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–by Don Kennon

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That war be and the same is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories; and that the President of the United States is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States to carry the same into effect, and to issue to private armed vessels of the United States commissions or letters of marque and general reprisal, in such form as he shall think proper, and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the government of the said United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the subjects thereof.

APPROVED, June 18, 1812”

The USS Chesapeake: British impressment of U.S. sailors was one of the causes of the War of 1812. Painting by Frank Muller, courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

On June 1, 1812, President James Madison sent a message to Congress recounting the nation’s grievances with Great Britain. Although the message did not overtly call for a declaration of war, its intent was understood by the members of Congress. The House of Representatives deliberated for four days behind closed doors before voting for a declaration of war by a vote of 79-39. The Senate approved the declaration by a vote of 19-13, and President Madison signed the measure into law on June 18—the first time the young nation had declared war. The following day he issued a proclamation of war, calling on the American people to support “all the measures which may be adopted by the constituted authorities for obtaining a speedy, a just, and an honorable peace.”

The congressional vote for declaring war was far from unanimous. No Federalist member voted for the measure, which divided on party lines with Democratic-Republicans favoring war with the Federalists in opposition. Similarly, the vote divided along regional lines as Federalists in New England the Middle Atlantic states opposed the war, whereas Southern and Western members favored going to war.

Historians typically point to four main reasons for the declaration of war. First, the British Orders in Council during the Napoleonic wars prohibited U.S. trade with France, which Americans considered a violation of international law. Second, the British Navy adopted a policy of impressing sailors from U.S. ships for service in the British fleet. In one embarrassing incident in 1807 the HMS Leopard attacked and boarded the American frigate USS Chesapeake and seized four sailors under the pretext that they were British deserters. Third, British forts in Canada and along the northwest border with the United States provided arms and support for American Indians in their opposition to U.S. expansion, particularly the Shawnee Prophet and his brother Tecumseh in their war against American settlers. Fourth, the rise of a faction of anti-British and pro-war members of Congress from the west and the south, known collectively as the War Hawks, drummed up support for war. The most notable War Hawks became influential political leaders for decades to come, including Henry Clay and Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky; Felix Grundy of Tennessee; and John C. Calhoun, Langdon Cheves, and William Lowndes, of South Carolina.

Matthew Harris Jouett’s 1818 portrait of Henry Clay captured the spirit of the charismatic Kentucky politician. Courtesy Transylvania University