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They Burned the White House?: What was the War of 1812 all about?
Content Session Material

Theme: The United States and the World: American Foreign Relations
Topic: They Burned the White House?: What Was the War of 1812 All About?
Date: March 3, 2005
Scholar: Dane Morrison, Ph.D., Professor, Department of History, Salem State College

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selects and syllabus created by Dane Morrison, Ph.D., Professor, Department of History, Salem State College (


The War of 1812 (beginning with Congress’s declaration on 18 June 1812 and nominally ending with the Treaty of Ghent on 24 December 1814), is sometimes called “America’s forgotten war” and “America’s second War of Independence.”  Characterized by poor diplomacy, erroneous assumptions, incompetent organization, and repeated military failure—culminating in the British army’s burning of Washington, DC—the three-year conflict was something less than a glorious episode in American foreign relations.  Indeed, the most significant battle of the war was fought after the peace treaty had been signed.  Yet, because the struggle between an upstart republic and the world’s mightiest empire ended as a draw, Americans celebrated it as a victory. 

 In American historiography, the causes, development, and results of the War of 1812 are steeped in controversy.  British Admiral Cochrane observed, “Our treatment of [America’s] citizens was scarcely in accordance with the national privileges to which the young Republic had become entitled.”  Yet, in The Naval War of 1812, Theodore Roosevelt complained, “None of [Great Britain’s] acts were more offensive than Napoleon’s,” and he leveled harsh blame for the prosecution of the war at “the criminal folly [of] Jefferson, and his follower Madison. . .  during the twelve years they had in which to prepare for the struggle that any one might see was inevitable.”  Needless to say, the War of 1812 holds fascinating comparison’s with the current American adventure in Iraq.

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Forster, C.S. The Age of Fighting Sail: The Story of the Naval War of 1812. New York:             Doubleday, 1956; reissue edition, Sandwich, MA: Chapman Billies, Inc. 1995.

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National Issues:

1)  Despite President Washington’s plea for “no entangling alliances” in his Farewell Address, in subsequent years American foreign policy grew more partisan and more belligerent.  Why?

2)  What were the issues that led to Congress’s declaration of war on Great Britain in June of 1812?

 Local Issues:

1) To what degree was Salem aware of or involved in the affairs of the wider world?

2) Which issues in the American declaration of war were of most importance to maritime communities such as Salem?  Was Salem united on the issue of “free trade and sailors’ rights” as a motive for war?

3)  Were all Salem citizens supporters of the War?  How did local attitudes represent differences between the national parties of Federalists and Democratic-Republicans?


National Issues:

1)  For many Americans, the prosecution of the war should have focused on the frontier and an invasion of Canada?  Why?

Local Issues:

1) For Salem, the prosecution of the war should have focused on the oceans, and they took pride in the successes of the American Navy?  Why?


National Issues:

1)  In what ways did the Treaty of Ghent fail address the national concerns that led to the War of 1812?

Local Issues:

2)  How did maritime communities such as Salem respond to the Treaty of Ghent?