Lecture 8: The War of 1812


This lecture deals with a short war that is little discussed—the War of 1812. About the only glimpse most modern Americans have is the one provided by the Johnny Horton song about the Battle of New Orleans. In fact, the fight was not so glorious. Especially considered in light of what Tocqueville has to say about democracies at war, the War of 1812 holds some important lessons for us about international relations and the resort to arms.


Outline of Lecture


The War of 1812 is not a pretty story in American history—it was entered into from questionable motives, and the fighting went badly for the Americans. It is a necessary story, however, in the chain of American development from the formative years to the Nationalist Era to follow.

Causes of the War of 1812

Three sets of issues propelled the United States toward war in 1812: issues of the pocketbook, those of honor, and those of ambition. In the end it was the issues of ambition—hopes for territorial conquest—that energized the War Hawks and helped President Madison get a declaration of war against Britain.

The War and Its Aftermath

Americans suffered one defeat after another at the hands of the British. At war’s end, the Treaty of Ghent settled none of the issues ostensibly causing the war. The Battle of New Orleans, however, left Americans with the impression that they had been victorious in the end.

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51. Some Considerations on War in Democratic Communities


In the War of 1812 the American democracy took up arms against Britain and British possessions in North America. This was not a glorious triumph for the US. It was at best a draw, and one reason for American difficulties in the war was dissent and division over whether and how it should be fought. Tocqueville gives us some considerations about democracies fighting wars.


·         If Tocqueville is right on p. 283, then how do we explain the success of the War Hawks in promoting war with Britain?

·         How does democracy change the practice of war, according to Tocqueville?

·         Dissent, and motivation, were important factors in the prosecution of the War of 1812. What does Tocqueville tell us about these factors?

·         Tocqueville is often credited as a great prophet, seeing important events far in the future. Sometimes, though, he misses badly. Can you see an example of that in this chapter?


Visit the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine to find out how we got a national anthem that hardly anybody can sing.

Film Review

The Buccaneers

Jean Lafitte joins forces with Andrew Jackson to fight the British at New Orleans.

Master and Commander

Set just before the War of 1812, the film treats a British captain in pursuit of a French ship.  (The British-French conflict was central to the onset of war for the U.S. in 1812.)

Book Review

Dale, The Invasion of Canada


Tucker and Reuter, The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807


Dowd, A Spirited Resistance