June 17, 1812: Congress Declares War on Great Britain

Sunday, June 17, AD 2012

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the declaration of war passed by Congress on June 17, 1812, starting the War of 1812.  I think it is safe to say that rarely has the United States gone to war more ill-prepared than in 1812, with an Army of 7,000 men and a Navy with 12 combat vessels, which is odd considering that there was no precipitating crisis that mandated a declaration of war at the time.  The United States could have prepared for the conflict and then declared war, but no such pre-war preparation occurred.

The vote totals in Congress, in the House 79-49 and in the Senate 19-13, indicated that the war was largely at the desire of one political party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, and opposed by the Federalists.  The opposition of the Federalists would continue throughout the war, and the conflict would be bitterly divisive in the United States.

The whole undertaking has a fairly surreal quality in retrospect, with the Madison administration, propelled by the War Hawks in Congress, undertaking a war that the President himself thought unwise and ill-considered against the mightiest Empire in the world.

Here is the text of the war message sent by President Madison on June 1, and which served as the basis for the declaration of war:

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14 Responses to June 17, 1812: Congress Declares War on Great Britain

  • It is worth recalling that International Maritime Law on belligerent and neutral rights was very far from settled, until the Paris Declaration of 1856. Any country could find support for its own position in the writings of some eminent Publicist. And, of course, systems of international arbitration only started to be be developed after the Alabama incident (again involving the US and UK), which went to arbitration in Geneva in 1871-1872.

    Even in the two World Wars, the concept of “contraband of war” tended to be an elastic one, with the US arguing for a narrow definition, whilst it was neutral and an expansive one, when it was not.

  • In 1812 the mightiest (in the military sense) empire in the world was that of Napoleon Bonaparte, and in the midst of the struggle to overcome it Britain was not best pleased to have to divert scarce military and naval resources to a sideshow which couldn’t be ignored since the US was in the process of invading Canada. The War of 1812 is now hardly remembered in England, but its baleful legacy poisoned Anglo-US relations for much of the nineteenth century.

  • “In 1812 the mightiest (in the military sense) empire in the world was that of Napoleon Bonaparte, and in the midst of the struggle to overcome it Britain was not best pleased to have to divert scarce military and naval resources to a sideshow which couldn’t be ignored since the US was in the process of invading Canada.”

    As the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars indicates John, I stand by my contention that Britain was the mightiest empire in the world. Napoleon dominated Europe while Great Britain dominated the globe. The resources that Great Britain allocated to the War of 1812 were fairly insignificant in comparison to the resources devoted to the War in Spain and Portugal and keeping the fleets manned to blockade Europe. Although I think that declaring war on Great Britain was unwise, I think it entirely justified due to the short-sighted policy of Great Britain in stopping American ships to search for alleged deserters from the Royal Navy and stirring up trouble for the US among the tribes in the Northwest. With Britain involved in a life and death struggle against Napoleon, one would have assumed that the wisest British policy would have been one of conciliation of American grievances. Such was not the case, until far too late.

  • Don’t know much about History.

    Today, I read a WSJ article on the Canadian exhibit concerning this crappy, little war (35,000 Americans died: big butcher’s bill, small country).

    It seems there were four parties in the war. Americans, Brits, Canadians, and Injuns. Of the four, the only clear losers were the Injuns. The murderous savages picked the wrong side, as had four of the five, terrorist Iroquois tribes during the Revolutionary War.

    Re: Canada all they had to do was hold Quebec keeping the St. Lawrence R. supply line open and they held Canada. The US never got closer than Lake Erie and across from Detroit. So, Saxon murderers coming here and burning DC and invading Louisiana were utterly uncalled for. Then, Andy Jackson gave the Injuns and the Saxon “what-for” in 1814.

  • What Andrew Jackson did was abuse his power to turn American presidancy into might makes right by kicking civilized Indians out of southern towns to the western wilderness and I say “civilized Indians” because they were Indians who converted from barbarism, this happened because Andrew represented the poor uneducated people of the south, was not from the East coast and told congress to buzz off because they did not have control of the army.

