By any criteria the years following the War of 1812, otherwise known as the Era of Good Feelings, must be considered a time of exceptional growth and development in the United States, but above all, it may be considered a time of evolution and ripening of American nationalism, unification, and economic prowess. The war of 1812 was a very problematic war. States did not fulfill their duties, while commanders and leaders were not informed or supplied enough to keep up the war. But what awakened during this time and afterwards is something much greater then victory. The war wasnt just about Britain holding land and impressing American sailors into their navy; it was a second war of independence. It was the first war as a united country, and it was a small new nation against a large European empire. That we survived woke us up, and let us know that we did have a nation. For the first time, we were united, not for a fight of our homes and freedoms, but for ideals (The Awakening of American Nationalism, AAN).
The war of 1812 began long before war was declared. It began right after the war of Independence. The British were not too fond of us breaking away from their empire, and they soon figured out that many revolts were because we had fought and won. They taxed our merchants, and hassled our ships, but they crossed the line when they began to impress our sailors into their navy. They claimed that these people had deserted the royal navy and should be given back. Though they may have been right on a few occasions, it has been proven that many innocent people were forced to be in the royal navy.
On June 22, 1807, the English frigate Leopard attacked the United States frigate Chesapeake, and took from her certain of her sailors who, the Leopards captain claimed, were British citizens. (John K. Mahon, The War of 1812) This is what broke the straw on the proverbial camels back. Many citizens wanted war, but Jefferson, seeing the problems in war with Britain, calmed the public. Congress began to prepare for war, by authorizing the construction of 20 ships of war.
France and Britain, Europes two most powerful nations, had battled almost continuously since 1793, and their warfare directly affected American trade. Hostilities began during the French Revolution (1789-1799) when England joined other European nations in an unsuccessful attempt to restore the French monarchy, and then continued as Britain led the efforts to stop French expansion under Napoleon I. American presidents from Washington to Madison tried to keep the United States impartial during these conflicts, but both France and Britain flagrantly disregarded the rights of neutral countries (War of 1812).
For the Americans, the greatest irritant was Britains practice of impressment, or the seizure of American seamen for service in the British navy. The British government claimed that it only seized subjects of the Crown who sailed under the American flag to avoid wartime service in their own navy. In fact, the British seized not only their own deserters, but also impressed a sizeable number of United States citizensestimates suggest 6000 or more (Encyclopedia Encarta).
Public outrage over the issue of impressments grew increasingly vocal after an incident between the American naval frigate Chesapeake and a British vessel, the Leopard. In June 1807 the Leopard approached the Chesapeake only a few miles off the American coast and demanded to search the ship for British deserters. The Chesapeakes commander, James Barron, refused, and the Leopard opened fire. A number of American sailors were killed or wounded during the attack, and the Chesapeake surrendered. The British then sent a party aboard and dragged four crewmen from the vessel. After the incident, Jefferson ordered British warships to leave American waters and demanded an end to the practice of impressments. The British did make some apologies and restitution for the Chesapeake-Leopard incident, but continued to claim the right to seize American ships and inspect them for deserters. (War of 1812)
Despite initial problems, the U.S. Navy soon won some victories at sea, offsetting the embarrassing defeats on land. (Encyclopedia Encarta) A relatively strong American squadron under Commodore John Rodgers made a wide sweep through the Atlantic shortly after the declaration of war. It encountered only one enemy ship, which managed to escape, but later in the year three forays by individual U.S. warships proved far more successful.
Almost overnight the War of 1812 became a glorious triumph. On February 20 President Madison sent a message to Congress transmitting the treaty of peace. He congratulated the nation on the close of a war “waged with the success which is the natural result of the wisdom of the legislative councils, of the patriotism of the people, of the public spirit of the militia, and of the valor of the military and naval forces of the country.”
More realistically, the fledgling nation had the extraordinary good fortune to escape the consequences of a war that it had badly mismanaged from the outset. The Battle of New Orleans, fought after the two sides had already signed the peace treaty, ironically became the wars most famous event. The navy enjoyed well-deserved popularity for many years after the conflict, but the decisive results of the Battle of Lake Champlain did not receive full recognition for another generation.
The principal gain for the United States was a renewed self-confidence and faith in the ability of its military to defend the nations freedom and honor. (In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism,) Although neither side came away from the war with a clear-cut victory, the American people saw the War of 1812 as evidence of the success of the democratic experiment. The war ushered in a period of American history that has frequently been called the era of good feeling, a time when, at least on the surface, most Americans felt unified behind a common purpose. The War of 1812 convinced the country that it could now fend off any foreign threats and that its focus should be on expansion at home.
