"Had Britain complied with American demands to stop impressments and to respect their neutrality, the war would have been over and victory declared. "
The stated aims of the Madison government were clear and unambiguous. The seemingly endless wars between Britain and France were continuing to impact the Unites States, and in fact America under President Adams had almost found itself at war with its great ally and benefactor France only a few years previously.
As the British and French navies sought to strangle the other’s ability to survive by sea trade, they habitually seized American shipping and cargo as contraband war material. Worse than this, Britain’s Royal Navy was causing constant and outrageous insult to the young republic by boarding her ships and conscripting seamen who it deemed to be British subjects and often when they had no reason to believe that they actually were. In more than one occasion British ships had fired on American ships who failed to submit to search with the infamous Leopard Incident being the benchmark case.
These maritime complaints were given overwhelming precedence in Madison’s “War Letter” to Congress, June 1, 1812 where he set out for America’s legislators his reasons for the call to war.
“British cruisers have been in the continued practice of violating the American flag on the great highway of nations, and of seizing and carrying off persons sailing under it…. British jurisdiction is thus extended to neutral vessels in a situation where no laws can operate but the law of nations and the laws of the country to which the vessels belong….
…under the pretext of searching for these (British subjects), thousands of American citizens, under the safeguard of public law and of their national flag, have been torn from their country and from everything dear to them; have been dragged on board ships of war of a foreign nation …to risk their lives in the battles of their oppressors….
…our commerce has been plundered in every sea, the great staples of our country have been cut off from their legitimate markets, and a destructive blow aimed at our agricultural and maritime interests….
Whether the United States shall continue passive under these … accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the Almighty Disposer of Events, is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government. In recommending it to their early deliberations 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.”
The first thing of note in this letter is the absolute clarity that the naval issue was at the front of the President’s mind. Since the letter was aiming to sway his Congressional audience’s mind to declare war, it can be accepted that he chose to highlight the issues that would resonate most strongly to them and therefore what he felt to be the nation’s priorities. The second reference is to the need for national self esteem, to be “a free and a powerful nation” and third in order of priority comes the support which Britain offered to the Native Americans. The letter then appears to make the interesting assertion that it is “difficult to account for” the hostility of the Native Americans except for British intrigue.
“In reviewing the conduct of Great Britain toward the United States our attention is necessarily drawn to the warfare just renewed by the savages on one of our extensive frontiers - a warfare which is known to spare neither age nor sex and to be distinguished by features peculiarly shocking to humanity. It is difficult to account for…their hostility…without recollecting the authenticated examples of such interpositions (British intrigues with the Indians)….
The suggestion that the naval issue was a pretext for war with the Native Americans is now widely accepted by many as one of the main real causes. Some bold claims to this effect have been made such as the one made by Davis in his book “Don't Know Much about History” that the war was started by “land crazed war hawks”. Even bolder is the statement made by Loewen that “The largest pressure group behind the War of 1812 was the slave holders who coveted Indian and Spanish land and wanted to drive Indian societies farther away from the slave holding states to prevent slave escapes”.
This begs the question as to why America should have felt the need to have any excuse to wage war on the Indian nations. On many occasions before and after 1812, America went to war with the Native Americans without a fig leaf of a pretext. Certainly it did not require a declaration of war with one of the few global powers to launch a land grab against the Indian nations on the border. If America had wanted to launch a war on the Indian nations it could cobble an excuse to do so quite easily.
The similar suggestion sometimes offered that the war on Britain was a cover for a land grab on Franco Spanish territories is equally frail. America could have as easily created an excuse for war with either of those failing empires as it later did with Mexico.
Canada was undoubtedly on the minds of America’s leadership, particularly given the belief by many that it would be a war of liberation for the oppressed Imperial subjects north of the border, but there is no evidence that America created any real plans for absorbing a liberated Canada, no interim government, nor even proposed governor general were considered: there was no nation building plan. Given that the US invading army was eliminated by a small scratch force of British regulars, volunteer Canadian militia and Native American allies at the Battle of Detroit it became a moot point almost immediately.
The lack of any realistic alternative makes it far more credible for any reasonable observer to accept that the war was launched pretty much for the reasons given by Madison, contempt for American sovereignty, particularly at sea, by the British Empire. Had Britain complied with American demands to stop impressments and to respect their neutrality, the war would have been over and victory declared. Like the War of Independence, the War of 1812 was fought on the American side for principle and by the British for pragmatic self interest.
Perhaps over ridding all of this though was the ideological aspect of the war. The energy of the American ruling class for war with Britain was, undoubtedly fueled by more than impressments and the seizure of ships. Throughout the writings of the main figures of the dominant political party of the time, the Democratic-Republicans there is the repeated refrain that the economic system of the British was basically a monstrous invention based on paper money, banking, debt and urbanized capitalism – all things which the Jeffersonian establishment in Washington felt to be enemies of mankind. British capitalism was in fact held to be a greater evil than even dictatorial France.