Defining a Nation

Defining a Nation > Trade & Commerce

Trade and commercial prowess, as well as seat of the federal government, made the Chesapeake region a prime target for British harassment, affecting trade patterns and the economy.

Leading up to the official declaration of war, the United States used trade restrictions in an effort to pressure Britain to stop its impressment of American sailors and its enforcement of the Orders-in-Council—Britain’s set of legislation that restricted trade with the United States prior to the War of 1812.

St. Leonard Creek
British looting and raids damaged crops and other resources in many towns lining the Chesapeake Bay. This illustration depicts the raid on Tappahannock, Virginia, in December of 1814. ©Gerry Embleton.

The British Admiralty declared a naval blockade of the Chesapeake and Delaware bays in December 1812. By February 1813 Britain began enforcing the blockade with warships. The blockade was extended from New York to New Orleans that May, further restricting American trade with foreign markets.

The War of 1812 had a devastating effect on commerce. The US trade restrictions leading up to the war dramatically decreased American exports. The British blockades and direct attacks on tobacco stores and other US trade goods made it difficult to conduct commerce during the war.

Both to compensate for this loss in commerce, and also to harm British shipping, the United States government encouraged the deployment of private armed vessels, or privateers. Privateers, many built at Baltimore shipyards, carried the War of 1812 to the high seas, harassing British shipping in the West Indies, Gulf of St. Lawrence, near the British Isles, and elsewhere.

While neither side militarily won the war, other powerful countries recognized that the United States was willing to fight to preserve its maritime rights, giving the nation new respect on the world stage. 

Pivot Point

Economic recovery from the war’s impact on trade and commerce varied depending on the region. In the Chesapeake, particularly in agrarian areas, the recovery was especially difficult. However, for some areas, restrictions on trade boosted manufacturing.

Transportation, particularly the growth of an infrastructure of roads and canals, accelerated following the war, as the young nation developed its interior lands. Some historians say that the War of 1812 was a pivot point for the United States, as its economy changed from looking east to overseas markets to looking west at new frontiers.

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