Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in
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In the spring of eighteen twelve, the United States and Britain were moving
closer to war. Congress had approved a ninety-day embargo to stop American
ships from leaving home. And American ships in foreign ports and at sea were
ordered to return to the United States. President James Madison requested the
embargo to prevent the capture of these ships once a war started.
Today, Maurice Joyce and Stuart Spencer begin the story of
the War of Eighteen Twelve.
The president was sure there would be war. He had seen the
instructions from London to British minister Augustus Foster. The British
foreign minister warned Foster to say nothing about any compromise. He wanted
the United States to see how firmly Britain would continue its orders against
neutral trade with the enemies of Britain.
President Madison had hoped for some sign of compromise.
But there was none. Congress continued to prepare the nation for war. Lawmakers
voted to increase the size of the army and to borrow money to pay for things
the larger army would need.
But not all members of Congress wanted war with Britain.
Many Federalists, especially, opposed it. Some of them tried to end the embargo
only a month after it began.
Congressman Hermanus Bleecker showed the House a list of
hundreds of names from his area of New York. He said all these people opposed
the embargo and the idea of war with Britain. "It is impossible," he
said, "that we can go to war when the embargo ends, sixty days from now.
Where are our armies? Our navy? Have we the money to fight a war? Why, it would
be treason to go to war this soon, so poorly prepared."
Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin was having a difficult
time finding money to borrow. He could get almost no money at all from Federalist
New England banks. Congress had approved borrowing eleven million dollars. But
Gallatin found the banks would lend only six million to the United States
The Federalists charged that Gallatin's difficulties
showed the people did not want war, especially the people of New England. If
the people of the West and the South wanted to fight, then let them pay for the
Republican John Randolph also spoke against the war.
"How could the administration speak of war when it did not even have the
courage to order taxes to raise money? Are we to go to war without money,
without men, without a navy? The people will not believe it."
John C. Calhoun answered Randolph. "So far from being unprepared, sir, I
believe that four weeks from the time war is declared, we will have captured
much of British Canada.”
Sure that Britain would not change its hostile policies, President Madison sent
a secret message to Congress on June first, proposing that war be declared.
Madison listed the reasons for war:
British warships had violated the American flag at sea.
The British navy had seized and carried off persons protected by this flag.
British warships also violated United States waters, interfering with American
ships as they entered and left port. Another reason, he said, was Britain's
orders against trade with France or allies of France. International law, he
said, gave Britain no right to make such orders.
Madison also spoke of the hostile Indians of the northwest
territory, and seemed to charge British Canada with helping the Indians.
The president's message was sent to the Foreign Affairs
Committee of the House for discussion. The committee's report was made two days
later by chairman John C. Calhoun. He proposed that the House declare war.
The House, meeting in secret, heard the report. Federalist
Josiah Quincy proposed that the debate should be made public. This proposal was
defeated. The final vote on declaring war was seventy-nine for and forty-nine
against. In the Senate, the vote was even closer: nineteen for and thirteen
President Madison signed the bill on June eighteenth. The
War of 1812 had begun.
The leaders in Washington did not know it, but Britain --
two days earlier -- had ended its orders against neutral American trade. The
orders might have been withdrawn earlier, except for a number of events.
British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, under great
political pressure, had decided to end the British orders on neutral trade.
Businessmen and traders were loudly protesting that the orders were destroying
England's economy. On May eleventh, before Perceval could act, he was shot to
death. Not until June eighth was agreement reached on a new prime minister,
Eight days later, his government announced that the orders
were ended immediately. This was only two days before war was to be declared in
Washington. And, with ships the only method of communication, the British
action was not learned of in time.
If the United States had had a minister in London during
the spring of eighteen twelve, he would have been able to report progress
toward ending the orders. But the American minister, William Pinkney, had
returned home a year earlier.
On the day that war was declared, the United States was
far from ready to fight. There were only about eight thousand American
soldiers. And most of them were serving in the West. The United States had only
a few warships and gunboats with which to face the British navy -- the most
powerful naval force in the world.
Worst of all was the division among the people of the
United States about the war. It was strongly opposed in the Northeast. Church
bells were rung and flags lowered in New England when the declaration of war
was announced. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut refused to let
their state soldiers follow the orders of the national government.
The United States could not have lasted long against the
military power of Britain had it not been for the war in Europe. Most of
Britain's forces were battling the soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte. Britain
could send only small forces to fight the Americans.
The United States tried to increase the size of its army.
But the United States had not fought a war, or needed an army, for a long time.
The officers who led troops in the Revolutionary War were
old men, and tired. The young men had never fought and knew little about the
ways of war. Two top generals were named by President Madison: sixty-two-year-old
Henry Dearborn, and Thomas Pinckney, sixty-three. Most of the other generals
were almost as old.
There also was the problem of getting enough men to serve
as soldiers. Congress had approved an increase of twenty-five thousand men.
Only five thousand agreed to serve. Members of Congress from the western states
had spoken proudly of how their people would rush to fight the British. This
did not happen. The first request to Kentucky for soldiers produced only four
The United States decided the first attacks should be made
against Canada. There were only about twenty-five hundred British soldiers
guarding the border between the United States and Canada. Four campaigns were
planned. The first of these was led by an old Revolutionary War soldier,
General William Hull.
General Hull and his two thousand men were ordered to
march from southern Ohio to the city of Detroit, in the Michigan territory.
They had completed the three hundred kilometer march before war was declared.
Hull was given immediate orders to invade Canada.
The old general crossed the border and attacked the
British at Malden. But the British general there was prepared, and the attack
failed. Hull retreated back to Detroit. He was chased by a smaller force of
British soldiers and Indians.
Although Hull had the stronger force and plenty of
supplies, he surrendered Detroit to the British. After the war, Hull was tried
by a military court on charges of cowardice. The court found him guilty and
ordered him shot. The president, because of Hull's service during the
Revolutionary War, permitted the old soldier to live.
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators
were Maurice Joyce and Stuart Spencer.
Join us each week for THE MAKING
OF A NATION – an American history series in VOA Special English.
This is program #45 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION