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The First Declared War

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Two hundred years ago Friday, President James Madison sent a carefully worded message to Congress making the case for war against Great Britain. A British blockade of Napoleonic France was keeping U.S. exports from reaching European markets, cutting off the young nation’s trade and violating its right to remain neutral.

In 1812, the United States had never declared war on another nation. And though Madison believed Britain’s actions were turning America back into a colony, the “Father of the Constitution” was careful to defer to Congress’ war-making powers and the put the burden on elected representatives. 

“I am happy in the assurance that the decision will be worthy the enlightened and patriotic councils of a virtuous, a free and a powerful nation,’’ he wrote.

Within 17 days, Congress opted in. 

The House and Senate, coached by  the Madison administration on key details, passed war resolutions plunging the 36-year-old nation into battle with the world’s pre-eminent superpower. In the process, they embarked on what became arguably the defining test of U.S. identity between the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

The War of 1812 is remembered today for iconic moments such as the burning of Washington, D.C., and the bombardment of Fort McHenry that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It helped send four men — James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison — to the presidency and settled the question of who’d dominate the heartland of North America, mostly at the expense of American Indian tribes. The political and economic fallout also helped lay the groundwork for the modern two-party system.

For all of that, the war didn’t have a clear-cut outcome, petering out after England’s victory over France. The most decisive military victory, the Battle of New Orleans, was actually fought after a formal peace treaty was signed. The conflict also exposed embarrassing deficiencies in the U.S. Army, which stumbled through an unsuccessful invasion of Canada intended to bring pressure on the British. The costs drained the U.S. Treasury and bankrupted hundreds of businesses.

“The assumption, in hindsight, is if the U.S. could have just hung on for a couple of years, all the unpleasantness could have been avoided,” said John Stagg, editor-in-chief of the Papers of James Madison and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. “But nobody thought the whole thing would be over shortly or that Napoleon would be defeated. Madison was looking at a long-term crisis of American neutrality and felt he had to go to war to vindicate the independence of the nation. It was a decisive phase in how the United States charted its course in the community of nations.” 

Setting the Course of Empire

Ironically, Madison’s war declaration might have never materialized had news traveled faster in the early 19th century.

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