• Peter Templeton

The War of 1812 and Manifest Destiny

The American Revolution did not set up the new US as a superpower overnight, nor did the two countries develop their special relationship as soon as the fighting stopped. The British still maintained a large empire across the Atlantic, including Canada and Jamaica as well as other parts of the Caribbean, and the Americans had allied themselves to the French in the Revolutionary War. Though that alliance had come to an end during the French Revolution, Britain was now at war with Napoleonic France and would use their naval power to try and prevent American trade with France.

A Thomas Butterworth painting depicting the HMS Endymion and USS President

At this point in time, Britain was still the global superpower, and despite the relative huge size of the American colonies Britain had nearly twice the population. That meant that Britain took very little notice of American demands, including forcibly boarding American ships to carry off Royal Navy deserters who were hiding there. This attitude by the British, including some mismanagement from London and a lot of territorial wrangling along the border with Canada, and eventually led to Congress declaring war on Britain in June 1812. Less than 30 years after the Treaty of Paris recognised American independence, the former colonists were at war with Britain once again.

The war was not well-executed on either side. Britain was more concerned with France, who at this point controlled much of mainland Europe, and so their resources were sparse. The Americans were still more complacent, and President Madison underestimated the amount of anti-war feeling in the Northeast of the country.

The fledgling nation couldn’t realistically fight a superpower and win without being fully behind the cause, and though the two sides traded victories naval power was a real advantage for the British and they were able to blockade Southern ports. They were also able to land a force of 2500 regulars by sailing up Chesapeake Bay. This force were able to rout the American militia based there, leaving the path open to Washington, D.C., and the British army torched much of the capitol, including the White House. With major buildings burned and the American treasury struggling to pay its bills, the US could have fallen there and then if the British didn’t have bigger fish to fry in Europe. The decision to avoid a lengthy stalemate was all but confirmed when Andrew Jackson’s army won the Battle of New Orleans, shortly before the war ended. In fact, the treaty to end the war had already been signed, but word travelled too slowly to prevent the battle at this point in time.

While the British were determined to turn their attention back to Europe – and to a path that led inevitably to the Battle of Waterloo the following year – the impact of this war on the Americans was more telling. They had gone toe-to-toe with the world’s major military superpower and survived. Battles of New Orleans and Fort McHenry entered the national mythology, as did the flagship USS Constitution, which is usually still docked at Boston, MA. This survival was taken as a sign that God favoured the new US.

In turn, this reinforced the idea of Manifest Destiny. There was no change in territory after the war, but the British had to take the Americans seriously as world players. More importantly, Americans reasoned that if God favoured the new US, they should be able to expand across to the Pacific Ocean. This would bring them into conflict with the Native Americans across the rest of the century, as settlers moved to the West.

Victory in the War of 1812 gave the Americans the confidence to expand into the West, and the belief that this was divinely ordained. A few years later the Monroe doctrine would declare that the Americans asserted a right to the New World above and beyond any claims of European powers. It also did more to unite the new country into more of a single nation rather than a collection of states.

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