These days, the War of 1812 — our so-called “second war of independence” — tends to be forgotten. “Madison’s War,” as agrarian southerners derided a conflict many perceived as serving the interests of northern businessmen, was fought over free trade and sailors’ rights.
It was largely a naval affair, with notable exceptions. Yet as had been the case in our Revolutionary War, the conflict caught our Navy woefully outmatched against the greatest naval superpower of the day.
To our benefit, the attention of King George III, who still ruled the United Kingdom of England and Ireland, was directed toward the Napoleonic Wars on the Continent. His economy was pressed, and the manning of Royal Navy warships suffered as sailors fled the harsh discipline, poor conditions, pitiful pay and distressing dangers aboard British men-o-war. Indeed, America was a haven for deserting tars.
We spoke the same language and shared the same customs, and America provided opportunities to own land and create fortune — prospects denied the “sailor class” in English society. Any British man-jack could instantly blend into our population, and because a formal naturalization process was not yet in general use, he could claim immediate citizenship.
So in 1807 when suspected deserters to Norfolk joined the crew of an American warship, the 50-gun Royal Navy fourth-rate HMS Leopard halted our smaller USS Chesapeake at sea. Chesapeake was forced to muster her crew for British inspection, from which four were removed. The episode was an outrage to our nation; Anglophobia skyrocketed, despite the likelihood that several of those taken were indeed deserters. The indignity was magnified as Chesapeake could not protest. At that moment her heavy guns were stowed on the keel for sea-keeping on her trans-Atlantic crossing. This painful “lesson learned” has not been forgotten. No US Navy ship leaves the dock in the 21st century unprepared to defend herself!
American businessmen had been reaping windfall profits supplying both England and France during their years of war. But England’s blockade of France brought American shipping into peril. His Majesty now required that all ships trading with the Continent call first in England to be searched. Their definition of contraband was broad. Our trade was damned if we complied, yet we fell victim to seizure if we didn’t. By June 1st, 1812, President James Madison could stomach no more affronts. He petitioned Congress for our new nation’s first declaration of war, and once again we took up the sword against a vaunted juggernaut. To be sure, many of today’s hallowed traditions, as well as stinging “lessons learned” in military readiness and homeland security, can be traced to the War of 1812.
OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — is offering 80 courses this summer. Bloom will lead a course on The Naval War of 1812. To receive a free summer semester catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.