Thomas Jefferson envisioned a peaceful, agrarian society that used diplomacy, rather than military might, to execute America’s foreign policy. Jefferson believed that a large standing army was an invitation to dictatorship, and he drastically reduced the size of both the American Army and Navy. However, events in the Mediterranean quickly challenged Jefferson’s decision and forced him to re-evaluate his philosophy about the use of force.
On the Barbary Coast of North Africa, rulers of Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli extorted money from countries wishing to send cargo ships through their waters. For years, American shipping was safe because Britain regularly paid the pirates. However, after the Revolution, American vessels were no longer protected by British payments of tribute, and the leaders of the new American government agreed to take over payment of the protection money. Ironically, it was during this same time that the French demanded a bribe from America to meet with Foreign Minister Talleyrand. Colonists, angry at the attempted extortion, cried “millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”
In 1801, the pasha of Tripoli increased the tribute demanded for safe passage. When Jefferson refused to pay, Tripoli declared war on the United States, and the president reluctantly sent warships to Tripoli. The American frigate Philadelphia was eventually captured and its men held hostage. After four years of sporadic fighting, Jefferson finally negotiated a treaty with Tripoli. For $60,000, the captured Americans were released. To make sure that the weapons on the Philadelphia could not be used against Americans, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur slipped on board the ship and set it ablaze.
Jefferson reassessed his decision to scale back the military and ordered several small gunboats that critics nicknamed “Jeffs” or the “mosquito fleet.” The undersized boats were fast but featured just one gun. Jefferson believed that the boats could effectively guard the American coastline but were not intimidating enough to lure the country into international incidents on the high seas.
In 1803, American shipping became entangled in European hostilities when Napoleon revived his war with Britain. The American Navy, which was no match for the heavily armed British and French, could offer only limited protection for American merchants. While both Britain and France captured American ships, it was the British who forced the detained American sailors to fight for the Royal Navy. For the next several years, Britain impressed more than one thousand Americans each year. The actions of the British angered United States citizens, and calls for retaliation intensified.
In the summer of 1807 off the coast of Virginia, the crew of the British frigate Leopard stopped the American ship Chesapeake and demanded to search it. When the captain refused to obey the orders, the British warship opened fire, killing three Americans and injuring several more. When Jefferson learned of the incident, he ordered all British ships to leave U.S. territorial waters. The British, however, responded with even more aggressive searches.
Jefferson set in motion his idea of “peaceable coercion” by encouraging Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807, which stopped all exports of American goods. Jefferson reasoned that both Britain and France relied heavily on American products and would be forced to work with the United States. Lax enforcement of the act along with alternate sources of products provided by Latin America ruined Jefferson’s plan. The embargo actually did more harm than good because American farmers and manufacturers had no outlets to sell their goods.
Jefferson’s popularity plunged and the Federalist Party began to make a resurgence as voters eyed the upcoming election. Critics shouted that Jefferson’s decisions damaged the economy and left America unprotected. The president finally conceded defeat and repealed the embargo during his last days in office. Congress then passed the Non-Intercourse Act, which reopened trade with all countries except France and Britain.
Jefferson tired of the rigorous demands of America's highest office and left the presidency after two terms. During the election of 1808, he supported the nomination of Secretary of State James Madison. The two Virginians shared many characteristics and ideals. Both men relied more on their intellect and writing skills than on their speaking abilities, and both favored negotiating techniques over military supremacy. Although the embargo was unpopular with Americans, Madison and the Republican Party still captured an overwhelming number of votes, finishing strong in the South and West to win the election.
The new president inherited a government that was operating at a deficit and strained by tense foreign relations. The war between France and Britain saddled Americans with a number of restrictions. The British, acting under the “Orders in Council,” punished Americans who traded directly with France, and the French punished Americans who traded with Britain under orders referred to as the “Milan Decree.”
