In 1812, the United States was barely 25 years old, and only one generation had grown up under the American flag. Many Americans still remembered living through and participating in the Revolutionary War. The country was still in transition. Wary of a strong central government, Americans were grappling with ideas about trade, slavery, and expansion. Washington City, as it was then called, was a fledging capital. National defense was hotly debated and poorly funded.
Then, after the closest vote for war in Congress’s history, Americans found themselves on the front lines of conflict again.
Great Britain was at war with France and needed more men to crew its huge fleet of Royal Navy ships. British troops began boarding American ships and seizing men they claimed were British deserters, eventually impressing some six thousand US citizens into service. Great Britain had also restricted American trade with Europe as part of an economic war with France. Along the border with British North America (Canada), the British were joining forces with American Indians to prevent American expansion north and west.
The tension between Great Britain and America grew. Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison tried to punish the British through trade restrictions. This did little to change Great Britain’s behavior, and it further hampered American trade.
A group of Americans known as War Hawks wanted to go to war, but others cautioned against the human and financial costs. The nation was deeply and bitterly divided.
On June 18, 1812, Congress finally declared war. The vote was far from unanimous: 79-49 in the House and 19-13 in the Senate. Americans continued to argue over the nation’s direction. In Baltimore, a pro-war mob destroyed the offices of an anti-war newspaper, igniting riots that caused injuries and deaths.
For three years, conflicts between the English and Americans erupted across the country, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The War of 1812 ended without a clear victor. When Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, neither gained territory or other concessions.
Yet Americans had held their own against the British, and this fostered a new level of collective identity and national pride. For the first time, the rest of the world saw the young country as a legitimate power with the ability to defend its interests.