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Entering the War of 1812

from the War of 1812 Electronic Field Trip Teacher Guide

The Failure of Neutrality

From the nation's infancy, American leaders tried to avoid entanglement in European affairs. In 1793, as the French Revolution spread alarm through Europe, President George Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality, hoping to keep the United States outside the fray. In his 1796 farewell address, Washington reaffirmed the policy, declaring that "the nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness . . . is a slave to its animosity or to its affection."

In 1803, France and Britain renewed their perennial conflict as Napoleon tried to build an empire across Europe. President Thomas Jefferson hoped to continue following Washington's advice. Europe was the major supplier of most manufactured goods to the United States, and a key market for crops and produce from American farms. As the Napoleonic Wars engulfed most of Europe, both Britain and France blockaded each other's ports to disrupt trade and prevent war materials and supplies from reaching their enemy. American sailors and shipping were caught between the competing powers—neither of which recognized American neutrality—with the result that the economy of the young nation was severely hampered.


Great Britain also resumed the practice of impressment, or forced enlistment, in the British navy. Britain had the world's most powerful navy, with thousands of ships that protected the island nation and its trade—and it needed tens of thousands of sailors to man those ships. Service was harsh, violent, long, and frequently fatal. Infractions were punishable by flogging; desertion was punishable by death. Ships' rosters could not be filled solely with willing volunteers.

"Press gangs" scoured waterfront towns in Britain looking for able-bodied men, while at sea, the British navy was empowered to impress British subjects found on any ship. With the dire need of manning ships to fight Napoleon, the British targeted American (and other nations') merchant vessels in search of deserters or others they believed to be British subjects. In the decade before the war, American officials estimated that the British navy impressed more than 6,000 Americans—to Americans, a clear violation of national sovereignty. The British claimed the number was around 3,000—and that they were not American citizens but British deserters.

Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

The dispute between the United States and Britain intensified in 1807. Early that year, an attempted diplomatic settlement fell through because Britain refused to stop impressment. Then in June, off the Virginia coast, officers of the British frigate HMS Leopard demanded to board the USS Chesapeake, not a merchant vessel but a warship of the U.S. navy, to search for deserters. Its captain refused, and the Leopard fired upon the unprepared Chesapeake. Four American sailors were killed and seventeen wounded in the fight, and four men were seized as British deserters. Americans were outraged. Newspaper editors condemned British policies. Waterfront mobs targeted British property for destruction. The Chesapeake–Leopard affair was seen not just as a military defeat, but as an affront to American honor. Many even turned their hostility toward the captain of the Chesapeake for his apparent unwillingness to defend the ship to the last man. Some even called for war.

Jefferson's Embargo

In December, President Jefferson managed to push Congress to pass the Embargo Act, which banned all international trade on American vessels. Jefferson hoped that the European combatants, deprived of American goods, would come to their senses and respect the trade rights of neutral nations. The effect was indeed dramatic: overseas trade dropped by about 80%, but it was Americans, not Europeans, who suffered most. Port cities were destitute; merchants went bankrupt; ships sat at anchor; unemployed sailors and dockworkers roamed the streets. Though some Americans evaded the law by smuggling goods, the loss of business was soon felt throughout the country—particularly in New England, where the economy was based largely on the Atlantic trade. The Embargo Act was flatly unsuccessful in its goal of changing British and French policies. Congress repealed the unpopular law in early 1809, just as James Madison was about to be inaugurated president. Relations with Britain and France were still sour—the harmful policies that the embargo sought to address were still in place—but the economy was devastated. So Congress replaced the embargo with the Non-Intercourse Act, which allowed Americans to trade with all nations except Britain and France. The Non-Intercourse Act did improve the American economy somewhat, but had no effect on British or French policies.

In May 1810, Congress passed Macon's Bill Number 2, which allowed the president to resume trade with whichever of the two countries first stopped harassing American shipping. This new course, it was hoped, would offer more incentive to the European powers to respect American rights.

Napoleon immediately pronounced that he would ease French targeting of American ships. Madison, taking the emperor at his word, declared that Americans were prohibited from trading with Britain. France, meanwhile, continued to seize American vessels, though France's navy had never presented as much of a threat to the United States or its shipping as Britain's had. The official U.S. approach of using trade and economic policies to affect foreign relations was simply not working.

Americans Disagree over Joining the War

By 1812, impressment, interference with trade, and Native American raids on white settlements in the West—thought to be caused by the British—were major American issues. It seemed clear that the United States would have to back down from its demands on Britain, or fight. Anything less struck many Americans as thoroughly dishonorable.

Americans were split largely along party lines and regions. The South and West were mostly Democratic-Republican. Both regions were agricultural and their people in favor of expanded settlement, which was impeded by Native American resistance. These regions strongly supported war with Britain. A group of young congressmen, mainly from the South and West and led by Henry Clay of Kentucky, became known as "War Hawks." The Northeast, coastal regions, and along the Canadian border were mostly Federalist. These areas maintained deep cultural connections to Britain, and their economies relied on international trade. New Englanders believed that any trade disruptions due to war would be much worse and longer-lasting than any economic problems brought by British policies—so most residents there opposed war. The mid-Atlantic region was mixed.

In June, President Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war against Britain. The House of Representatives approved war by a vote of 79–49; the Senate, 19–13. The divided vote was largely along regional and economic lines: for example, not one congressman whose district bordered Canada voted in favor of war. That same month, Britain repealed the regulations that authorized impressment—one of the main causes of the war—but by the time news of the repeal arrived in Washington, the declaration of war had been passed.

This excerpt is from the War of 1812 Electronic Field Trip Teacher Guide. The guide also contains lesson plans, a glossary, and a time line. The Teacher Guide can be used as a stand-alone but also compliments the Electronic Field Trip's live broadcast and web activities. To subscribe to the War of 1812 or any other programs in our Emmy-award winning Electronic Field Trip series, please visit or call 1-800-761-8331.