The War of 1812? Yeah, America was at war two hundred years ago. It’s rather a forgotten war in our past. Seems the British and the French were having a war, and both of them decided that if the United States was trading with the other, those ships plying the Atlantic Ocean were fair game to stop and loot. Not only that, but the British were fond of stopping American ships and impressing our sailors, that is, declaring them British deserters and taking them. Some wanted to declare war on Britain, or even both Britain and France, despite not having much of an Army or Navy. Or, money, for that matter. President Madison wasn’t in favor of declaring war. And, a lot of American’s who had nothing to do with shipping or sailing, weren’t eager to go to war.
Enter Henry Clay. In 1810-11, at the age of thirty-four, he’d already served two terms in the Senate, but he ran for a seat in the House and won. He was immediately elected to the position of Speaker of the House. He wasn’t the only new face in Washington, D.C. Almost half of the incumbents, many old men, lost their seats to young men. Clay represented a western state (Kentucky), and was a Democratic-Republican (a party that later split into you-know-who). Like most elected officials, he lived in a boarding house. (The new city of Washington, D.C. had few suitable accommodations.) Clay took a leadership role, not only in the after-hours meetings, but in his office as Speaker. Before 1811, Speaker was more of a clerical role, but Clay took it to the prominent position it now occupies. He and those young men who had replaced the old guard wanted to go to war. They were the original, the War Hawks of 1812. And Clay filled his committees with those of like mind.
There were political and legal maneuvers from both sides of the war debate. France was capturing our ships, burning them, and imprisoning the Americans in French jails. England was taking up to one thousand of our men each year from our ships. Finally President Madison issued a tentative call to war against England (everyone agreed that making war against all of Europe was impossible) listing five points of contention. 1. Impressment of our sailors. 2. British ships hovering near our ports to harass our ships. 3. Blockades of our ports. 4. Orders-in-Council, which was the British assumption that they ruled the entire Atlantic Ocean. 5. The renewal of Indian warfare in the west-assumed to be stirred up by England and Canada.
The House passed the bill, the Senate then passed the bill, and the President signed the bill that began the War of 1812. There were other reasons and advocates besides Clay, but he was a leader who stood out.
I found most of this material in a book, The War of 1812 by Harry L. Coles, part of the Chicago History of American Civilization. Somehow, I learned very little about the War of 1812 in school. The older I get, the more I realize that history is much more interesting that I thought it was—at least in school.
Did you learn a new fact today? Can you tell me something new as well? Love to hear it!