn, 1873.

Harrison Gray Otis
Portrait of the famous Federalist critic of the War of 1812 and delegate to the Hartford Convention, by Gilbert Stuart, 1809.

The Prophet
Tenskwatawa by Charles Bird King, circa 1829.

Movies & TV

The War of 1812 (2004)
This History Channel documentary received mixed reviews from critics, but if you like the typical History Channel format—commentary from historians, reenactments, etc.—you'll enjoy this film.

The Buccaneer (1958)
In this Anthony Quinn film about the War of 1812, pirate Jean Lafitte (played by Yul Brynner) is torn between supporting the United States and joining forces with Great Britain, the side far more likely to win. It’s no surprise which side, in fact, ultimately prevails. Still, we think you’ll find this fictionalized tale of this real-life buccaneer to be an exciting twist in the basic narrative about this famous American war.

Mutiny (1952)
In one of her first big-screen starring roles, Angela Lansbury (“Murder She Wrote”) plays an English gold-digger who complicates the plans of Captain Jim Marshall, the man commanding a U.S. naval ship en route to France to collect gold for the war effort. Will Marshall make it back to America with the riches needed to defeat the British?

The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)
Western film icon John Wayne stars in this comedy-action flick about a Kentucky militiaman who falls in love with a French émigré in the immediate aftermath of the War of 1812.

Websites

Documents and Links for the War of 1812
This web guide provides links to materials held by the Library of Congress, including President James Madison's correspondence, congressional resolutions relating to the war, and a broadside celebrating the Battle of New Orleans.

Treaty of Ghent Web Guide
For more on the treaty that ended it all—well, we guess you could say it was actually the Battle of New Orleans that did that—check out this LOC web guide.

Video & Audio

Canadian Pride
Here's what you get when you combine the music of Canadian folk trio Arrogant Worm with Ren and Stimpy, the creation of Canadian animator John Kricfalusi: a hilarious Canadian-revisionist history of the War of 1812.

American Pride
Johnny Horton's take on the Jimmy Driftwood classic, "The Battle of New Orleans," became a hit in 1959.

Historical Documents

The James Madison Papers
Documents held by the Library of Congress are made available at this site and include extensive correspondence and notes pertaining to the War of 1812.

War of 1812 Documents
The Avalon Project at Yale Law School hosts a site dedicated the documents of the War of 1812. It includes texts of the United States declaration of war, the Treaty of Ghent, and miscellaneous public documents pertaining to the war.

More Madison Papers
"Selected Works of James Madison" are available at this site sponsored by the Constitution Society.