The Causes of the War of 1812

War of 1812 Re-enactors The Second Invasion of Canada

In 1812, while Canada was a colonial backwater, the British were engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon Bonaparte.

In defeating Napoleon, the British had two war aims. All of the factions in the British Parliament were committed to the defeat of France. In order to achieve this goal, sailors were necessary. In an effort to meet these man-power demands, the Royal Navy resorted to the impressments of sailors in foreign ports, in addition to stopping ships at sea.

The British were also hindered by poor diplomacy in Washington DC, where British interests were misrepresented. This combined with slow communications meant that the Americans did not learn about the change in British foreign policy until after war had been declared.

Causes of the War of 1812

It has also been suggested that an additional cause of the War of 1812 was American expansion. In the early 19th century, the Americans were beginning their westward expansion. They argued that the First Nations were blocking the American push west and that the First Nations were being supplied by the British.

President Madison and his cabinet believed that the invasion of Canada would be easy and that the resulting economic coercion would force the British to come to terms. Additionally, settlers on the American frontier demanded the seizure of Canada because they thought the British were arming the Indians, who were believed to be actively blocking American expansion.

The majority of people in Upper Canada, and the United Empire Loyalists in particular, were hostile to American annexation. The Canadian colonies were sparsely populated however, and some Americans believed that the Canadians would rise up and greet the American invasion force as liberators. The result was that the Americans saw Canada as an easy target. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The acquisition of Canada this year as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec will be a mere matter of marching and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent.”

The Napoleonic War led to numerous complaints by the American government, particularly that the right of the United States as a neutral country to trade with both Britain and France was being violated. The Americans complained that British agents were arming the First Nations tribes living in the United States.

The failure of President Jefferson’s embargo and President Madison’s economic coercion combined with an economic depression lead to the American people demanding war.

The grievances of the United States came to a head with the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, during which the British warship HMS Leopard fired on and boarded the American warship USS Chesapeake, killing three sailors and abducting four, three of whom were later returned. The American people were outraged and demanded war in order to protect American sovereignty and national honour.

Meanwhile, in response to Napoleon’s continental system, Britain passed Orders in Council (1807), establishing a trade embargo that prohibited international trade. Between 1807 and 1812, 900 American ships were seized as a result.

The American Government passed the Embargo Act of 1807 in response. The Embargo Act prohibited American ships from entering foreign ports and prevented English ships from entering American ports. The Embargo Act was deeply unpopular with merchants and ship owners in New England, who preferred to run the risk of impressment as opposed to the halting of international trade.

The Embargo Act had no effect, however, and was replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809. The Non-Intercourse Act lifted the American trade embargo except on Britain and France. This in turn was replaced by Macon’s Bill Number 2, in 1810. This bill lifted the trade embargo entirely and stipulated that the embargo would be reinstated on the other country if Britain or France then pledged to stop interfering with American ships. Seeing an opportunity to cause trouble for Britain, Napoleon pledged to cease attacking American merchant ships. The United States reinstated its trade restrictions with Britain and moved a few steps closer to war.

The Beginning of the War of 1812

In the House of Representatives, a group of young Democratic-Republicans known as the War Hawks came to prominence, pushing for war with Britain. The War Hawks were led by Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, and by John C Calhoun.

On June 1, 1812, President Madison gave a speech to Congress, in which he outlined the grievances against the British. Madison’s speech was not specifically meant as a declaration of war, but both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted in favour of war. The War of 1812 officially began on June 18, 1812 when Madison signed the measure into law. The first major engagement of the conflict came in October, 1812 with the Battle of Queenstown Heights in Canada.


Benn, Carl. The War of 1812 (2003).

Brown, Roger H. The Republic in Peril: 1812 (1964). on American politics

Burt, Alfred L. The United States, Great Britain, and British North America from the Revolution to the Establishment of Peace after the War of 1812. (1940)

About this entry