Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.

Here, Toby Clark follows his first article in the series (here) and considers the naval battle between USS Constitution and HMS Java.

The USS Constitution and HMS Java in battle in 1812. Drawing by Nicholas Pocock.

The USS Constitution and HMS Java in battle in 1812. Drawing by Nicholas Pocock.

USS Constitutionversus HMS Java

It was December and in the South Atlantic before USS Constitution caught the second British frigate. This time under the command of Commodore Bainbridge the Constitutionhad, in partnership with the much smaller USS Hornet patrolled to the port of Salvador, on Brazil’s East Coast. Leaving the Hornet to challenge the Royal Navy sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenneto a battle, Bainbridge had sailed northwards up the Brazilian coastline. The decision to leave the Hornet was taken because Bainbridge hoped that by withdrawing the Constitution, HMS Bonne Citoyennewould emerge from the port and fight. However, the Royal Navy sloop ignored the Hornet’s challenge. Ignoring a challenge might damage a ship’s reputation but HMS Bonne Citoyenne made the correct decision because her cargo contained bullion and specie, which was needed to sustain Arthur Wellesley’s Army in Spain.[1]By not fighting, HMS Bonne Citoyenne avoided USS Hornet’s Master Commandant James Laurence; the same man who would later reduce HMS Peacock to a shattered hulk but would go on to die in command of USS Chesapeake in the momentous fight with HMS Shannon

Aside from this matter, the important engagement occurred on December 29, 1812 as Constitution sighted HMS Java. HMS Java was identical to HMS Guerriérebecause they were both French warships originally, but pressed into British service after they were captured. Such similarities meant similar weaknesses because HMS Java, like Guerriére, had 49, 18-pounder cannons, whilst Constitutionmounted 55, 24-pounder cannons. 

Aboard HMS Java Captain Lambert decided to fight. This decision makes sense when we consider that Lambert was unaware of the destruction of HMS Guerriére; as communicating with ships at sea was extremely difficult.[2]The engagement began with Java chasing Constitutiontowards the open sea only for Bainbridge to suddenly turn towards the Java. Sailing parallel to one-another, Java on the left, or port and Constitution on the right, or starboard and the two ships remained out of range. Keeping the distance was certainly Bainbridge’s idea, knowing full well that 24-pounder cannon could outrange Java’s 18-pounders. By 14:00 PM Constitution andJava were ready for battle and the first shots boomed out across the calm sea; fired at long range by the Constitution these cannon balls struck the Java which was powerless to respond. 


The Battle Gets Fiercer

The battle was decidedly one sided for these first forty minutes. HMS Java made efforts to close the distance between the ships but each time Lambert steered to starboard, Bainbridge drew Constitution away and as a result the British cannon could not be brought to bear. Unlike the engagement with HMS Guerriérewhich Constitution began in a poor position taking heavy fire and then concluded at short range with broadsides, here Bainbridge shrewdly chose to bombard Java without putting Constitutionin harm’s way. 

Once satisfied that Java had been struck repeatedly by the heavier US cannonballs and damage sustained by the British gun crews, Bainbridge chose to bring the Constitutionalongside for the final reckoning. However, the maneuver did not go smoothly because Java was also attempting a similar move. The two ships came together with Java’s prow smashing into the rear port side of Constitution. Here was an opportunity that the British could not miss! Captain Lambert called for boarders to stream across the wooden bridge formed by Java’s jib-boom - the large mast rising above the prow - which was entangled with Constitution’s mizzen, or rear mast. This tenuous link was all the incentive the British needed as having endured an hour of maneuver where every attempt to engage was frustrated by Constitution pulling away, Lambert’s cry for boarders was eagerly answered. The pivotal moment approached as the British swept forward across Java’s deck. Faced with this charge the crew of Constitutionrose to the challenge and rapid musketry broke out from Constitution’s rigging. The British charge was doomed; not only had Captain Lambert and most of the boarders been smashed down onto Java’s deck by musket balls, the USS Constitution then pulled to starboard tearing Java’s jib-boom away and breaking free. 

With the range closed, the two ships began firing broadsides. Huge crescendos filled the air as smoke, fire and iron seared the gap between the warships. Aided by her thick wooden walls and larger cannons Constitutionkept the advantage. Below decks the cannon balls ripped great holes in the wooden walls and sent splinters through the tightly packed gun crews. The carnage was worse aboard Java as 24-pounder balls blew cannon from their mounts, smashed stairways and floors, but worse of all caused catastrophic damage to Java’s masts. By 16:00 PM Javawas a hulk, with masts down, rigging and sails draped across the deck and over the sides of the hull. Most of the crew was incapacitated including Captain Lambert, who was mortally wounded, and the British gunnery dropped away to sporadic single shots. Realizing that Javawas stricken Bainbridge turned out of range to assess damage to his own ship. 

