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What was the War of 1812 about?

What Americans and Canadians call the “War of 1812” had really started in Europe 20 years earlier with the French Revolution. Two decades of war ensued, pitting Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France and her allies against a series of coalitions that variously included Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Eventually, the other European countries were dragged in as well.

At first, American merchants in towns like Salem traded with all sides and benefited hugely from the war. But British attempts to prevent Americans from trading with the French, and American attempts to protect their neutral trade, raised tensions between the US and Britain. The US also had other complaints: that the British were arming and inciting the Native Americans, and that the British were kidnapping American citizens on the high seas and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy (“impressment”).

The US was unprepared for war and had only a small army and navy, but the British had their hands full fighting the French. In the spring of 1812, it seemed that the US might take advantage of events in Europe to seize par

ts of Canada and either use them as bargaining chips, or else annex them to the United States. Despite considerable opposition, war was declared in June of 1812. However, the hastily-improvised American invasions of Canada went nowhere, and meanwhile, Napoleon suffered a crushing defeat in Russia.

With the tide turning in their favor in Europe, the British were able to send more military assets to North America in 1813 and 1814. They in turn tried to invade the US from Canada, while at the same time launching raids along the coast. When those invasions failed, the British decided there was nothing to be gained by continuing the war and agreed to end it “status quo antebellum” meaning that everything went back to the way it was before the war.

In fact, with Napoleon suffering his final defeat at Waterloo just six months later, most of the tensions that had existed between the US and Great Britain disappeared.

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