War of 1812

James & Dolley Madison

When James Madison addressed his war message to Congress on June 1, 1812, he listed “a series of acts hostile to the United States as an independent and neutral nation.” In the prior decade, Great Britain began the practice of seizing American sailors, impressing them into the British navy, and capturing American ships and cargoes. Through a series of Orders in Council, Britain prevented the United States from trading with ports controlled by France. Madison also blamed Great Britain for inciting native tribes against the United States.  Madison concluded by reminding Congress that under the Constitution, it was their decision to declare war. After a 79-49 vote in favor of war in the House of Representatives and a 19-13 vote in the Senate, war was declared against Great Britain on June 18. 

The war was fought in several theaters. On the high seas, American frigates such as the USS Constitution were surprisingly successful in ship-to-ship encounters. Along the Canadian border, the American army failed in several attempts to invade Canada. On the Great Lakes, the American fleet won control of Lake Erie and created a stalemate on Lake Ontario. British troops raided American coastal towns and burned the public buildings of Washington, DC, but were defeated in significant battles at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and at New Orleans. 

The Treaty of Ghent, signed by American and British diplomats on Christmas Eve 1814, and ratified by the U.S. Congress in February 1815, ended the fighting and returned both sides to their pre-war boundaries. The treaty did not address impressment. Great Britain abandoned the practice after Napoleon’s final defeat, when the Royal Navy no longer faced a constant shortage of sailors.

The War of 1812 tested Madison in many ways. As commander-in-chief, Madison conducted the war with an army led by inexperienced field officers and aging Revolutionary War generals, supplemented by militia units that were often unwilling to leave their home states. Congress was slow to raise the army  and unwilling to find money to fund it. 

War came closer to Madison than to any other president in American history. As the British invasion force approached Washington, Madison rode out to the battlefield at Bladensburg, narrowly evading capture on the way. He held a brief discussion with cabinet members and the commanding general just before the battle began. Madison and the cabinet then withdrew, leaving the battle in the hands of the military. 

Madison remained true to his view of the republic while prosecuting the war. He did not curtail civil liberties as later wartime presidents have sometimes done. His view of his role as president, however, was based on the assumption that others in government, and the people at large, were also acting with the virtue necessary to a republic. As biographer Ralph Ketcham explained, “His understanding of executive conduct did not require or even allow him singlehandedly to make up for the reluctance of the people to be ready to defend themselves, for the hesitations of the states to adopt forthright measures, for the ineffectiveness of other executive officers, or for the failure of Congress to authorize and pay for a sufficient war machine.”  Madison was unwilling to act like a dictator, even to preserve his republic.

To read more about Madison’s War of 1812, visit the Blog of 1812.


"We all feel the weight of the times and it is to be regretted that all cannot unite in the measures opposed to them."

-James Madison to Samuel Spring, September 6, 1812


Opinions of the War

Many concerned citizens wrote to Madison with their opinions of his declaration of war against Great Britain, some positive and some negative. Solomon Birckhead of Baltimore warned Madison, "We have everything to fear - & nothing to hope from this War." Conversely, Thomas Lehré of Charleston relayed to Madison the sentiments of a group of fellow South Carolinians: "They approbate in the highest Degree your Conduct as P of the U. States, with a solemn pledge to supoort you & our Government to the last extremity."