To revive the sluggish economy, Congress passed a bill introduced by Representative Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina. Labeled “Macon's Bill No. 2,” the measure eliminated all restrictions on commerce with France and Britain. It also stated that if either France or Britain revoked its sanctions against the U.S., America would re-establish its embargo against the other nation. Napoleon agreed to lift the French sanctions, and Madison restored the embargo against Britain. However, the French ruler never intended to follow through on his promise. He wanted to make America create a blockade against Britain so he could avoid involving his own forces. Madison realized that the embargo ended America's neutrality, and war with Britain was now a distinct possibility.
Relations with Britain continued to deteriorate when many Americans, mostly those located in the western territory, accused the British of inciting Indian resistance. Settlers encountered hostile Indians intent on recovering land they believed was stolen. The leaders behind the latest revolt were Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, known as “The Prophet” because he claimed to have religious visions. The two worked to unify the tribes east of the Mississippi against the white "invaders."
In late 1811, William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory, assembled a small army and advanced on Prophet Town, a settlement located at the junction of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers that served as headquarters for the Indians. While Tecumseh traveled to recruit followers, Tenskwatawa and a few braves attacked Harrison and his men. Although the Indians were overpowered, the Battle of Tippecanoe pushed Tecumseh to join forces with Britain against the United States. In the end, it was the Americans who actually helped the British-Indian alliance become reality. Britain's constant attempts to challenge U.S. authority and destabilize the unity of the states angered Americans and pushed the United States closer to war.
Support for Jefferson's strategy of peaceful coercion to manage international affairs began to weaken. War, Madison believed, was necessary to defend the future of the republican experiment and to prove to the world the viability of democracy as a form of government. On June 1, 1812, Madison asked Congress to declare war on Britain. After two weeks of debate, Congress narrowly approved his request.
The vote divided the House and the Senate. Republicans in the south and west backed their president's decision to use force, while Federalists in New England questioned the judgment to engage the largest navy in the world in battle. Many Federalists, intent on making sure that Madison's plan failed, secretly provided British troops with food, supplies, and money. New England governors even refused to allow their militia to serve outside their own states. The president was feeling pressure from both the enemy and his own countrymen.
In Europe, Napoleon's control of commercial outlets left Britain's economy in dire straights. Manufacturers pleaded for the repeal of the Orders in Council so they would once again have access to the American market. Lord Castlereagh, Britain's new foreign secretary, finally agreed to suspend the Orders. However, the decision came five days after Congress voted for war.
While Republicans, for the most part, still backed Jefferson's foreign policies, new elections were transforming the party. Older politicians who molded the Republican Party policy and put Jefferson and Madison in power were replaced by daring young go-getters, such as Henry Clay of Kentucky, who were intent on defending America's honor. These new leaders, called "War Hawks" by their Federalist opponents, were the primary force behind Madison's decision to call for war with Britain.
The War Hawks, who were interested in expansion westward and into Canada, were angry at British leaders for closing trade channels with America and considered Britain's treatment of American sailors illegal. They believed retaliation was necessary to gain respect from European leaders. In 1812, the United States entered into war with only a fraction of the manpower and weapons that Britain claimed.
To lead the Americans into battle, Madison relied on several veterans who served in the Revolution. However, these soldiers were now much older and far removed from battlefield experience. They lacked the training and discipline necessary to undertake a military campaign. An attempt to invade Canada failed when a large number of British troops, and a group led by Indian chief Tecumseh, overwhelmed American forces that were spread too thin.
As the war waged on, the American military became hardened by the experience of battle. In the fall of 1813, a fleet led by Captain Oliver Hazard Perry defeated British forces that controlled Lake Erie. As British troops retreated from Detroit, William Henry Harrison gave chase and defeated them at the Thames River. The battle was a turning point for the Americans because among the dead was Chief Tecumseh. Without their powerful leader, the Indians lost their will to fight, and the British military was forced to reconsider its strategy.
