War of 1812: The Incompetent vs The Distracted

Amédée Forestier's The signing of the Treaty of Ghent, December, 1814.

Big things came out of the standoff with which the War of 1812 ended: the eventual creation of Canada as a country, and the destiny of the Yankee exodus westward and the outcome of the Civil War. Above: Amédée Forestier’s The signing of the Treaty of Ghent, December, 1814.


Part one of a three-part series on the War of 1812, in The Yankee Road, an ongoing project by Jim McNiven.

February 13, 2015 

Warfare between Great Britain and America came to its legal end 200 years ago, with the ratification of the The Treaty of Ghent on February 16, 1815.

Public and official interest in the bicentennial of the War of 1812 in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, has been mostly muted, despite an official effort to play up the War in Canada.

The War of 1812 was fought by the incompetent against the distracted. There are a few flashes of brilliance against this foggy background on land by British General Isaac Brock and American General Andrew Jackson. There were a couple of lucky breaks on both sides, notably on the water in the defense of Baltimore, the battle of Lake Erie and on land in terms of the early death of General Brock and the fumbled and abortive American plan to capture Kingston and Montreal. By and large, these broke for the American side. But for the most part, the conduct of the War was either craven or embarrassing, and perhaps better forgotten. Casualties on all sides amounted to far fewer than in any single notable battle in the Napoleonic Wars. The war ended with both sides agreeing to roughly the status quo.

Yet big things came out of this standoff. One was the eventual creation of Canada as a country separate from America. The second was the destiny of the Yankee exodus westward and the outcome of the Civil War. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The Dreams of Incompetents

I am no fan of Jefferson and Madison as presidents. As founders of America they were peerless, Jefferson giving the ideas of the Revolution their form and Madison playing a central role in creating a true American federation. But neither did a very good job running the country from 1800 to 1816. Yes, Jefferson, in a fit of inconsistency, spent the equivalent of the national budget to buy the Louisiana tract from Napoleon, who had extorted it from the Spanish. Napoleon had taken it as part of a dream of his to create a new French empire in the Americas, but the successful revolution in Haiti, whose sugar revenues were central to the project, put paid to that. So, he flipped it to Jefferson, when all Jefferson really wanted was the city of New Orleans and the neighboring bit of Spanish Florida.

Other than that, what can we point to in terms of his Administration: a treason trial that failed, and an embargo on international trade that wrecked the economy. President Polk in the 1840s added as much land to the country as had Jefferson, and President Jackson in the 1830s probably (the statistics are bad) did as much economic damage as Jefferson. Even more forgotten is the first President Johnson’s addition of the vast territory of Alaska to the country in 1867. Further, given the American experiences in Texas and Hawaii — colonize in numbers, become local citizens, have a revolution, declare independence, and then annex oneself to the United States — the probability is good that even without the Purchase, the Louisiana Territory would have fallen to American settlers in time anyway.

Then there was Madison. As president he was to Jefferson as George H.W. Bush was to Ronald Reagan. Madison inherited Jefferson’s naïve embargo that crippled the country, got rid of it, then kicked-off his 1812 re-election campaign by declaring war on Britain, which further crippled the country. Congress voted its agreement and then went home, not bothering to vote any new taxes to raise the funds for the prosecution of the War. Further, having followed Jefferson’s antipathy towards a national bank, he let the charter of Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States lapse just before the war, so that the federal government did not have a mechanism to raise the funds needed to prosecute the war, let alone have any equipment or many soldiers to absorb the money. The main sources of income for the federal Treasury were from land sales in the West, which required security to be maintained there, and tariff duties and fees, which required trade to be happening, not embargoed or blockaded.

The day the War of 1812 ended America’s federal treasury was exhausted and there were no more private lenders ready to put up more funds, so the War from the American side would have stopped and left Britain the master of the country — had it wanted it. Fortunately, the British, whose wartime finance machine was still intact, did not know this.

We have to remember that these two politicians, governing 25-35 years after the Revolution, had begun with an American militia victory over regulars at Lexington and Concord, MA. Jefferson’s ideological stance toward the future was governed by an idea of ‘yeoman’ farmers, living on their land and trading their crops for foreign manufactured products, while the country’s defense would primarily rest on its distance from Europe, its geographic size and those trusty militiamen who would take up their arms to defend their homes.

That this was madness can be seen in the context of what was happening in the world at large.

Lexington and Concord had happened a dozen years after the end of the French and Indian War. British troops in 1775 were trained, but they were not veterans of serious combat after a dozen years at peace.

In 1812, the situation was wholly different. It was the 20th year of the war between Britain and the French revolutionaries and then Napoleon. The British had been organized, financially and in terms of ordnance, for a long time. The British army had been fighting for years in Portugal and Spain and had proven itself a match for French forces. Earlier, parts of the army had fought in the Low Countries, in the Caribbean and in India and the Middle East. The navy had been at sea fighting since 1792 and had swept all before it. True, 1812 was not 1775, but neither of these veteran American politicians seemed to really understand that they were a sidelight to a world war, and that they were dealing with forces that could crush the country were they to be brought to bear on the task.