Many people felt a national pride at this time. They had fought against one of the strongest empires of Europe and kept up with them. They did not win, but they did not lose either. They simply put forth enough energy to get the job done, then afterwards were no more content to build up a better military then to engage in another conflict. Nothing had been lost, but nationalism had been gained. Americans saw this time as a time to expand upon their economy, and to build an empire of merchants.
But this time also showed something else that was never seen before, unity. This was the first war that everyone had fought as an American. The first generation after the revolution that had not really seen combat. That’s why so many mistakes were made, but it was also why the United States, was for the first time in its history, united in their fight. Though some of the states like Massachusetts decided not to heed the call of the federal government for troops unless their state was invaded, they still fought when they were needed.
The war debt was not of much concern to most of the people. Though it did run our nation a 3 billion-dollar debt, with the exploding market it would be paid off in no time. People wanted to build a better nation, and most were united in the cause. They realized that being divided and weak during wartime was no way to win. But they also realized that they did not want to become a world power just yet. The nation went into a period of isolation and did not come out of it until after the Spanish-American war.
The children of our nation did go through a great change though. Many of them wanted to be president. The leaders of our nation such as the president and the congress were looked upon in awe. They were proud to be Americans, because it meant freedom. There were no huge wars like the Napoleonic Wars of Europe. The nation was at peace with itself and with most nations of the world. Manifest destiny one again became a reality.
Many people at this time also began to move westward. They no longer wanted to be kept in their little towns. They wanted to have their own farm large enough to make them all wealthy. Problems were encountered with the Indians though. Many of the Native Americans did not want to be moved off their sacred land. Most were forced off though, either by federal troops or just by the sheer amount in which people were moving out. They could not resist the movement of a nation, and their destiny to build an Empire of democracy.
But all this movement westward did not change the fact that many of the people of the United States were isolationists. They wanted their country to remain with itself, as they saw the horrors of war in Europe. The only contact we should have with other nations is when we are trading in their ports. That opinion was constant throughout the rest of the century until the onset of the Spanish American War. Even then, it did not stop. Americas isolationist attitude reflected that of a small county, but America was rapidly expanding. Peoples beliefs that America was the Perfect place to live, and a rich country was all true to a certain extent.
With the richness that followed the War of 1812 also came pride. Proud of being an American, and having freedoms and money that no other country had. True, we were not the most powerful nation in the military sense, but by the end of the War of 1812, we had one of the worlds most powerful merchant fleets. We were exporting goods almost as fast as we could produce them. This swelled national pride as well, showing the other nations that we had the will, energy, and money to make America the richest nation on earth.
With all these gains, and not many losses, it could be said that America was becoming an empire. But what kind of empire? Was it an empire on a world scale? Not at all, we had very little holdings overseas, and we did not want to conquer any established nation. We were an empire for democracy and an empire of wealth. The world has seen empires come and go, fail and succeed. But no one has ever had the merchants make the empire. No one had seen a democracy build such a vast empire of traders and merchants since the time of Rome. Truly, this was an accomplishment to be proud of. (This Sacred Trust: American Nationality.)
It is undeniable that the war of 1812 had many impacts upon our nation. The nation grew and changed in a way that most Americans back then did not even think of. Weather they liked it or not, they all were united in one way or another. The United States had evolved into something great; something special that could no longer be denied its goals. Its children had become proud of this infant nation, and that was the most important step in keeping together. If no one believed in a nation, how could it survive? Many questioned weather or not this pride would last, but undoubtedly it did. It evolved into a nation-wide sense of pride. It grew and with it the nation grew and prospered under great leadership and the democratic way. The great democratic experiment had worked, the nation was at peace and was growing, and the tide for the next century had already been set in motion.
John K. Mahon. The War of 1812; Da Capo Press, New York. Copywrite 1972.
George Dangerfield. The Awakening of American Nationalism;Harper and Row, New York, Copywrite 1965
Nagel, Paul C. This Sacred Trust: American Nationality, 1798-1898. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of
American Nationalism, 1776-1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Commager, Henry Steele. Jefferson, Nationalism, and the Enlightenment. New
York: G. Braziller, 1975
Encyclopedia Encarta 2000, PC.