Provided with time, the Java’s replacement commander, Lieutenant Chads, nailed the Royal Navy ensign to the stump that remained of the main mast and reorganized the ship. Unsurprisingly, Chads display of leadership was not enough and as the Constitution took up position for more broadsides, the Royal Navy ensign was hauled down. The time was 17:30 PM and HMS Java surrendered to USS Constitution.

The aftermath of the fight was a sorry affair; HMS Java was no longer seaworthy, 48 men were dying and 100 more were wounded. Due to Bainbridge’s decision to keep the Constitution out of range of the British guns for parts of the battle the US casualties were much lower, only 12 men being killed and 22 wounded. In this engagement with HMS Java‘Old Ironsides’ had once again protected her crew from the ravages of battle.



The power of the Royal Navy was undisputed from 1805 until 1812 when the United States’ frigates targeted British warships. Here we see the primary reason for British defeat: unpreparedness. Professor Jeremy Black has suggested that the British warships were lacking a full complement of sailors which would reduce the frigates’ ability in battle.[3]This reduction in ability was due to the difficulty of firing and maneuvering a warship under fire without enough sailors for each role. The lack of sailors on board also suggests a lack of resources but the larger problem remains. By allowing the British frigates to patrol off the US coast whilst under-crewed shows unpreparedness because the US threat was deemed so weak that Royal Navy frigates were crewed for sailing rather than for fighting. This is demonstrated in the case of HMS Java which had an inexperienced crew as well as civilians on board. In light of these weaknesses, Phillip S. Meilinger concludes that HMS Javawas “hoping to avoid a fight”[4]which does not fit with the Royal Navy’s Nelsonian tradition of victory. 

The major inaccuracy in the story is the supposed equality of the USS Constitution and the British warships that she destroyed. Firstly, the Guerriéreand the Java were smaller in size and had thinner outer-walls, added to which the British cannons fired smaller projectiles which did less damage. In the case of the Guerriérethe US frigate had another advantage because the British ship was an elderly French warship and her masts were rotten and too weak for rapid changes of direction, such as tacking into the wind.[5]In another inaccuracy, the British gunnery is downplayed to the point of ineptitude. However, aboard HMS Guerriéreand HMS Java the traditional Royal Navy excellence was in place.[6]Despite this, George Canning MP and a previous Treasurer of the Navy spoke in Parliament of how the “sacred spell of the invincibility of the British navy was broken by those unfortunate captures”. Canning went on to stress that this war “may not be concluded before we have re-established the character of our naval superiority, and smothered in victories the disasters which we have now to lament, and to which we are so little habituated.”[7]



The Royal Navy had lost two warships in foreign waters and this shocked the establishment. The loss of HMS Guerriére and HMS Java to a fledgling US Navy was the 19thCentury equivalent to HMS Repulse andHMS Prince of Wales being sunk by the new Japanese naval air arm in 1941. With time the British overwhelmed the United States Navy, blockaded the coastline, retained Canada, and burnt the White House. Signed on Christmas Eve 1814 the Treaty of Ghent ended the war and arguably came just in time for the United States.[8]

For historians this is the tale that is remembered; for example in his magnum opus,The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, Paul Kennedy does not mention the US frigate victories at all. Instead Kennedy focuses upon the obvious limitations of British sea power, namely that in the future a large continental land mass like America could not be conquered by warships alone.[9]However, it remains ironic that the Royal Navy was held at bay by a warship named Constitution, evoking the document which had set North America apart from the British Empire. The British victory over the United States may have settled the relationship between the two countries, but the US successes at sea suggested an alarming future; a future which foresaw a rise of US maritime and naval power that would eclipse Britain in just over a century. 


What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.

[1]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

[2]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

[3]Jeremy Black, A British View of the Naval War of 1812 (Naval History Vol. 22 Issue 4, August 2008, pp: 16-25)

[4]Phillip S. Meilinger, Review of The Perfect Wreck—“Old Ironsides” and HMS Java: A Story of 1812by Steven Maffeo (Naval War College Review

 Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring 2012, pp: 171-172)

[5]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.

[6]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77 and 99.

[7]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates,  18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649) accessed: 05/02/2019)

[8]Matthew Dennis, Reflections on a bicentennial: The War of 1812 in American Public Memory(Early American Studies Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 2014), 275. 

[9]Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: Penguin, 2017), 139.

Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.

Here, Toby Clark considers the background to the War of 1812 and the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriére.

A painting showing the USS Constitution battling HMS Guerriere. By Anton Otto Fischer.

A painting showing the USS Constitution battling HMS Guerriere. By Anton Otto Fischer.

Background to war

The naval war was driven by the British Royal Navy’s aggressive impressment of United States’ Navy sailors into British service.[1]In fact, the British warships would stop and send Marines aboard the American ship and forcibly remove Royal Navy deserters. In naval terms, impressment is the term for forced servitude on board ship and is best known from ‘press-gangs’ which searched harbor towns for Royal Navy recruits. In his popular study of the USS Constitution Donald Macintyre views the British infringement on the United States’ shipping as deeply wounding to American national pride.[2]Today this diplomatic incident may have resulted in increased naval activity or tense diplomatic discussions but in 1812 the only viable option for the US Government was war. This decision could not be taken lightly by the United States because the Royal Navy was not only highly skilled but also superior in size. For instance, at the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 83 warships in American waters, and by 1813 this number had increased to 129 warships, including a number of 74 gunned ships of the line.[3]Macintyre makes the point that only a fraction of the Royal Navy would be dispatched to the US; but regardless of British focus on Napoleon in Europe, victory against the United States seemed to be assured.[4]

In contrast to the Royal Navy, the United States Navy appeared woefully inadequate. However, whilst the US Navy was hopelessly outnumbered there were three initial advantages. Firstly, the US Navy was fighting in home waters in close proximity to friendly harbors which meant that repairing and resupplying ships was straightforward. Compare this to the British, who had to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain or northwards to Halifax in Canada in order to reach home bases. This was a key component of A. T. Mahan’s famous thesis on sea power which predicted victory for a navy with closer port facilities.[5]Secondly, the crews of the US ships were well-trained and led by officers who possessed skill and ability. Captain Isaac Hull, Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore William Bainbridge are notable figures who each gained successes against the British and whose actions will feature shortly. Thirdly, the US had commissioned a new fleet of frigates whose size and armament was superior to the Royal Navy’s frigates. As an example, a typical British frigate HMS Java carried 49, 18-pounder cannons whilst the USS United States mounted 55, 24-pounder cannon.[6]Clearly, the American frigate, which was a sister-ship to the USS Constitution, possessed a firepower advantage in both numbers and size of shot. So with these local advantages the US frigate fleet put to sea; let us focus on the USS Constitution.


USS Constitution versus HMS Guerriére

Interestingly, the first confrontation between the USS Constitutionand the Royal Navy took the form of a wager back in 1798. Challenged by a Royal Navy frigate, Constitution agreed to race into the wind for one day and the winner would receive a cask of Madeira, a highly desirable fortified wine. The US trumped the British in the race, thus foreshadowing later US successes. 

The first battle under examination was fought by the Constitutionon August 19, 1812 when Captained by Isaac Hull, the USS Constitution met Captain James Dacre’s HMS Guerriére whilst patrolling off Nova Scotia. If the British were confident of victory before the battle, they certainly had a right to be pleased once the engagement began. With a better initial position, HMS Guerriére was able to fire broadsides at the Constitution whilst the US frigate was still attempting to maneuver alongside. The British held the advantage because whilst the Constitutionremained to the rear of the British frigate, the US crew held their fire. In contrast, the British loaded and fired but without much effect.[7]

At this point however the battle turned as Isaac Hull brought the Constitution alongside the Guerriéreand finally authorized the cannon to open fire. Having held a slim advantage up to this point HMS Guerriére was unable to out-maneuver the Constitution because Captain Dacre worried that his ships rotten masts would not handle the strain.[8]Unable to escape from Isaac Hull’s grasp, the greater size of the crew, armor and armament of the US frigate left the Royal Navy warship riddled with jagged holes. Furthermore, following deliberate targeting by the US cannon Guerriére’s masts had been felled and the British frigate was motionless. Having fired a number of broadsides into the stricken warshipHull accepted the British surrender from Captain James Dacre. The battle was over and the Americans’ had suffered fourteen casualties, compared to the British with seventy eight casualties.[9]

The imbalance in casualties can be attributed to superior US gunnery which was faster and more accurate, and the construction of the Constitution meant that British rounds did not penetrate. It is worth mentioning that USS Constitution’s nickname, ‘Old Ironsides’, was borne of her wooden walls which were thick enough to cause British cannon balls to bounce-off. The result was further illustrated by the need to scuttle the British warship because the damage was so severe that towing the prize back to the US was impossible. The once proud HMS Guerriére was set alight and left to burn in the lonely ocean.


