The depression stemming from Jefferson’s Embargo Act weakened the Democratic-Republicans in the election of 1808. Although James Madison was still able to defeat Federalist candidate Charles Pinckney easily for the presidency, the Democratic-Republicans lost seats in Congress. As Jefferson’s chosen successor, Madison continued to carry out his fellow Virginian’s policies throughout both of his presidential terms.
Congress’s first order of business in 1809 was to repeal the hated and ineffective Embargo Act, which had prevented U.S. ships from sailing to foreign ports. Congress replaced this act with the Non-Intercourse Act, which banned trade only with Britain and France until both agreed to respect American sovereignty and shipping rights.
The following year, Congress, in a further attempt to revive the faltering U.S. economy, passed Macon’s Bill No. 2 , which restored U.S. trade relations with Britain and France but promised to reinstate the Non-Intercourse Act if either nation violated U.S. shipping rights.
Madison’s term was fraught with troubled Native American relations, as white settlers began to pour into the Louisiana Purchase and steal native lands, ignoring the Indian Intercourse Acts of the 1790s. When Congress seemed unwilling to do anything about the situation, two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (also commonly called the Prophet), tried to unite all of the tribes in the Mississippi Valley region against the settlers. Preaching a return to traditional ways of life, Tecumseh and The Prophet were highly successful and created the Northwest Confederacy that included the Shawnee, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek tribes, among others.
Congress, fearing a Native American uprising, ordered the governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, to disband the Northwest Confederacy. Indeed, Harrison soundly defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.
By the 1810s, many of the older and more experienced representatives and senators in Congress had been replaced by young and passionate new faces. It was these hotheaded “War Hawks,” primarily from southern and western states, who had ordered Harrison to take military action against the Northwest Confederacy. As frontiersmen-politicians, the War Hawks were strongly expansionist, and the Confederacy offered the perfect excuse to drive Native Americans even further west.
The War Hawks also clamored for a new war against Britain, citing Britain’s impressment of U.S. sailors, seizure of American ships and cargos, and refusal to withdraw troops from the Louisiana Territory. The War Hawks also hoped that victory in a new war would win Canada—and perhaps even Florida, if Spain tried to help Britain—for the United States. Although President Madison hoped to avoid war, he eventually caved to pressures from the War Hawks and requested that Congress declare war against Britain in June of 1812.
In many ways, the war went badly for the United States. As a result of Jefferson’s belief in frugal government, the U.S. Navy had been pared down to only a few gunboats, and the Army was similarly meager. Though American forces had some success in the Northwest, they were unable to push through the British blockade of the eastern ports or prevent the burning of Washington, D.C., in 1814. For most of 1814, the war remained a stalemate.
The War of 1812 did not have nationwide support: the South and West supported it, but the New England states, whose economies depended on shipping with Europe, voted against the war in Congress and protested loudly against it once it began. In fact, five of the New England states were so fervently opposed to the war that they convened a secret meeting in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss secession from the Union.
After several weeks of discussion, delegates at the Hartford Convention nixed the idea of secession and instead decided merely to petition Congress to redress a list of grievances. First, they wanted the U.S. government to compensate New England shippers for lost profits. Second, they wanted to amend the Constitution so that the states could vote on important decisions that affected the entire Union, such as admission of new states or declaration of war. Third, they wanted to change the executive office so that each president could serve only one term and no two consecutive presidents could come from the same state (primarily out of frustration that most presidents had come from the South). Finally, they wanted to strike the three-fifths clause from the Constitution.
Unfortunately for the Hartford delegates, their petition arrived in Washington too late, just after news broke that the war had ended. Britain and the United States, weary of being stuck in a costly conflict that was more or less a stalemate, had signed the Treaty of Ghent to end hostilities. The treaty essentially stipulated that neither side had gained or lost any territory, and it made no mention of impressments or the illegal seizure of ships. For obvious reasons, none of the Hartford Convention’s demands were granted.
Oddly, the most famous battle of the War of 1812 was fought two weeks after the peace treaty was signed. General Andrew Jackson, who had not yet received word of the treaty, led U.S. troops to a resounding victory in early January 1815 at the Battle of New Orleans.
Despite the sectional divides and the overall futility of the war, the United States emerged from the War of 1812 with a newfound sense of enthusiasm and national pride. Though the nation had neither lost nor gained territory, Jackson’s smashing victory at New Orleans gave the nation a previously unknown feeling of confidence. To Americans, the battle proved once and for all that the United States was an independent nation, not just a rogue colony. For this reason, many historians refer to the War of 1812 as America’s second war for independence.