|Signing of the Treaty of Ghent, Christmas Eve 1814. From nps.gov|
The War of 1812 is a forgotten war. The causes are as difficult to understand now as they were 200 years ago. Nonetheless, the war shaped the decades between its conclusion and the American Civil War. In fact, the War of 1812 set the stage for the latter conflict.
First, the US went to war with Great Britain to address the impressment of American sailors into the British Navy, the effect of the Napoleonic Wars on American trade, and Native American uprisings in the West. Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky, like other westerners, blamed British Canada for the uprisings. None of these issues came up in the Treaty of Ghent. The first two, impressment and trade, were moot with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Early in peace negotiations, the British pushed for an Indian reservation in the Midwest, but dropped it as the British public clamored for peace. The treaty enacted status quo antebellum. In other words, everything reverted to how it was before the war.
That begs the question. Did the War of 1812 accomplish anything? Well, yes, in fact, quite a bit.
1. Established a sense of national pride. The US survived a war against arguably the strongest military in the world. The Americans had few victories to brag about, one of which came in September 1814 in Baltimore, Maryland. Francis Scott Key penned "The Defense of Fort McHenry" as he witnessed the American defense of the Charm City. After someone set the poem to the tune of an English drinking song, it became known as "The Star-Spangled Banner." Finally, in 1931, it became the national anthem.
2. Rapid Westward Expansion. Before the War of 1812, a small percentage of Americans lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. By 1820, it was a quarter of the population. Between 1815 and 1821, six new states joined the Union, all but one in the West: Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri. Expansion (particularly the admission of Missouri) brought up a topic that dominated American politics for over forty years: the question of slavery in the new territories.
3. Diminished resistance by Native Americans. Since colonial times, there's been a push to the West (thus the definition of "West" and "frontier" changed quite a bit in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). As far back there had been a push to expand, there had been resistance from the First Nations. When the War of 1812 began, a Shawnee named Tecumseh cast his lot with the British. He led a confederation of tribes resisting American expansion. He was killed in battle in 1813 and his confederation crumbled. Tecumseh's defeat and the collapse of his confederacy ended organized resistance (cooperation among multiple tribes) in the Old Northwest (what we now call Midwest). Similarly, losses by tribes in the South ended organized opposition in that region as well (Andrew Jackson was responsible for a number of American victories, notably at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama in 1814). Though Native Americans resisted westward expansion well into the late 1800s, the War of 812 broke down any organization.
4. Major Diplomatic Achievements. For the first time in its history, the US was able to assert itself on the world stage. The man behind many of these accomplishments was the lead negotiator at Ghent and President James Monroe's secretary of state, John Quincy Adams. Here are those diplomatic accomplishments:
- Commercial Treaty with Great Britain that restored trade between those nations (1815)
- Rush-Bagot Treaty (1817)- disarmed the Great Lakes
- Treaty of 1818- protected American fishing rights off the coast of Canada, set the US-Canadian boundary from Maine to the Rocky Mountains, provided for the sharing of Oregon Territory, confirmed the 1815 trade treaty, and settled the issue of captured American slaves serving on British ships.
- Adams-Onis Treaty (1819)- Purchased Florida after Andrew Jackson sparked a diplomatic crisis by invading it (a long story for another time). The treaty also settled the border between the Louisiana Purchase and Spanish Mexico.
- Monroe Doctrine (1823)- Though this is not law, it has been a key part of American foreign policy for nearly a century. President Monroe gets the credit, but John Quincy Adams wrote this section of Monroe's annual message to Congress. The Monroe Doctrine challenged European attempts/desires to re-colonize the Western Hemisphere. The doctrine considered this a threat to American sovereignty.
Until next time...