During the spring of 1814, British leaders launched a plan to end the war once and for all. An army of 11,000 men marched southward from Montreal while another group sailed from Jamaica to New Orleans to control the waterways. When the British troops reached Washington, they encountered little resistance and set the Capitol and the White House on fire. President Madison watched helplessly as Redcoats took souvenirs before the blaze grew out of control.
The group then moved on to Fort McHenry, where they fired more than 1,800 shells in just over 24 hours. Witnessing the continuous bombing was Francis Scott Key. Just before the attack, Key had sneaked on board a British ship in search of a captured doctor. Key kept his eyes on Fort McHenry, and on the American flag that flew over the fort, as rockets lit up the night sky. When daylight arrived, Key peaked out from his cover to see the Stars and Stripes still waving. The Americans had successfully defended their ground. Moved by the scene, Key scribbled his thoughts on the back of an old letter. Eventually, the notes became "The Star Spangled Banner," a song the United States would adopt as its national anthem.
Later that year, the British planned another attempt to overtake New Orleans. An armada of 60 ships and 11,000 men, led by Major General Sir Edward Pakenham, set out from Jamaica to the mouth of the Mississippi. As the fleet sailed through swamps and bayous before approaching the city from the east, American farmers saw the ships and raced to inform General Andrew Jackson, who was in charge of defending the Gulf Coast. Jackson quickly rallied his troops and ambushed the British fleet. The battle raged for weeks before Pakenham ordered his soldiers to advance on the Americans who had dug in just outside New Orleans. The American army, which consisted of soldiers, sailors, pirates, militiamen, and freed slaves, used a strategy of revolving firing lines to make sure that guns were always firing at the Redcoats. The British army was forced to retreat after it suffered more than 300 fatalities, including Major General Pakenham. The Battle of New Orleans was an overwhelming success for the Americans and made General Andrew Jackson a hero.
While fighting occurred across the United States, many defiant Federalists continued to protest against the war. Some extremists participated in illegal trade with British troops stationed in Canada; others went even further. The Hartford Convention was the meeting of radical New England Federalists who considered seceding from the Union. Some members proposed the creation of a New England Confederacy that would establish peace with Britain so trading could be reinstated. As the group planned its strategy to strike against the Republican-led Union, the leaders received news about a peaceful resolution to the war. Rumors about the plan to secede from the Union spread throughout the states, and Federalist support declined drastically.
In 1814, during the same time that Britain carried out its plan to defeat General Jackson and take control of New Orleans, an American delegation met with British representatives in the small Belgian city of Ghent to discuss the possibility for peace. Members of the American group included former secretary of the treasury Albert Gallatin; Speaker of the House of Representatives Henry Clay; former senator James Bayard; Jonathan Russell, minister to Sweden; and John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams and minister to Russia.
Confident that their army would be victorious, the British made several heavy-handed demands. For example, Britain wanted the United States to give nearly all of the Northwest Territory to the Indians and relinquish control of the Great Lakes and portions of Maine, but the Americans refused. After several days of negotiating, the British envoys received word of several defeats the British army had suffered in the United States and reconsidered their bargaining position.
The Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve in 1814, was essentially a draw. It called for both the British and Americans to quit fighting and return conquered territory. It made no reference to the complaints that prompted the United States to declare war on Britain. Search and seizures, Orders in Council, and the impressment of American sailors were basically ignored, and both parties were content to agree to a truce. After the treaty was signed, ships were free to sail to any port, goods could be traded with any customer, and Royal Navy warships no longer patrolled the American coastline.
The War of 1812 began and ended on an ironic note. It began while American and British diplomats were on the verge of reaching accord, and its peace treaty was signed before America’s great victory at New Orleans had been fought. Even more ironic was the fact that the most meaningful consequence of this divisive conflict was an upsurge of nationalism that united Americans and led to the development of a national identity and agenda in the postwar years.