Opposition to the War of 1812 in the United States

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Opposition to the War of 1812 was widespread in the United States, especially in New England. Many New Englanders opposed the conflict on political, economic, and religious grounds.


One cannot appreciate the intense opposition that developed without referencing the embargoes that preceded the declaration of war in June 1812. For years, Great Britain and France were embroiled in war with one another, evolving into the Napoleonic Wars. Each country objected to and interdicted neutral shipping headed to or near their enemy. Britain promulgated their policies and practices to address the problem in what became known as orders in council. Napoleon issued decrees for the same purpose. The interference became intolerable by late 1807, forcing President Thomas Jefferson to act. He thought one war enough for one man, so, in order to protect United States vessels and sailors, he had his majority Democratic-Republican party in Congress impose an embargo on American shipping. The embargo had a profound unintended effect. Instead of bringing Britain and France to their senses, it depressed American sea-borne commerce. No place suffered more than New England, where a single-minded pursuit of seafaring formed the basis of the economy. Banks closed; mariners and sailors were thrown out of work; poorhouses could not handle the need; and commerce dropped off as much as 90 percent. New England politicians, editors, and merchants railed against the embargo. More importantly, New England did not forget Jefferson's embargo act took a big part, and the policy adopted by his successor, James Madison.[citation needed]

Official opposition

When embargo failed to remedy the situation and Great Britain refused to rescind the orders in council and France continued its decrees, Madison and his fellow Democratic-Republicans felt compelled to go to war. [clarification needed] Henry Clay and John Calhoun pushed a declaration of war through Congress, stressing a short war had the added benefit of permitting the United States to grab valuable farmlands in the British colony of Canada. Vehement protests erupted in those parts of the country where the opposition Federalist political party held sway, especially in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The governors of these two states as well as Rhode Island refused to place their state militias under federal control for duty outside of their respective states. In the elections that followed in a few months, some members of Congress who voted for war, paid the price. Eight New England congressmen were rejected by the voters, and several others saw the writing on the wall and declined to seek reelection. There was a complete turnover of the New Hampshire delegation.[1]

As the war continued, New England Federalists maintained their opposition. But this is not to say the region as a whole opposed the national war effort. Much of the financing and a substantial portion of the army and navy came from the region. In number of recruits furnished the regular army, only New York supplied more. Elbridge Gerry, the Vice President, and William Eustis, the secretary of war, hailed from Massachusetts. A top army general, Henry Dearborn, came from New Hampshire, and illustrious naval officers such as Isaac Hull, Charles Morris, and Oliver Hazard Perry were New Englanders. As important, New England sent more officially sanctioned privateers to sea than other areas.[2]

The Federalists had no control of national policy, however. As the war dragged on, they grew increasingly frustrated. Eventually, some in New England, began to advocate constitutional changes that would increase their diminished influence at the national level. The often misunderstood Hartford Convention, with 26 delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and dissident counties in Vermont and New Hampshire, was held in December 1814 to consider remedies. It was called to discuss proposed Constitutional amendments. Its final report called for several Constitutional amendments. However, when convention representatives arrived in Washington to advocate their changes, they were greeted with news of a peace treaty with Britain, the Treaty of Ghent, which essentially restored the pre-war status quo. This undercut their position, leaving them with little support. They returned home, and the decline of the Federalist Party picked up speed.[citation needed]

Popular opposition

While a sense of patriotism offered support for the war, outside of Federalist strongholds, as the war dragged on and the U.S. suffered frequent reversals on land, opposition to the war extended beyond Federalist leaders. As a result, the pool of army volunteers dried.

For example, after the British seized Fort Niagara and sacked the town of Lewiston, New York, General George McClure tried to call up the local militia to drive them back, but found that most would not respond, tired of repeated drafts and his earlier failures. Even those who did appear, McClure wrote, were more interested "in taking care of their families and property by carrying them into the interior, than helping us to fight."[1]

This was shown in national recruitment efforts as well. While Congress authorized the War Department to recruit 50,000 one-year volunteers, only 10,000 could be found, and the Army never reached half of its authorized strength. A national conscription plan was proposed in Congress, but defeated with the aid of Daniel Webster, though several states passed conscription policies. Even Kentucky, home state of the best-known war hawk Henry Clay, was the source of only 400 recruits in 1812[citation needed]. It was not until the war was concluded that its retrospective popularity shot up again.[2]


Many members of the Democratic-Republican Party viewed opposition as treasonous or near-treasonous once war was declared. The Washington National Intelligencer wrote that, "WAR IS DECLARED, and every patriot heart must unite in its support... or die without due cause." The Augusta Chronicle wrote that, "he who is not for us is against us."[3]

This sentiment was especially strong in Baltimore, at the time a boomtown with a large population of recent French, Irish, and German immigrants who especially hated Britain. In early 1812, several riots took place, centering on the anti-war Federalist newspaper the Federal Republican. Its offices were destroyed by a mob. Local and city officials, all war hawks, expressed disapproval of the violence, but did little to stop it.[4] When the editors of Federal Republican tried to return, they were removed from protective custody in a jail by a mob, on the night of July 27, and tortured; one Revolutionary War veteran, James Lingan, died of his injuries. Opponents of the war then largely ceased to openly express their opposition in Baltimore.[5]

The Baltimore riots were the height of violent backlash during the war, whose popularity dropped through 1813 and 1814. However, after the war, when the Hartford Convention's proceedings became public just after a peace treaty was signed with Britain, there was a longer-term backlash against the Federalist Party, which became associated with secession and treason. The party never regained national predominance, fielding its last Presidential candidate in 1816 and fading away entirely by the end of the 1820s.


The War of 1812 was the first war declared by the United States, as the U.S., and so some historians see it as the first to develop widespread antiwar sentiment. (However, there was also anti-war sentiment during the Quasi-War and the First Barbary War.) There is little direct continuity between the opponents of the War of 1812 and later antiwar movements, as the Federalist party's objections weren't based on pacifism, and as this same "antiwar" party effectually disappeared soon after peace was concluded. However, the war did result in the formation of the New York Peace Society in 1815 in an effort to prevent similar future wars. The New York Peace Society was the first peace organization in the United States, lasting in various incarnations until 1940. A number of other peace societies soon formed, including eventually the American Peace Society, a national organization which exists to the present day. The American Peace Society was formed in 1828 by the merger of those in New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.[6]

The War of 1812 is less well known than 20th-century U.S. wars, but no other war had the degree of opposition by elected officials. Nevertheless, historian Donald R. Hickey has argued that, "The War of 1812 was America's most unpopular war. It generated more intense opposition than any other war in the nation's history, including the war in Vietnam."[7]

See also


  1. ^ Hickey (1990), pp. 54–5[clarification needed]
  2. ^ Hickey (1990), p. 142[clarification needed]
  3. ^ Hoey (2000), web[clarification needed]
  4. ^ Hickey (1990), p. 55[clarification needed]
  5. ^ Hickey (1990), pp. 56–58[clarification needed]
  6. ^ Hickey (1990), pp. 64–66[clarification needed]
  7. ^ "Guide to the Microfilm..." (2006), web[clarification needed]
  8. ^ Hickey (1990), p. 255[clarification needed]


  1. James H. Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812New York: Algora Publishing, 2009, p. 80
  2. Ellis, p 2