The second and final part of the series is here.

What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.

[1]Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates,  18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649) accessed: 05/02/2019)

[2]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships (London: Hamlyn, 1975), 36.

[3]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 196 and 243.

[4]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 36.

[5]Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783(The Project Gutenberg eBook: September 26, 2004, accessed: 22/04/2019. Originally published: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), 535.

[6]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39 and 43.

[7]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77.

[8]Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.

[9]Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.

In William Bodkin’s fifth post on the presidents of the USA, he reveals a fascinating tale on the Forgotten Founder, James Monroe (in office from 1817 to 1825). And the real reason why he was not unanimously re-elected to the presidency.

William's previous pieces have been on George Washington (link here), John Adams (link here), Thomas Jefferson (link here), and James Madison (link here). 

James Monroe as painted by William James Hubbard in the 1830s.

James Monroe as painted by William James Hubbard in the 1830s.

James Monroe, fifth President of the United States, was the last American Founder to become President and a hero of the Revolutionary War.  At the Battle of Trenton, Monroe, then a Lieutenant, and Captain William Washington, a cousin of George Washington, stormed a Hessian gun battery to prevent what would have been the certain slaughter of advancing American troops.  Captain Washington, Lieutenant Monroe and their men seized the Hessians’ guns as they attempted to reload.  For their efforts, Captain Washington’s hands were badly wounded, and Monroe was struck in the shoulder by a musket ball, which severed an artery.  Monroe’s life was saved by a local patriot doctor who clamped the artery to stop the bleeding.[1]  Monroe’s heroism was such that it is said that in the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, capturing the moment when George Washington led the Continental Army into New Jersey prior to the Battle of Trenton, James Monroe stands next to George Washington, holding the American flag.[2]

Following the revolution, Monroe embarked on a long career in service of the new nation.  He studied law with Thomas Jefferson, and then served as a United States Senator from Virginia, Ambassador to France, Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to England, Secretary of State and Secretary of War during James Madison’s administration, and was then twice elected President.

Despite this heroic and distinguished career, Monroe seems overlooked as a Founder, eclipsed by the long shadows of Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison, his presidential predecessors who created the new nation with their considerable intellects and political skills.  Perhaps this is because Monroe was not considered their equal.  William Plumer, a US Senator from New Hampshire, who went on to serve as Governor of that state, described Monroe as “honest”, but “a man of plain common sense, practical, but not scientific.”[3]

James Monroe is generally remembered for two things: the Monroe Doctrine, which sought to block Europe from further colonizing the Americas; and the fact that he was almost unanimously elected to his second term.  History tells us that Monroe was denied a unanimous second term for the noblest of reasons.  One defiant elector in the Electoral College voted for John Quincy Adams because he believed that George Washington should be the only unanimously elected President of the United States.[4]

Except that is not true, and the real reason is a lot more interesting.  The truth involves William Plumer, who did not think much of Monroe, Daniel Tompkins, a Vice-President frequently too drunk to preside over the Senate, and the greatest orator in American history, Daniel Webster.


Unpacking the real story

Following the War of 1812, post American Revolution political tensions eased into the “Era of Good Feelings.”  The Federalist Party had collapsed following the revelation that during the war, they were plotting to secede from the union,[5] essentially leaving no other national party to challenge the Democratic-Republicans of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.  The country, though, was not united behind Monroe, he just had no organized opposition.  Monroe faced plenty of criticism, including from Thomas Jefferson, who opposed his former law student’s extravagant deficit spending and expansion of the federal government.[6]  But with the Federalist Party unable to put up a national candidate for president, there was no way to protest Monroe’s policies.  At least, not until a plan was hatched by Daniel Webster to protest Monroe by voting against the re-election of Daniel Tompkins to the Vice-Presidency.

Tompkins was widely regarded as a failed Vice-President.  A former Governor of New York, Tompkins was far more interested in his state, even running again for Governor in 1820, just prior to being re-elected Vice-President.  Tompkins was also a chronic alcoholic.[7]  His alcoholism, though, was allegedly tied to a valiant cause.  As New York’s Governor, Tompkins personally financed the participation of the state’s militias in the War of 1812 when the New York State Legislature voted against providing the funding.  After the war, however, the state refused to reimburse him, causing him financial ruin.[8]