  • @T Shaw

    Far from being ‘uncalled-for’, the burning of Washington was in retaliation for the American burning of York (Toronto) in the previous year. The war was (and is) perceived in Canada as a victory, and although the consensus has long been that it was a draw, in reality it was a British victory in that American aggression did not pay off. The Ghent treaty restored the status quo ante bellum, and the American victories merely ensured that the terms were not more punitive.

    To their credit, the British refused to repatriate the thousands of slaves who had sought refuge in British territory, although they were willing to compensate the owners.

  • Valentin,

    Additionally, Jackson was the democrat proto-demagogue who pitted whole classes of Americans against others. See his veto message for the Second Bank of the US Act and Daniel Webster’s analysis. Seems that class hate is in locked in the Democrat Party DNA.

    JN: As I said, the only true losers were the Injuns. I do not see how can you compare York, ON to the White House. That’s me.

    The US lost no territory. They stopped boarding US ships. The Indians were kaput as a block to western expansion and the Saxon would never again use them like al Qaeda to murder Americans. And, we got the Battle of New Orleans in our national consciousness.

    PS: Thirty-three years later the Saxon was exporting wheat out of Ireland while a quarter of the population starved. Concomitantly, the worst tyrant on Earth: Czar of Russia closed the ports of Poland and fed those people suffering in the same potato blight.

    The Brits came close to fighting for the Confederacy in the ACW. They also used slaves to fight against freedom in the Revolutionary War. Some things never change.

    By 1865, the US could have taken Canada and any other place it wanted in the Americas.

    PPS: The US went in on the wrong side in 1917.

  • “The US went in on the wrong side in 1917”

    You had me cheering until that last part TShaw.

  • Yeah, that was a little “over the top.”

  • TS, what’s this crap about Saxons? The population of the USA, Canada and the UK in 1917 were of the same racial stock, namely English, Irish and Scots (except for the Indians, who were merely an obstacle to US colonialism). Let’s face it, when it comes to treatment of the indigenous population, the Spanish were more enlightened in the 16th century than you lot were in the 19th.

    In retrospect, you should have stayed neutral in 1917. It was over a year before the Americans could field a single division (compared to the more than 20 the Brits managed in the first year of the war) and despite the individual qualities of the American soldier, he was let down, particularly in the Argonne offensive, by poor staff work. By this stage the war was virtually won. Still, Woodrow Wilson got what he wanted, a chance to influence the Peace Conference with his naive egomania.

  • Sorry, first sentence should have said 1812, not 1917!

  • JN: Probably the word “sassenach’ is a better descriptive than “Saxon.”

    Lo, we treated the noble savage no worse that you did the Mere Irish in 1847. I am 165 years old. I was there with Covington and Custer. I take full responsibility. Then, it was duty. Next time it will be strictly personal.

    I was about inform you that the largest US immigrant group was Germans.

    Empires are better suited to fight world wars than are republics.

    I bet I dislike Wilson far more than you. We still suffer from his wreckovations.

    I understand Mexican school text books depict the Alamo as a glorious victory, while US history presents a massacre that inspired ultimate victory.

    Finally, it is human nature to fear and loathe those whom we have harmed.


  • TS
    You can win spectacular victories and still lose the war. Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt … or to give a more recent example, the overwhelming defeat of the Tet offensive by US and ARVN forces in 1968.

    “Empires are better suited to fight world wars than republics”. That explains the victory of the Japanese Empire over the US Republic in 1945! There are contiguous land empires which are republics eg the USSR, and maritime empires like the French with a republic at the centre.

    “The largest US immigrant group was Germans” This explains why spoken American English doesn’t recognize the adverb. “Ich habe gut geschlafen” is correct German, whereas “I slept good” is incorrect English. I assume Italian immigrants introduced the double negative – “non so niente” being incorrectly rendered as “I don’t know nothing”. Still, the latest wave of Hispanic immigrants shouldn’t affect the language as they’re no longer required to learn it.

    Do read what modern Irish historians have to say about their country’s past, including the Famine, rather than buying into the mythological version.

    Toodle pip!

  • JN,

    Thanks for the history lessons.