Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820

Author: James Madison  | Date: May 25, 1812

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The Causes of the War of 1812

FRANCE has done nothing towards adjusting our differences with her. It is understood that the Berlin and Milan Decrees are not in force against the United States, and no contravention of them can be established against her. On the contrary, positive cases rebut the allegation. Still, the manner of the French Government betrays the design of leaving Great Britain a pretext for enforcing her orders in council. And in all other respects, the grounds for our complaints remain the same…. In the meantime, the business is become more than ever puzzling. To go to war with England and not with France arms the Federalists with new matter, and divides the Republicans, some of whom, with the Quids, (extreme Democrats,) make a display of impartiality. To go to war against both presents a thousand difficulties; above all, that of shutting all the ports of the continent of Europe against our cruisers, who can do little without the use of them. It is pretty certain, also, that it would not gain over the Federalists, who would turn all those difficulties against the administration. The only consideration of weight in favor of this triangular war, as it is called, is, that it might hasten through a peace with Great Britain or France; a termination, for a while, at least, of the obstinate questions now depending with both.

But even this advantage is not certain. For a prolongation of such a war might be viewed by both belligerents as desirable, with as little reason for the opinion as has prevailed in the past conduct of both.

[June 22.] I inclose a paper containing the declaration of war. . . It is understood that the Federalists in Congress are to put all the strength of their talents into a protest against the war, and that the party at large are to be brought out in all their force….

[July 25.] The conduct of the nation against whom this resort has been proclaimed left no choice but between that and the greater evil of a surrender of our sovereignty on the element on which all nations have equal rights, and in the free use of which the United States, as a nation whose agriculture and commerce are so closely allied, have an essential interest.

The appeal to force in opposition to the force so long continued against us had become the more urgent, as every endeavor short of it had not only been fruitless, but had been followed by fresh usurpations and oppressions. The intolerable outrages committed against the crews of our vessels, which, at one time, were the result of alleged searches for deserters from British ships of war, had grown into a like pretension, first, as to all British seamen, and next, as to all British subjects; with the invariable practice of seizing on all neutral seamen of every nation, and on all such of our own seamen as British officers interested in the abuse might please to demand.

The blockading orders in council, commencing on the plea of retaliating injuries indirectly done to Great Britain, through the direct operation of French decrees against the trade of the United States with her, and on a professed disposition to proceed step by step with France in revoking them, have been since bottomed on pretensions more and more extended and arbitrary, till at length it is openly avowed as indispensable to a repeal of the orders as they affect the United States, that the French decrees be repealed as they affect Great Britain directly, and all other neutrals, as well as the United States. To this extraordinary avowal is superadded abundant evidence that the real object of the orders is, not to restore freedom to the American commerce with Great Britain, which could, indeed, be little interrupted by the decrees of France, but to destroy our lawful commerce, as interfering with her own unlawful commerce with her enemies. The only foundation of this attempt to banish the American flag from the highway of nations, or to render it wholly subservient to the commercial views of the British government is the absurd and exploded doctrine that the ocean, not less than the land, is susceptible of occupancy and dominion; that this dominion is in the hands of Great Britain; and that her laws, not the law of nations, which is ours as well as hers, are to regulate our maritime intercourse with the rest of the world.

When the United States assumed and established their rank among the nations of the earth, they assumed and established a common sovereignty on the high seas, as well as an exclusive sovereignty within their territorial limits. The one is as essential as the other to their character as an independent nation. However conceding they may have been on controvertible points, or forbearing under casual and limited injuries, they can never submit to wrongs irreparable in their kind, enormous in their amount, and indefinite in their duration; and which are avowed and justified on principles degrading the United States from the rank of a sovereign and independent power. In attaining this high rank, and the inestimable blessings attached to it, no part of the American people had a more meritorious share than the people of New Jersey. From none, therefore, may more reasonably be expected a patriotic zeal in maintaining by the sword the unquestionable and unalienable rights acquired by it….


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James Madison
War of 1812

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Chicago: James Madison Jr., "The Causes of the War of 1812," Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820 in America, Vol.5, Pp.116-119 Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZDASL5FYJCN2YSY.

MLA: Madison, James, Jr. "The Causes of the War of 1812." Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820, in America, Vol.5, Pp.116-119, Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZDASL5FYJCN2YSY.

Harvard: Madison, J, 'The Causes of the War of 1812' in Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820. cited in , America, Vol.5, Pp.116-119. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=ZDASL5FYJCN2YSY.