Today marks the bicentennial of the first US declaration of war on another nation. On June 18, 1812, the 12th Congress passed Chapter 102, an Act declaring war on Great Britain. The next day President James Madison issued a proclamation starting the War of 1812. The Annals of Congress contains the debates of Congress which show that on June 1, 1812, President Madison sent a message to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Great Britain. The House of Representatives passed the declaration on June 4 by a vote of 79 to 49. On June 17, the Senate passed the declaration by a vote of 19 to 13.
America’s least-known war arose in response Britain’s seizure of American sailors on the high seas to impress them into service with its war with France. A Smithsonian article by historians Tony Horwitz and Brian Wolly, The 10 Things You Didn’t Know about the War of 1812, says that the State Department reported that 6,257 Americans were impressed into service from 1807 through 1812. When America invaded Canada, Britain claimed that annexation of Canada was an American war goal. Lasting for nearly 2 ½ years, the war resulted in 2,260 Americans killed in battle, no change of territory or the impressment of American sailors.
The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814. With some effective diplomacy, the war might have been avoided altogether. The war’s main legacy is that it was the first time Congress exercised its power to declare war. It also gave our nation Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry” which became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He wrote it watching the defeat of the British attack on Baltimore. The war led eight years later to President James Monroe issuing the Monroe Doctrine, a warning to Europe to stay out of this hemisphere’s affairs.
Other notable incidents included the Battle of Lake Erie with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous pennant proclaiming “Don’t Give Up the Ship” as a small American fleet forced a British fleet of equal strength to surrender. Another memory of the War of 1812 echoes today from Sam Wilson and his brother, meatpackers from Troy, NY who supplied the army. They stamped the barrels of meat “U.S.” When workers at the arsenal joked that the “U.S.” meant the meat was Uncle Sam’s, the nickname stuck and is now part of American folklore. The war also led to the burning of the White House described in The Scorching of Washington: The War of 1812 by Alan Lloyd (Call #E354 .L55 1975) available in the Brooklyn Law School Library.