On this day in 1812, President James Madison delivers a special message calling for emergency commissions for new military officers 12 days after declaring war on Britain.
Even though the United States had asserted its independence from Britain three decades earlier, in the 1790s the English Navy started seizing American ships in French ports and “impressing” (involuntarily conscripting) American sailors to help the British fight their naval war against France. Successive American presidents including George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, in an attempt to maintain diplomatic relations with England and secure free access to Atlantic shipping lanes, failed to successfully negotiate an end to British impressment and the seizure of American merchant vessels. As a result, relations between the U.S. and Britain deteriorated. Jefferson’s 1807 embargo of international trade also failed, resulting in severe economic losses for American merchants. Meanwhile, British encroachment on the northern U.S. border with Canada increased calls among Americans for war. On June 18, 1812, Madison asked Congress to declare war on Britain–the second time the young nation would battle its former colonial master in 35 years.
At the time, the overstretched, all-volunteer U.S. Army and Navy paled in comparison to the numerically and materially superior British forces. Although American men signed up to fight Britain, there was a sore lack of qualified officers to lead the troops. Disastrous campaigns in Canada against the British in the summer of 1812 prompted Madison to urge Congress to increase emergency commissions of military officers, adjutants, quartermasters, inspectors, paymasters and engineers.
The War of 1812 was often referred to as “Madison’s War”–particularly when things were not going well–or the “Second War of Independence.” Among the troops to distinguish themselves in the War of 1812 were two future presidents: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. The successful end to the war in 1815 boosted Madison’s popularity and increased Americans’ confidence in their ability to fight off foreign aggressors.