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War Of 1812

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War of 1812

When we look at world history, the war that broke out in North America in 1812 was greatly overshadowed by the war between France and Britain in Europe. It was a small war but Canadians remember it as one of the most important times in their history.

The young provinces of Upper Canada, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island had scarcely established themselves before there were signs of serious trouble in store for them. Events in continental Europe, the United States and Great Britain were following a course that was to breed conflict, a conflict in which the British colonies of North America were to become involved.

In Europe, France and Britain were at war between 1793 and 1802. There were a few months of peace, and then, in 1803, the French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, again declared war. An ambitious person, Napoleon was anxious to re-create the mighty French empire of earlier days. One step in this direction was persuading Spain to return to France the North American territory of Louisiana granted to Spain in 1763.

The news that land lying to the west of the Mississippi River had again become French proved disturbing to the Americans. There was the possibility, they believed, that if Britain should defeat France in Europe, Louisiana might fall into British hands. In either case, the people of the United States were not happy with the new development.

By 1803, Napoleon had become discouraged by the success of British sea power. The chance of France's holding and developing Louisiana was growing so slim that Napoleon decided, rather hurriedly, to sell the territory to the United States. American statesmen, including President Thomas Jefferson, were stunned by the offer but soon recovered and happily agreed to the purchase. Here was a magnificent opportunity to acquire vast areas of land by means of a simple and friendly business arrangement.

On April 12, 1803, the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed by representatives of the French and American governments. Not since King Charles the second of England had signed the Charter of Hudson's Bay Company had such a huge territory changed hands in North America by peaceful means.

For the price of fifteen million dollars, the Americans bought a territory stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, from the Mississippi to the Rockies. Here was a land area, approximately one third the size of the present United States, which in time was to be divided into new vigorous states. In 1803, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory actually doubled the size of the United States.

Although peaceful conditions existed between the United States and Great Britain after the American Revolution (1775-1783) there were a number of Americans who still harboured ill will towards the former mother country. There were even some who believed that all of British North America properly belonged with the new nation. They felt that Canada should have been conquered during the Revolution and added to the United States.

Many Americans were soon given added reason for ill feeling as a result of events taking place during the European conflict. After the Royal Navy, in 1805, had defeated the French in the sea battle of Trafalgar, Britain became "Mistress of the Seas" with no other nation strong enough to challenge her rule. In order to cripple the British, Napoleon Bonaparte issued decrees ordering Russia, Prussia and other European nations to cease trading with Britain. In reply, the British Navy blockaded European ports, preventing ships from delivering their cargoes to the continent.

This sudden stoppage of trade affected the United States as it affected other countries engaged in trading. Although considerable business was lost, many Americans, particularly those in the eastern states, accepted the situation because substantial trade was being conducted with Great Britain. However, elsewhere in the United States, particularly in the south, groups of business men were greatly angered by the British blockade.

Another British war measure "The Orders in Council" served to increase bitterness in the southern regions of the United States. This activity was the Royal Navy's practice of stopping American merchant ships at sea in order to search for deserters. When seamen suspected of being deserters were discovered, they were removed and pressed into British service. There is no doubt that British deserters were serving aboard American vessels where the pay was higher and working conditions were better. It was, therefore, a great temptation to many British sailors to escape from their own ships and seek work with the Americans. The British procedure of taking men by force was considered a high-handed and lawless act, an infringement of American liberty on the high seas. There is no doubt, too, that great injustice was often done when men who had never served in the Royal Navy were seized.

Anger regarding this matter reached a new peak in the United States when the British frigate "Leopard" fired upon an American warship, the "Chesapeake". Having raked her decks with gunfire, killing three men and wounding eighteen others, the British went aboard and removed five men who were suspected of being deserters. Later, it was discovered that only one of these men was actually a deserter.

War might well have developed then and there between the United States and Great Britain had it not been for the coolness and clear thinking of President Thomas Jefferson. He knew that his nation's organized military power was not equal to a full - scale conflict. He believed too, that Britain might eventually be weakened or even humbled by France in the European fighting. Therefore, instead of resisting with arms, Jefferson chose to protest in a different manner- using trade as a weapon. Accordingly, by the Embargo Act of 1807, the American government forbade any ship to leave American ports for any foreign destination. Jefferson and his government thought that as a result Britain would be seriously handicapped by the loss of food and supplies.

The Embargo Act, however, did not have any such effect. It is true that the loss of American goods was disturbing to Britain but it is equally true that the loss of British trade was a hard blow to merchants in the eastern United States. One American historian states:

Farmers could no longer sell their produce; ships were left to rot at the wharf; shipyards and warehouses were deserted and empty. The value of American export trade dropped from $108,343,150 in 1807 to $22,430,960 in 1808.

However , it appears that a few daring American traders were willing to disobey the Embargo Act. One method was to load ships with goods that seemed to be destined for ports in the southern United States.

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