Henry Clay
Henry Clay was a young leader in the war hawks congressional faction who vocally advocated war with Great Britain in 1812. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, artist unknown.

Virginia Congressman John Randolph coined the term war hawk to refer to those in favor of going to war with Britain at the beginning of the 19th century.

In 1812 America was anything but a unity of happy states moving toward becoming a continental power. The Louisiana Purchase had opened new lands to feed the insatiable westward movement of colonists. That movement enticed European immigrants and depopulated America’s northeast. It also displaced Native cultures, some of which still aligned with British forces in Canada. The British seized the opportunity to turn the natives against American frontier settlements. Most of the newly acquired lands were agriculturally oriented and the settlers had no love of Britain, unlike the northeast cities like Boston whose survival depended on European trade.

The War of 1812 had many causes, but the greatest blame rests with a few vocal members of Congress known as War Hawks, as well as a blundering foreign policy that left no room for negotiation. At issue were a number of grievances affecting American trade, as Great Britain and Napoleonic France attempted to interdict commerce in order to weaken one another.

British ships stopped American vessels illegally, seizing sailors and accusing them of being British navy deserters. This policy of “impressments” was egregious, violating the sovereignty of the new nation. Even as the Napoleonic Wars were slowly ending in Europe, British upper classes supported strong action in America, viewing the United States as an upstart nation, if a “nation” at all.

The War Hawks of 1812

Several influential American politicians, determined to put an end to British strong-arm tactics, advocated expansion into Canada: the very first military ventures would be aimed at “taking Canada.” These vocal war hawks represented the Southeast and the emerging new states carved out of the Louisiana Purchase. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina and House Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky led the faction calling for war with Great Britain.

This painting depicts the HMS Shannon closing on the American frigate Chesapeake. Painting by R. Dodd, 1813, courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.
This painting depicts the HMS Shannon closing on the American frigate Chesapeake. Painting by R. Dodd, 1813, courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress.

Among the primary causes of the war were the British Orders in Council, which placed severe restrictions on American shipping. Ships were seized and their cargoes confiscated. This caused insurance rates for shippers to spiral and resulted in numerous congressional measures designed to force an end to both British and French actions.

By 1812 the Napoleonic wars were ending and the British repealed the Orders in Council, but the repeal came too late. The congressional war hawks pressured President Madison into a war declaration, which was passed before word of the British repeal reached Washington City. The lack of any senior American envoy in London contributed to the failure of diplomacy.

Click to Read Page Two: Postmodern War Hawks

  • Susan Ozmore

    Interesting. One of the things I found so interesting in David McCullough’s book about the Panama Canal was the information about yellow fever. I also just started reading The American Plague by Crosby last night, so finding your post was timely. I had no idea that it was still such a problem. Thanks for the info.