While the Americans had cause for complaint, they had few resources to back up their demands. The British, on the other hand, had little cause for complaint, but their country was a major protagonist in a world war. They did not have time to bother with American whining, especially when these people were prospering by selling food and war materials to both sides while living behind the British naval shield in the Atlantic.

In 1812, Napoleon was engaged in a major effort to starve the British into submission by closing all the ports in Europe to its trade. It was having some effect, but then, the new Czar of Russia decided to drop his county’s allegiance to this continental plan and trade with the British. The Russian example was intolerable to Napoleon and he prepared to invade. In America, Madison placed considerable weight on Napoleon winning his invasion in the calculations around war with the British. In his mind, the British would not let an American distraction sway them from defeating Napoleon. At first, he was right, and the British approached the American government with a willingness to back off much of their previous policy toward America in return for an armistice or peace, but Madison could not do so during the election. Then, in the winter of 1812, Napoleon suffered defeat and the pressure on Britain began to subside — and the newly re-elected Madison had some problems.

The Distracted get Focused … a bit

Madison counted on an easy land campaign to deliver Canada from Montreal west into American hands. Jefferson felt that it was just a matter of the militias and the small regular army simply marching into Canada for its two inland parts, Lower and Upper Canada, along the Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, to fall. British forces were light and at least 60% of the population of Upper Canada (now Ontario) were American settlers or descendants of American Loyalists (Tories).

These might be counted on to rebel against the British, as might the French-Canadians in Lower Canada. The original idea was to hold these lands as a negotiating tool to get rid of the British irritations. There was some idea that the Americans might keep these lands as well. Little thought was given to how one might pry Quebec City and the major naval base at Halifax in Nova Scotia from the British. 

Madison soon had more to worry about. By the end of 1812, not only had Napoleon failed in Russia, but the easy march into Canada had proven to be anything but. General Brock, with an inferior force, had intimidated the American General Hull into surrendering Detroit. He then annexed Michigan to Canada. Meanwhile, Americans on other fronts, namely in the Niagara Peninsula and on the St. Lawrence, had failed to make any headway. The militias were ill-clad and hungry and there was dissension between them and the small regular army. Further many pointed to the Constitution, which referred to the defensive nature of the militia, and refused to cross into Canada, and sometimes refused to cross State lines.

The generals, like Hull, had been junior officers in the Revolution and had not seen action since, nor had they commanded large numbers of soldiers. The British officers were younger and battle-tested, which offset the build-up of the American forces in number. The American settlers in Upper Canada near the border were alienated by the plundering behavior of the undisciplined American militia and did not rally to the US flag. Also, to the pragmatic among them, Brock’s victory at Detroit suggested that the outcome would not be as clear as had been anticipated. 

During 1813, Napoleon was driven out of Germany and his continental embargo system collapsed. The pressure on the British was gone and the country could give some attention to North America. The small American ocean-going navy was either destroyed or cooped up in port for the most part. Regular soldiers began to arrive in Canada and plans were made for an 1814 campaign to harass the Atlantic coast. Inland, the force of Kentucky militia moving north to recapture Detroit was stymied by the British control of Lake Erie, allowing easy access for British forces to the American supply lines to Detroit.

Brock’s audacious move to annex Michigan did not go unnoticed in London. In 1813-4, the British government played with the idea of reconstructing a new empire in North America. There was no thought of re-conquering the United States, but rather to resurrect the old pre-Revolution Quebec Act, with its restrictions on the westward movement of the Americans. In the extreme version, this would require a military push southwestward from Upper Canada towards the Mississippi River and a second push to take New Orleans and follow the River north. That, plus a piece of eastern Maine to protect the connection between Halifax and Quebec City in winter would box in the American settlers, give the Louisiana territory to Britain and provide for an Indian buffer state in what is now Michigan, northern Ohio and northern Indiana. It was an ambitious scheme.

Two British miscalculations, or stunning American pieces of luck, 15 months apart, ended this dream. The first, on water, was a Yankee victory that ended the notion of an easy British advance through Ohio. The second was a southern victory at New Orleans that came after the British government, on the advice of Wellington, already had given up on the dream and turned back to more pressing matters of organizing post-Napoleonic Europe and agreeing to peace. This decision came too late to recall the invasion force destined for New Orleans.

A fascinating alternative history could be made of the obverse of these two victories, something that was more probable than the British defeats. Had Perry lost, or had never got out of Erie in time, Wellington’s advice to settle the war in 1814 might not have prevailed. Had Jackson’s unlikely victory not happened, the destiny of a bankrupt America, still at war in 1815, might have been very different.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2015


Jim McNiven

Dr. McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis. 








Help sustain independent, non-partisan and professional journalism by buying a $1 day pass or subscription to Facts and Opinions. An online journal of first-rate reporting and analysis, without borders, F&O is employee-owned, does not carry advertising, and is funded entirely by readers. Click here to purchase a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. Receive free blog emails via the form on FRONTLINES. Please tell others about us.