The War of 1812 can be understood as a conflict in which the United States reasserted its independence from Great Britain, her former colonial master, who after the War of Independence continued to assert prerogatives it had ceded to the new nation by the treaty of 1783. President Madison emphasized American maritime rights in his war message; the British had been stopping American merchant ships to impress sailors into the Royal Navy and had seized goods from American merchant ships bound for non-British ports, refusing to respect American neutrality in its war with Napoleonic France. But Madison acknowledged another motive for declaring war: concern that Britain, operating from her colony in Canada, was stirring up Native American resistance to frontier settlements. Historians have argued that this motive out-weighed others, particularly with southern and western members of Congress, who feared British efforts to control navigation of the Mississippi and prevent the young nation’s westward expansion. In this mix of motives one can foresee the sectional conflict that would come to dominate the politics of the first half of the nineteenth century, especially since Southerners called more loudly for war with Britain than did those in the northeastern states who conducted most of America’s maritime trade.
This collection of newspaper editorials, most from the months leading up to the Congressional declaration of War on June 18, 1812, displays the sectional difference. The New York Evening Post and the Boston-based Colombian Sentinel attack the pretense that the war will be fought to protect American maritime trade, and point to the financial losses resulting from disruption of a profitable trade with Britain. The Niles Weekly Register, a moderate-Republican, Baltimore-based magazine, joins the Washington National Register in advocating the war, going so far as to imagine that in the course of the conflict Canada will be conquered and annexed to the growing United States. Although the decisive battles of the war would be fought on the Canadian border, along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River corridor, Madison’s administration would not eagerly pursue conquest of Canada, arguably because annexation of it would threaten Southern interests in Congress.
Since the editorial from the Niles Weekly Register is lengthy, we reprint an excerpt from it that illustrates the main motives of the pro-war party:
From the Niles Weekly Register, May 30, 1812:
The conquest of Canada will be of the highest importance to us in distressing our enemy — in cutting off his supplies of provisions and naval stores for his West India colonies and home demand. There is no place from whence he can supply the mighty void that would be occasioned by the loss of this country, as well in his exports as imports. It would operate upon him with a double force: it would deprive him of a vast quantity of indispensable materials (as well as of food) and close an extensive market for his manufactures. On its retention depends the prosperity of the West India islands. At war with the United States, and divested of supplies of lumber and provisions from Canada, their commerce would be totally ruined; and it is of far more importance to the British government than all their possessions in the East. Besides it would nullify his boast, “that he has not lost an inch of territory.” Canada and Nova Scotia, if not fully conquered immediately, may be rendered useless to him in a few weeks. Without them, and particularly the latter, he cannot maintain those terrible fleets on our coast that we are threatened with, or “bridge” our harbors with frigates, admitting he may have no use for them to defend his own shores; for he will not have a dockyard, fitting the purposes of his navy, within 3,000 miles of us.
“Our red brethren” will soon be taught to wish they had remembered the talks of their “father Jefferson,” and of all other persons who advised them to peace. Upper Canada, at least, would be immediately and completely in our possession. The Pandora boxes at Amherstburg and Malden would be closed, and all the causes of the present murders of the savages would cease; for they make neither guns nor gun-powder, being at this time supplied from the “king’s stores” at these places, and urged to the work of death by “his majesty’s agents” with liberal rewards and more liberal promises. To our mind there are facts “as strong as proofs from holy writ,” to convince us that all our difficulties with the Indians originated with the British in Canada.
New Orleans, even if it should pass into the hands of the enemy, cannot be held by him. The estimate alone would annihilate it, pent up and harassed, and straitened for supplies, as it would be, from the active indignation of a gallant, hardy and adventurous people. But a million of persons are immediately interested in the navigation of the Mississippi; and like the torrent of their own mighty river would descend with a force irresistable, sweeping every thing before them. Certain parts of Florida the enemy might take, and perhaps, be permitted to hold; because he would retain them at a greater injury to himself than to us.