200 Years Ago Today, America’s First War Begins

Two centuries ago, a war that makes less and less sense with the passage of time began.

Two hundred years ago today, the War of 1812, the first war that the United States of America fought as a nation, began when President James Madison signed the Declaration Of War that had finally been approved, after rather contentious debate, by Congress the day before. The final vote approving a Declaration of War was the closest such vote in American history, and ironically also the first. Just about three years later, the war would come to an end with very little actually changed between the United States and its former Colonial maaster Great Britain. We didn’t lose the war despite the fact that the British had managed to blockade Baltimore, invade the country, and chase President Madison into hiding when they captured Washington, D.C. and burned the White House. We didn’t win either, though, considering the fact that efforts to expand American territory north into Canada ended in failure. The one battle of the war that is still remembered by history, the Battle of New Orleans, created an American hero in Andrew Jackson, but it also gained the historical distinction of having been fought after the United States and Britain had reached agreement on a peace treaty during negotiations in the Belgian city of Ghent.

Two centuries later, it’s hard to even agree on what the aims of the war actually were. The impressment of American sailors by the British Navy was one issue that aroused considerable ire in the United States, but the conflict was also wrapped up in support allegedly given to Native Americans in the Northwest Territories by the British Army, as well as efforts by the British to restrict trade with France during the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, which were arguably more important to London than the conflict with that minor nation on the East Coast of North America. By the time the War was over, though, it was decidedly unclear what the fighting was all about other than perhaps a reflection of the fact that a conflict of some kind between the United States and the British in North America had been inevitable ever since the Revolutionary War had ended.

The war did have many important consequences for history. It was the last time that the United States and Britain would meet as enemies in war, and its resolution was arguably the beginning of a change in how both nations viewed each other that evolved eventually into the “special relationship” that has shaped the world for most of the past century. It marked the beginning of the end of British involvement in North America and led to the formation of a national identity of the nation that eventually became Canada. And, it began the process by which the United States would become a continental nation.

For most contemporary Americans, though, it’s a war shrouded in unclear goals that doesn’t even have a decent name:

The name is not even a very thorough description of the war’s timing. If you count the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought after the peace treaty was signed, the war lasted until early 1815.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 — which began 200 years ago today — happens to coincide roughly with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The latter was known by several names before general usage shifted decisively in favor of “Civil War.” Southerners favored “War Between the States”; Northerners, “War of the Rebellion.” “Civil War” may seem bland in comparison, but at least it makes a clear statement about the nature of the conflict.

The same cannot be said for “War of 1812.” It’s a lousy label, and we should grasp the opportunity offered by the 200th anniversary of the conflict to adopt a better one.

The author suggests the title the “Second War Of Independence” which seems appropriate if you take the historical view of what the impact of the war really turned out to be, specifically including the fact that its end finally marked the time when Britain seemed to accept the sovereignty of the United States. However, given that it’s been 200 years now, it seems like the name has kind of stuck and drawing the connections between that war and the one fought from 1775-1783 isn’t quite that simple.

What really strikes me about the War Of 1812, though, is the fact that it wasn’t just America’s first war as a sovereign nation, it was also the first war based on ambiguous goals and sometimes dubious reasoning, and it’s a reminder that there really have been very few “good” wars in our history where the lines between good and evil were so easy to see. The Mexican War certainly doesn’t qualify, and the Civil War was a national tragedy all around even if it did ultimately led to the end of slavery. Perhaps World War II is the one war that qualifies for the “good” war distinction, although one could make the argument about the Persian Gulf War as well, especially given the fact that it didn’t turn into a war of conquest to the gates of Baghdad. The others? Just as ambiguous as the war whose anniversary we mark today. One wonders how history will view them 200 years later.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    The first war the United States fought as a nation was the Northwest Indian War. One of George Washington’s first acts was President was to send troops into the Northwest territory as a bid for the armed conquest of land illegally ceded to the United States by Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris.

  2. sam says:

    From British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech to the assembled Congress on July 17, 2003 upon receiving the Congressional Gold Medal:

    Mr. Speaker, sir, my thrill on receiving this award was only a little diminished on being told that the first Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to George Washington for what Congress called his “wise and spirited conduct” in getting rid of the British out of Boston.

    On our way down here, Senator Frist was kind enough to show me the fireplace where, in 1814, the British had burnt the Congress Library. I know this is, kind of, late, but, sorry.

  3. @Alex Knapp:

    Well in terms of undeclared military actions, perhaps.

  4. CB says:

    Perhaps World War II is the one war that qualifies for the “good” war distinction, although one could make the argument about the Persian Gulf War as well

    ah, but mythology aside, can we really even call them noble wars? after all, it wasnt mere good intentions that got us into southeast asia and western europe or iraq. i think commercial and geopolitical considerations were a pretty big factor too…

    otherwise, completely agreed. good piece, and a good conflict to reflect on.

