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The War of 1812: A Bicentennial Exhibition, Case 1

Case 1: The War of 1812

On June 18, 1812, the United States of America declared war on Great Britain, igniting a conflict that would continue for the next two and one-half years. The opponents appeared wildly unmatched as the 36-year-old former British colony challenged a nation with the most powerful economy and navy in the world as well as a highly disciplined, veteran army. Although the United States could not hope to deploy similar military resources, Britain was deeply involved in war in Europe, where she had been fighting the French for two decades.

The effects of the European conflict had much to do with the American war of 1812-1814. Britain’s naval blockade of continental Europe inevitably interfered with the trade of a neutral United States. Heavy-handed restrictions were worsened by the practice of taking or impressing American sailors deemed to have been born British subjects and forcing them to serve in the Royal Navy. The two nations had teetered close to war in 1807 over an attack on an American frigate and the impressing of several members of her crew. Subsequent trade embargoes by the United States failed to influence British policies. A lesser argument for war was alleged British incitement of Native American resistance to settlers’ encroachments in the Old Northwest. By the spring of 1812 President James Madison was ready to ask Congress to declare war.

The Clements Library marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 with an exhibit that draws on its strong and distinguished holdings of primary sources documenting that conflict. The War of 1812 has long been and continues to be an important collecting area for the Library.

This exhibit is dedicated to the memory of John C. Harriman (1940-2005), late Clements Library reading room supervisor, for whom the events of 1812-1814 held a special fascination.

United States President James Madison (1751-1836). 

Engraving by W.A. Wilmer after a portrait by Gilbert Stuart.  Graphics Division.

Elected on the Republican ticket in 1808 and 1812, Madison led a politically divided nation into the fight against Britain.

President’s Message and Declaration of War ([Boston?, 1812]). Book Division, Broadsides.

John Holroyd, Earl of Sheffield, The Orders in Council and the American Embargo Beneficial to the Political and Commercial Interests of Great Britain (London, 1809). Book Division, C2 1809 Sh.

A series of “Orders in Council” were issued by Great Britain between 1806 and 1809 in response to Napoleonic restrictions on trade. The United States reacted to these measures with embargoes and restrictions on trade with Britain in 1806, 1807, and 1809. Ironically, the British government revoked the Orders in Council on June 23, 1812, five days after the declaration of war, offering hope that the fighting could be quickly ended. The Madison administration, however, refused to rescind its action.

A Song, Composed on the Cause and Progress, of the Late American War (Weathersfield, [Vermont], 1816).Book Division, C 1816 So.

The anonymous author of these lyrics emphasized the central cause of the quarrel with Britain—disregard of American maritime rights.

John Lowell, Mr. Madison’s War. A Dispassionate Inquiry Into the Reasons Alleged by Mr. Madison for Declaring an Offensive and Ruinous War Against Great-Britain . . . By a New-England Farmer (Boston, 1812). Book Division, C2 1812 Lo.

The United States embarked on the War of 1812 as a nation with deep political divisions between Republicans and Federalists. The latter generally opposed the war. Anti-war feelings were strongest in New England, where opposition ranged from political activity to smuggling of supplies to British Canada. John Lowell’s pamphlet is hardly dispassionate, but it is representative of opposition literature. His title associates the war with President Madison.

The Proceedings of a Convention of Delegates, From the States of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island (Boston, 1815). Book Division, C2 1815 Ha.

Discontent with the war reached its height when New England Federalists convened in Hartford, Connecticut, in December 1814 and January 1815. Their purpose was to address grievances of the New England states over the war. The convention’s demands became irrelevant when news arrived in February 1815 that a treaty of peace had been successfully negotiated.