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Launching the Nation: Federalists and Jeffersonians, The War of 1812

Fort Mims, British effort, Queenston Heights, Hartford Convention, Treaty of Ghent

The United States entered the War of 1812 to defend its sovereignty, its western settlements, and its maritime rights. American leaders knew that they could not fight the British navy. They decided instead to fight a land war, with Canada as the prize. Americans reasoned that they could get to the British settlements in Canada more easily than the British could. The capture of Canada would cut western Native Americans off from British supplies and allow Americans to hold a valuable colony hostage until the British agreed to their demands.

General William Hull, governor of the Michigan Territory, led an American invasion of Canada in 1812. The British and Native Americans threw him back, besieged him at Detroit, and forced him to surrender his whole army. A second invasion of Canada from western New York failed when New York militiamen refused to cross into Canada to back up American regulars who had captured Queenston Heights below Niagara Falls. Tecumseh’s northern Native American confederacy was an important part of the British effort. In the South, Creek warriors terrorized Tennessee and killed about 250 settlers who had taken refuge at Fort Mims in Alabama.

The war went better for the Americans in 1813. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated a British fleet and gained control of Lake Erie—and thus of the supply lines between British Canada and the American Northwest. Americans sailed across Lake Ontario and raided and burned York (now Toronto). Further west, Americans led by William Henry Harrison chased the British and Native Americans back into Canada. At the Battle of the Thames in October, Americans killed Tecumseh. The following spring, American General Andrew Jackson, with Cherokee allies, defeated and then slaughtered the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. With these two battles the military power of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River was finally broken.

The British went on the offensive in 1814. The Royal Navy had blockaded the Atlantic Coast throughout the war and now began raiding American cities. In the summer, the British raided Washington, D.C., and burned down the Capitol and the White House. In September the British attacked Baltimore, but were held off by Americans at Fort McHenry who defended the harbor. (It was this engagement that inspired a witness, American poet Francis Scott Key, to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which later became the national anthem.) The British then moved their attention to the Gulf Coast. At New Orleans, Andrew Jackson’s army soundly defeated the British on January 8, 1815. Neither side in the Battle of New Orleans knew that the war had ended the previous month with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

New England Federalists, opponents of the war, were also unaware of the treaty when they met at Hartford, Connecticut, in December 1814. With their commerce destroyed, some wanted to secede from the United States and make a separate peace with Britain. But the Hartford Convention settled for proposed amendments to the Constitution (all of which were directed at the Jeffersonian Republicans’ southern and western majority). However, when members of the Hartford Convention carried their proposals to Washington in February, they found the capital celebrating Jackson’s victory at New Orleans and the end of the war. Thus the Hartford Convention became the final disgrace for the New England Federalists.

The War of 1812 had been a product of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. After Napoleon was defeated in 1814, neither the Americans nor the British cared to keep on fighting. In the treaty, the British abandoned their Native American allies, and the Americans dropped their complaints about maritime rights. Both assumed that peace would eliminate issues that had been created by war in Europe.

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