The War of 1812

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13576

Britain and France had been warring for centuries. As America was establishing itself as a sovereign nation, it had to decide if it was going to side with one of these powers or remain neutral.


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Did you know the White House was burnt down in 1814 by the British?

Burning of Washington by the British redcoats - 1814 from Admiral George Rodney:

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  • How was this able to happen?

First Nations

Native Americans

As the United States was attempting to expand further west, it was met with stiff resistance from the indigenous tribes already living there. The U.S. government even sent the army into the northwest territories around the Great Lakes in an attempt to eliminate hostility in the region.

In order to expand the country, the frontier had to be made safe for pioneers. As the federal government tried to eliminate conflicts with the Native Americans any way it could, tribes kept fighting for their independence.

The primary native leader who organized the many disparate tribes into a united resistance was Tecumseh.

Watch Tecumseh, from Wiki4All, to see who he was and what he stood for:

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These Native American tribes were also supported by the British Empire, which made it even more difficult for the American government to defeat them. Natives did not have the ability to make guns on a massive scale but were able to buy them from Britain, dramatically improving their ability to resist.

French Relations

Thomas Jefferson

For centuries, France and England had been regularly warring.

During the American War for Independence, the new country was inclined to support France because of their equal animosity for Britain. This even pushed the French to help in the Revolutionary War.

Once American independence was won, Democrat-Republicans like Thomas Jefferson asserted that it was the country's responsibility to support France. However, George Washington maintained that the only path to prosperity for the United States was through isolationism.

Even as the French Revolution took hold in the country, the United States refrained from helping the country in accordance with its established isolation doctrine.

In the early 19th century, the French Revolution changed to a dictatorship headed by Napoleon Bonaparte, and he managed to conquer a large part of Europe within a single decade.

By 1812, the British Empire was trying to defeat Napoleon, who had become a major threat to continental stability and did not want the French to have any possible advantage.

Weapons Sale


By 1812, the United States had been selling weapons to the French because few other countries would be willing to help Napoleon at any capacity.

For the United States, the politics of the situation did not matter because they were independent. As a sovereign nation detached from global affairs, President James Madison continued the practice of selling guns to France even as the British told the country to stop.

Obviously, the British did not have any authority to stop the U.S.

  • So what did the British do when the U.S. wouldn't listen to them?

British ships would impress sailors on American ships in an attempt to stop deliveries to France.

  • What does impress mean?

Watch War of 1812 Impressment, from MGH, to identify what this word means and Britain's motives:

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sailing ship

As the British sold weapons to Native Americans - the enemy of the United States, the U.S. sold weapons to France - the enemy of Britain.

Amidst this political situation, the British refused to stop confiscating sailors for manpower, continued to stop ships from delivering weapons, and claimed British citizens could not relinquish citizenship.

  • What did the U.S. do?

As a new nation that had just separated from England, the country had to show that it was not going to be influenced by its former ruler.

War of 1812

James Madison

In June of 1812, James Madison sent a message explaining the offenses committed by Britain against the United States and asked for a declaration of war.

With the smallest margin of any declaration of war - 61% supported the declaration in the House and 59% in the Senate - this passed strictly on party lines.

The Democratic-Republican party that Jefferson had been a part of still strongly supported the French; however, few congressmen outside of this party were willing to support this war. Despite offenses to the United States, Federalists were not willing to go to war over sailor impressment.

The unpopularity of the war was worsened by the fact that the United States was not ready for a war. Its military barely numbered over 10,000 troops, and yet Madison expected to capture the lower provinces of Canada within a few months.

Capturing Canada would have given the United States a "bargaining chip" in order to quickly start negotiations for peace. This was important because the military likely could not stand up another time against the might of the British Empire. This is not what happened, however.


Siege of Astorga

The rush toward Canada was met with stiff resistance. The British Navy controlled the Atlantic Ocean, and the Native tribes funded by England were pushing eastward from the Mississippi River.

British raid on Chesapeake Bay, 1812

Image from Patuxent River Naval Air Station, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

You may research specific battles, such as the Battle of Alexandria or the Battle of Detroit, but the important fact to know about the War of 1812 is that the U.S. kept losing. Most battles were either lost by the U.S. or considered a tie.

In fact, the U.S. became so weak during the war that the British military was able to enter the Potomac and burn down the White House, as you saw in the earlier video. At this point, the British occupied the capital and burned down as many other federal buildings as possible. The center of the city was burnt to the ground.

The only reason British soldiers left the city the following day was because a category 4 hurricane arrived and convinced them it wasn't worth occupying.


By the end of 1814, England had exiled Napoleon to Elba was restabilizing the continent. In the midst of this chaos, the U.S. finally stopped losing battles.

Napolean Bonaparte

A stalemate developed, and both countries agreed to peace without any major concessions in December 1814. Because of the nature of the war, no territory was exchanged and very little changed.

The main outcomes of this war were the reduction in trade, which hurt the northern industry, and the further destruction of British-American relations.

Battle of New Orleans

Andrew Jackson

The only major battle the U.S. won was in New Orleans in January 1815 after the war had ended. Because it took two months for the news of peace to reach Louisiana, this battle occurred almost a month after the formal end of the war with the Treaty of Ghent.

  • If this battle occurred after the war, why does it matter?

The nationalism that resulted from this last final victory gave Americans who had been divided something to unite behind.

This single battle also eliminated the last power the Federalists had, and Democratic-Republicans were the only major political party in America for the next few decades.

As we move onto our Got It? section, let's analyze the source of Federalist opposition to the war.

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