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    It really is a shame about Canada. The mineral wealth. The timber. Those items alone would have made it a worthy conquest. Then when you factor in the oil, the oil sands, the natural gas, geez, it would have been one of the greatest prizes in history. Perhaps the greatest. When you really think about it the ramifications boggle the mind. Of course it goes without saying that had we acquired Canada back then, and even facing OPEC and those embargoes, the loopy left to this very day in the form of the Sierra Club would be litigating against energy production in each of the district courts for Canada. Irony knows no historical boundaries.

  6. PogueMahone says:

    The United States has been in a constant state of war.
    From the Revolutionary War; Shays and Whiskey Rebellion; 1812; Barbary; Texas Independence; Mexican; Civil; Indian; Spanish; WWI; Central America; China; WWII; Korea; Vietnam; Cambodia; Zaire; Iran; El Salvador; Panama; Grenada; Iraq; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Afghanistan; Iraq II; Libya; etc. etc. etc….

    Just because Congress doesn’t declare war, it doesn’t mean we’re not in one.

    We have been, and most likely will be, a warlike people. Nothing gets our national cock hard like a good military conflict.

    Some wars are just, others not so much. Nevertheless…
    BTW, 1812 is one of the more interesting… The stunning victories of the USS Constitution, Francis Scott Key…

    Good stuff.


  7. jd says:

    And let’s not forget the song!

    “In 1814 we took a little trip…”

  8. Alex says:

    I’m sitting here in Canada thinking that maybe the war of 1812 should be called the “War of Southern Aggression”.

  9. @Tsar Nicholas:

    I think losing out on what was then called British North America may have actually been a good thing in the long run

  10. Franklin says:

    @jd: Mmmm, I was more thinking of the excellent Overture …

  11. @Franklin:

    Mmmm, I was more thinking of the excellent Overture …

    That was about the other War of 1812.

  12. Stormy,

    Yes, as I said, the Brits had another war going on back then that they actually care a lot more about 🙂

  13. Franklin says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Oops, I never actually realized that.

    /puts on dunce cap and sits in corner
    //1812 was a busy year

  14. @Franklin:

    I think that’s a common misconception in the US, given our rather odd tradition of playing it during the Fourth of July.

  15. Mary Siever says:

    Uh, yeah, the US tried to invade Canada, but we won the war of 1812. We kicked the Americans out and burned down the White House to make sure the Americans wouldn’t come back. It worked. well, sort of. Americans still come and take our resources for next to nothing. 😛


    And we were already in World War II for 2 years before the US entered it.

    Hey, you Americans have a lot of victories under your belt, we happily claim the War of 1812. Or at least, satisfactorily.

  16. Mary,

    Oh yea, well you got stuck with Celine Dion and Justin Beiber. So there 😀

  17. Barry says:

    Doug, the best description of the was is what I heard from a Brit who was a historian (by hobby).
    He called it ‘Phase II of the American Revolutionary War’. Basically, the British didn’t really recognize the results of the first war any more than they could. The War of 1812 caused them enough trouble to really recognize the indenpence of the USA.

  18. racehorse says:

    @jd: I always loved that song. Go to you tube for some great editions sung by Johnny Horton. There are a couple that are history projects that have pictures and use that music as the background.

  19. Catfish says:

    This war always gets short shrift in the history classes. Most people today could not give one clear fact about this war. Most could not tell you who won. While the causes are really complex, it is interesting reading and study. It also solidified General Jackson’s image as a hero and an important American leader. The Battle of New Orleans was clearly a brilliant move.
    There are some good histories of this war. Most point up the incompetence of both sides. This was a war “without a reason, without a strategy, and without a victor.”

  20. Actually, the Civil War does not meet the technical definition of a civil war. The Union and the CSA were not fighting over who would control the central government of the nation. The South wasn’t trying to take over the national government. Both the War of the Rebellion and the War Between the States are more accurate names.

  21. Jeremy says:

    @Donald Sensing:

    I think they’ve redefined “civil war” to include secession, by now.

  22. Wayne says:

    The U.S. also burn one of the two capitals in Canada. Invading Canada was a secondary goal to accomplish the main goal. Sort of like Japan attacking Midway.

    War of 1812 was the U.S. standing up to the bullying of Great Britain and a good many fronts. After the War Great Britain no longer bully the U.S. Goal accomplished.

    It is like the kid U.S. that was bully by GB in grade school. Finally stood up and fought GB in Junior High. The fight was inconclusive but close enough to make GB think twice about picking a fight again. Afterwards U.S. grew so fast that GB would get thumb in any future fight. Even a British Admiral knew this in just a few years later by saying that another fight would results at a “minimum” the lost of Canada. I believe that was around 1819.

  23. Galanti says:

    Although Canadian, I have always found the the design, construction and operational histories of the four American heavy frigates fascinating, particularly USS Constitution.

  24. george says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Ouch, that hurts.

    Though actually most Canadians are quick to point out that Dion now spends most of her time in the States, and so really should be considered an American, and there are high hopes that Bieber will follow suit.