On this day in 1815, President James Madison (1809-1817) presents to Congress a trade agreement with Great Britain that would regulate commerce between the two countries. The agreement came just one year after the signing of the treaty that ended the War of 1812. The commerce agreement secured America’s autonomy on the high seas, but more importantly, it signified Britain’s acceptance of America as a separate nation with the will and capacity to defend its interests.
Resentment left over from the American Revolution (1775-1783) between Britain and the United States erupted into a second full-scale war when Britain began harassing American shipping. Beginning during the administration of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), British warships occasionally fired on and boarded American navy or merchant ships while patrolling the seas for enemy French. To add insult to injury, the British “impressed” or involuntarily drafted American sailors to serve on British warships. This affront to America’s autonomy led Madison to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Britain in 1812. In 1814, the British captured the city of Washington and burned the White House, but not before Madison’s plucky wife, Dolley, saved a portrait of George Washington from looters. The U.S. emerged victorious in this “second war of independence” against Britain and as a result gained confidence in its military capabilities and a stronger sense of national identity.
During the ensuing peace negotiations, Madison’s administration extended an olive branch to the British, suggesting that the two countries shared mutual interests and ought to be collaborating in commerce rather than endangering “their future harmony.” Although Madison described the 1815 maritime trade agreement as “conciliatory,” he also emphasized America’s insistence that American navigation be “confined to American seamen,” free from international (i.e. British) interference. Madison thus signaled to the world that America would continue to vigorously defend her territory and economic interests.