„Commerce, character, a nation`s best treasure, honor!“ – why the United States went to war in 1812
When Europe exploded in war in 1803, the United States became involved in European affairs once more. In 1806, France, and one year later Britain trampled on neutral rights by forcing other nations to cease trading with their enemy. On top of it, the British boarded American ships to seize sailors who had allegedly deserted from the Royal Navy. There-upon President Thomas Jefferson and from 1809 onwards James Madison initiated restrictive measures themselves, but the rivalries were only to become stronger. “In the end, unable to sustain peace, the United States chose war – a war, some have suggested, that ranks as the second war for independence.“ (128)
Attention shall be given less to the outcome or the consequences of that war, but to the forces and motives that drove America to war. The reasons for America`s decision have been debated by many historians, one stressing other motives than the other. I aim to show that factors like the social, political and commercial situation and the geographical expansion were all playing together and sometimes connected with each other. However, the motives for the War of 1812 are on a second look no longer based on domestic, political or commercial problems or due to expansionism, but reveal an underlying ideological crisis. The war was fought for the sake of the nation.
War in general is always not only a question of policy and power but also of the present state of the population, one may call it „zeitgeist“ or circumscribe it as the people`s social and cultural situation. At the end of the eighteenth century, the transformation of the society in “social perception, political judgement, economic endeavor, and private sensibility“ (Watts, 149) was fundamental and perhaps even more demanding than the fight for independence. For one thing, there was growth in every respect, economic and geographical. “A general aura of opportunity spurred an ethos of entrepreneurialism and self-made success.“ (Watts, 151) But the shift to a market economy and to competitive individualism came too sudden for some citizens and generated social and cultural anxieties. “For the nation as a whole, the war eased the transition to modern, market-oriented liberal capitalism.“ (Watts, 138)
There were also fears of greed and dissipation, and as a consequence a deep yearning for solidarity. Americans deeply felt the need to revitalize and unify themselves during a time of wrenching domestic transformation and foreign threat. Therefore “[…] many Americans welcomed war as a way to test and affirm their core values, unite the nation through patriotic fervor, and revitalize a noble American character challenged by commercial greed.“ (Watts, 138) Summing up, it may be said, that indeed “[…] the attraction that war holds for Americans has sprung […] more from some fundamental national dynamic of social psychology, cultural aspiration, and sense of collective experience.“ (Watts, 148)
Important to mention is the aspect that the war was to be directed against Britain, America`s archfoe. “[…] For many citizens the British confrontation appeared as an immense blank slate on which they wrote their hopes and fears.“ (Watts, 148) And the causes of this projection can be found in the historical change in the early-nineteenth-century Republic.
 Major Problems in American Foreign Relations . Eds. Dennis Merrill and Thomas G. Paterson. 5th ed. Vol. 1. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 133.
Henry Clay said this as a response to the question „[…] what are we not to lose by
peace?“ in the document „Henry Clay Articulates U.S. grievances Against Britain, 1811“
- Quote paper
- Nina Eckert (Author), 2002, Why the US went to war in 1812, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/115470