Our grade-school history books claim that the main cause of the war was that U.S. ships trading with Napoleonic France were being hassled by the British. This activity did occur, for Britain was at war with Napoleon at the time, and U.S. commerce was aiding France at the time. However, the British repealed the orders to search U.S. ships a day before the U.S. declared war. Granted, communication was slow at the time, and the U.S. did not learn of the fact until five weeks later. But why, if this was the case, did the U.S. remain at war for two and a half years? A desire to expand beyond the Appalachian Mountains was one of the primary reasons for going to war against England in 1776 (Britain had declared that no settlers could legally penetrate this barrier), and the country's desire to expand was invoked as justification for wars against Canada, Mexico, Florida and the native Americans throughout the country's early history. In 1812, the U.S. attempted to take over Canada, which was still in British hands at the time. England would likely have defeated the U.S. swiftly had had they not also been involved in war in Europe.
Anti-war sentiment ran highest in New England, led by the Federalist Party. Perkins (see further reading below) notes that upon declaration of war, "In many New England seaports church bells tolled a dirge, shops closed, and ships' flags flew at half-mast. Bostonians hissed two prowar congressmen, and another was mobbed at Plymouth." Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong even attempted secret negotiations with England with a plan (supported by Federalists) for New England to secede from the Union!
U.S. leaders were confident of easily taking over our neighbor to the north. William Eustis, the U.S. Secretary for War declared: "We can take the Canadas without soldiers, we have only to send officers into the province and the people . . . will rally round our standard." John C. Calhoun claimed that "In four weeks from the time that a declaration of war is heard on our frontier, the whole of Canada will be in our possession." James Madison similarly proclaimed that "[t]he acquisition of Canada this year will be a mere matter of marching," and Henry Clay boasted, "I trust I shall not be deemed presumptuous when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet."
A variety of motives contributed to this sentiment. The Rev. McLeod described the war as "extending the principles of representative democracy – the blessings of liberty, and the rights of self-government – among the colonies of Europe." A Virginia newspaper (the Virginia Argus of Richmond) was more frank about the "advantages to be derived from the acquisition" of Canada, including "the suppression of a great deal of smuggling [and] the curtailment...of the British fur trade..."
The U.S. had made feeble attempts during the Revolutionary War to invade Canada. In September of 1775, Col. Ethan Alan was taken prisoner during an unsuccessful attempt to capture Montreal. Three months later, Gen. Montgomery led an attack on Quebec during a blinding snowstorm; Montgomery was killed and Gen. Benedict Arnold was wounded. This attack also failed, and half the American forces were killed or wounded.
Attempts to invade Canada during the War of 1812 failed even more spectacularly. An early attempt to invade failed before it began when Gen. William Hull, reportedly frightened into a state of near incoherence, surrendered his entire army at Detroit without firing a shot. Two months later another attempt was bungled when Gen. Stephen Van Rensselaer failed to persuade his militia to cross the U.S.-Canada border. A small detachment of troops which entered Canada was shot down and forced to surrender while Van Rensellaer's troops stood by and watched. Another invasion attempt, on 19 November 1812, collapsed when American troops refused to leave New York State and forced their leader, Gen. Henry Dearborn, to march them back to Pittsburgh. Less than two weeks later, Gen. "Apocalypse" Smythe twice ordered his troops to cross the Niagara, both times failing in his courage and calling off the attacks. On returning from the second attempt, the soldiers turned their weapons on Smythe, forcing him to flee to Virginia.
The following April, U.S. troops attacked again in an unsuccessful attempt to gain control of Lake Ontario. Granted, the U.S. did win some battles, but once Britain was freed from its involvement against France, defeat was inevitable.
I have posted Michael Lyle's point-by-point rebuttal of my article for a 'fair and balanced' approach to this issue. Also see:
Morison, Samuel E., Dissent in the War of 1812
andPerkins, Bradford, This Unnatural War
both inFine, Sidney and Gerald S. Brown, eds., 1976. The American Past: Conflicting Interpretations of the Great Issues, Vol I (fourth ed.). Macmillan, New York.
Zinn, Howard, 1980. A People's History of the United States. Harper & Row, New York.