For both sides, the economic war was central to the struggle particularly given the relatively small and inconclusive nature of the land conflict and the almost ad hoc nature of many of the forces engaged in it. Neither army was very impressive compared to their contemporaries engaged in conflicts elsewhere in the world. Neither could probably have dealt the other any kind of decisive blow on its own.
The American army had never recovered from what many judge to be the government's betrayal of the troops, particularly the officer corps that gave so much to win the War of Independence[i]. The offensive spearhead of the American forces assembled at Detroit for the invasion of Canada was far from inspiring as the fiasco of its first and only engagement displayed.
In contrast to the French army which displayed a revolutionary ability to wage offensive warfare which was probably unequaled until Hitler's Blitzkrieg, the British army, with the exception of Wellington's forces fighting in Spain was neither particularly large nor well regarded. A great deal of Britain's fighting was done by mercenaries such as the Hessians of the war of Independence, funded allies such as the Portuguese or by private sector forces such as the army of the East India Company which largely conquered and garrisoned the huge Indian Empire.
Whilst the French may have launched their armies furiously into the heartlands of their enemies and their victims, the British way was largely to stick to their boats and find other means to grind down their foes. It was through the aggressive use of these boats that Britain projected global military force and its relationship with the army is summed up by its frequently used name: "the Senior Service.”
Britain's navy saw a significant part of its role to deliver expeditionary armies, often in support of an ally's forces. In offensive terms, the British army had much in common with an amphibious marine unit best suited for large scale punitive commando raids.
The other, far more strategically relevant part of the British Navy’s role was to ensure the safe running of British trade to ensure a thriving tax base and to exert a suffocating stranglehold on enemy commerce.
All this was to be done in the face of the endless penny-pinching of the Treasury so in the ability of the British forces to buy up valuable supplies from American collaborators was a significant aid to their campaign.
Given that many of the Founding Fathers were still active politicians in 1812 and that the War of Independence was first and foremost a war of Enlightenment principle, it can be reasonably claimed that America’s leadership were capable of making political decisions based on how it felt things ought to be rather than how they actually were. This allowed for an amount of ethical naivety in how the American political class viewed the world and created an environment for a number of dangerous errors in decision making during the Republic’s early years.
Despite the clarity of thinking that allowed John Adams to state that “America is unique only in the matter of geography”[ii], there was a widespread misunderstanding of America’s position in the world. Few things demonstrate this more clearly than Jefferson’s attempt to effectively blockade the rest of the western world in the Embargo Acts.
Jefferson’s Embargo Acts of 1807 were probably America’s first real attempt to impose her will through using the leverage of the economic power when they were faced with constant interference of their commerce by both French and British navies in their mutual blockade. This had driven an exasperated President Jefferson to try and reverse the position by trying to cut Europe off from American exports through the Embargo Act which banned British ships from American ports but succeeded only in devastating the US economy causing exports to fall from $108 million to only $22 million[iii].
The same errors were partly echoed in Madison’s war of 1812, namely to misunderstand the nature of their enemy and the weapons they were electing to fight against. Whilst land forces and Great Lakes gunboat fleets played an essential, if fairly small part in the conflict, the real weapons the United States faced were unique and uniquely powerful, namely the Bank of England and the Royal Navy. At the time of Madison’s declaration of war the British were using their navy to effectively blockade the whole of Europe and simultaneously maintain their own level of trade and taxation to a level where they could bankroll anyone willing to fight back against French invasion and occupation.
Britain’s response to the declaration of war by America was to fall back on a standard set of strategies, namely to strangle the enemy’s seaborne economic activity, encourage smuggling and trade with the enemy to take advantage of cheap local supplies whilst simultaneously deny desperately needed tax revenue, use her relatively small army to attack targets of opportunity and wherever possible pay other people to fight for them.
The power of blockade was far from being a new concept. Alexander Hamilton, the visionary military and economic strategist had noted during the war of Independence: “all that England needs to have done is to blockade our ports”[iv]