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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

Historical Comprehension: The War of 1812

James Madison

President James Madison, Between 1809 and 1817.

The threat of a war with Great Britain was brewing for the first part of the nineteenth century. In addition to disputes over U.S. independence and Canadian provinces, war between the British and the French, from 1792 to 1814, further strained the relations between Great Britain and the United States. The British navy attempted to block goods from entering France, and between 1803 and 1812 attacked over a thousand American ships and imprisoned many of the captured crews. James Madison discussed America's neutrality at sea and the heightened tensions between the United States and Great Britain in his first inaugural address: “[I]t has been the true glory of the United States to cultivate peace by observing justice, and to entitle themselves to the respect of the nations at war by fulfilling their neutral obligations with the most scrupulous impartiality."

After arriving at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his successor in a March 17, 1809 letter, expressing his concerns over a potential war with Europe: “If peace can be preserved, I hope I trust you will have a smooth administration. I know no government which would be so embarrassing in war as ours.”

  • What does Madison mean by fulfilling “neutral obligations with the most scrupulous impartiality”?
  • What might have caused Madison to view the United States' position in the conflict in terms of earning the respect of Great Britain and France?
  • Why might Jefferson have believed that the United States would be embarrassed in war? What does he mean by this?

In 1810, the United States imposed a trade ban with Great Britain, but British merchants refused to comply. The problems between the two nations grew over the next few years and on June 12, 1812, the U.S. declared war against Great Britain. James Madison discussed the reasons for the war during his 1813 inaugural address:

They have refused to consider as prisoners of war, and threatened to punish as traitors and deserters, persons emigrating without restraint to the United States . . . . To render the war short and its success sure, animated and systematic exertions alone are necessary, and the success of our arms now may long preserve our country from the necessity of another resort to them. . . .

  • Are Madison's reasons for going to war justified?
  • Why was it important to win this war with Great Britain?