The War of 1812 for Kids Illustration

The War of 1812 for Kids

For Kids: The War of 1812 was called by its opponents "Mr. Madison's war" (referring to James Madison, 4th US President and author of the Constitution of the United States.) But the events leading up to the War of 1812 actually began while Jefferson was president in his second term of office.

Economic Sanctions:  By 1805, two years after the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon had pretty much taken over Europe, but Britain was recognized as the king of the seas. Rather than continue military action, these two powers tried to destroy each other though economic warfare. American merchants were greatly affected. Here's what happened: In 1806, Britain passed a new regulation that stated US ships could not land at a European port without first stopping at a British port or they would be seized. Napoleon retaliated with a new French law that said any ship that stopped at a British port before stopping at any European port would be seized. As a result, trade between America and both Britain and France was strangled.

The Chesapeake Incident:  The British had always had a tough time finding enough men to serve as crew on their ships. To help solve this, they used impressment, which was the practice of forcing men into naval service. British ships began stopping American ships and demanding the return of British deserters who were supposedly on board, so they could impress them back into service. True, some men were British deserters. But about 1,000 men taken were Americans, forced to work on British ships. The United States government protested, but the British continued to grab British "deserters" from American ships. This system exploded in 1807 when the British demanded the USS Chesapeake return four men whom they claimed were deserters. The captain checked the crew and found no British citizens. He refused to allow the British aboard. The British fired canons, hit the USS Cheasepeake, boarded by force, and took four "deserters" off the ship. When word of this attack spread across the nation, Americans were furious. 

The Embargo Act of 1808: War could have broken out with Britain over the Chesapeake incident. Instead, trying to keep the peace, President Jefferson talked Congress into passing the Embargo Act of 1808. This act stopped all exports out of U.S. ports. You can imagine how angry that made U.S. merchants. Goods were piled up the south. Merchants were going broke on the east coast. Illegal trade began in earnest with Canada. Firm in his belief that his Embargo Act would bring an end to the British and French trade restrictions on US ships, and provide an opportunity to discuss maritime rights, Jefferson enacted strict laws to enforce the embargo. One year later, realizing that perhaps he had gone too far, Jefferson repealed the Embargo Act and replaced it with an act that allowed trade with anyone except Britain or France. But nothing changed.

In 1812, the U.S. declared war on Britain and invaded British Canada. The area invaded was heavily populated with Americans, lured to Canada by cheap land and low taxes. The War Hawks, American leaders who had promoted war instead of discussion, expected an easy win. But the British were more prepared than the U.S. had credited. Britain ended up occupying Detroit. General Henry Harrison (who later would become a U.S. President) led a militia and some volunteers north towards Detroit. While en route, news reached him that Commodore Perry had wiped out the British fleet on Lake Erie. When Harrison and his militia arrived in Detroit, they took back the city and pushed into Canada. The entire region came under U.S. control. Another battle near Lake Champlain left 10,000 British troops fleeing into Canada. American privateers, which were privately owned merchant/military ships, captured British vessels in the Atlantic during the fall and winter of 1812 and 1813. Many battles of the War of 1812 were sea battles.  

Britain had their successes. The British fleet harrassed the Eastern seaboard. One British team snuck into Washington D.C. and left it in flames. President James Madison fled to Virginia.

The Treaty of Ghent: The Treaty of Ghent in December 1814 ended this war. The treaty stated that all conquered territory was to be returned and a border would be established between the U.S. and Canada. The questions of Maritime Rights and Economic Sanctions were not addressed by the Treaty of Ghent.

The End of the Federalist Party: While negotiators were working out a settlement, representatives of the Federalist Party from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire met in Hartford, Connecticut. Some wanted the New England States to succeed from the Union. Other representatives convinced the assemby to first write amendments to the U.S. Constitution. If that didn't work, perhaps then they might talk succession. These amendments included forbidding successive presidents from the same state, and limiting any embargo to a maximum of 60 days. By the time the messengers they sent arrived in Washington, to notify the president of their demands, the war was over. The Hartford Convention was the stuff of jokes for some considerable time. Their anti-war stance destroyed the Federalist Party.

Battle of New Orleans: Not everyone heard that the war was over. General Andrew Jackson led an attack on New Orleans. Less than 100 Americans and 2,000 British died. If the attack had not happened, Britain might not have honored the Treaty of Ghent. It was not a popular treaty back in Britain, but its supporters pointed out that the British treasury was low because of the war with Napoleon, and argued that all the Treaty of Ghent did was to put things back the way they were before the war. What did Britain hope to gain? If they could not decide that, why continue the war?

What were the results of the War of 1812 to the United States?

  • Canadian and US border was established, which helped to build a foundation for peaceful relations between the U.S and Canada
  • The demise of the Federalist Party, due to its anti-war stance. This led to the Era of Good Will.
  • The Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key, and became our national anthem.
  • A famous saying, "Don't give up the ship!" was born.

Explore the interactive sites below to learn more about the war of 1812. Flash sites have been removed.

Cast Your Vote, War of 1812, interactive

War of 1812 - A Sailer's Life for Me, interactive

Interactive Battlefield Maps

War of 1812, interactive, roll over

War of 1812, Virtual Exhibit, interactive

Why did the country really go to war with Britain?

The Star-Spangled Banner

The War of 1812, 70 slides ppt, interactive

One page chart comparing the Federalist beliefs with the Democrat-Republican beliefs in 1812

War of 1812 Interactive

For Teachers

War of 1812 Free Lesson Plan (EdSitement)

The War of 1812, 5 lessons, designed for grade 2 but great ideas for grades 2-6, free download, Core Knowledge