Despite the noble roots of Tompkins’ problems, Webster resolved to vote against him.  Webster settled on a plan to gather votes for John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams and then James Monroe’s Secretary of State.  This plan was complicated, however, by the fact that Webster was a presidential elector from the state of Massachusetts.  The head of that Electoral College delegation was John Adams.  Webster, perhaps wisely, chose not to broach the subject with the former president.  Instead, Webster sent an emissary to William Plumer, then mostly retired from political life, but who was serving as the head of New Hampshire’s Electoral College delegation, to enlist him in the plan.[9]


The vote against

Plumer embraced the idea.  He sent a letter to his son, William Plumer, Jr., New Hampshire’s Congressman, asking him to approach John Quincy Adams with the idea.  When the younger Plumer did, however, Adams was appalled.  Adams noted that any vote for him, in any capacity, would be “peculiarly embarrassing”, especially if it came from Massachusetts.  Adams made clear to Plumer he wished Monroe and Tompkins be re-elected unanimously, and that, in any event, there should not be a single vote given to him.  Adams told Plumer that a vote for him would damage his prospects for winning the presidency in 1824.[10]

Plumer sent word to his father immediately, but it did not reach the elder Plumer before he left for Concord, New Hampshire, to cast his electoral vote.  It is not clear where Plumer resolved to vote for John Quincy Adams not for Vice-President, but for President, and to do so as a protest against Monroe himself.[11]  But he did.  In a speech to his fellow electors, the elder Plumer announced his intention to vote for John Quincy Adams for president.  In his remarks, Plumer stated that Monroe had conducted himself improperly as president, echoing Jefferson’s complaints concerning the vast increase of the public debt during the Monroe administration.[12]

How does George Washington fit into this?  It is really not known.  Newspaper accounts of the time accurately recorded Plumer’s dissent.[13]  The first references to Plumer’s vote preserving Washington’s status emerged in the 1870s, when historians assessing the Founding Era noted the parallels between its beginnings, with the unanimous acclamation of George Washington as the indispensable man to the Republic, and its end, with its unanimous acceptance of James Monroe as the man no one opposed.  The theory was first floated around then and it took on a life of its own.[14]  In the absence of clear evidence of how this American legend began, perhaps it was just one of history’s quirks that James Monroe, who nearly sacrificed his life in service to George Washington’s army, was destined to sacrifice part of his historic reputation in service of creating the myth of George Washington, Father of the United States.


Did you enjoy this article? If so, tell the world! Tweet about it, like it, or share it by clicking on one of the buttons below!


[1] For the full story, see David Hackett Fisher’s “Washington’s Crossing” (Pivotal Moments in American History), Oxford University Press (2004).


[3] William Plumer, Memorandum of Proceedings in the United State Senate, March 16, 1806.

[4] See, Boller, Paul F., Jr. Presidential Campaigns from George Washington to George W. Bush, Oxford University Press (2004), p. 31-32.

[5] See,

[6] Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, December 26, 1820.

[7] Letter of William Plumer, Jr. to William Plumer, his father, on February 1, 1822, describing Tompkins as
“so grossly intemperate as to be totally unfit for business.”


[9] Turner, Lynn W. “The Electoral Vote Against Monroe in 1820—An American Legend”  The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 42(2), (1955), pp. 250-273

[10] Turner, p. 257

[11] Turner, p. 258

[12] Turner, p. 259

[13] Turner, p. 261.

[14] Turner p. 269-270.

In this introduction to history that follows a piece on the American Revolution, Aidan Curran explores the reasons for the War of 1812. And he finds that there are three principal reasons for the war that broke out between Britain and the US.


Never heard of the War of 1812? Well, you are not alone. This war is often called the “Forgotten War,” as it is overshadowed by other conflicts in American history such as the American Revolution and the American Civil War. However, this is a significant event in American history as it was the first time that the United States declared war on another country. And guess who they declared war on? Yes, you guessed it – Britain. Even after the war of independence, it seems the British still wanted to stick their noses into American affairs, by impeding trade and taking men off American ships whom they believed were British.

This article is going to examine the three main causes of this “Second War of Independence,” - trade, impressment (kidnapping), and expansion.

US Frigate Constitution defeats the British Frigate Java in December 1812.

US Frigate Constitution defeats the British Frigate Java in December 1812.

1. Trade      

In 1803, Britain was locked in a conflict with Napoleon’s France. In order to win this war, Britain had to cut off all supplies to France. This meant interfering with American shipping, and as you can imagine, the Americans were not too happy about this. According to international law, neutral countries could trade with whoever they wished, as long as they traded non-military goods.  Americans felt that their rights as a free nation were being violated, and introduced a number of restrictive trade measures, such as embargoes, in order to preserve the economic health of the United States. This could be called a cold war, as these trade restrictions were made in an effort to avoid full on, bloody war. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, once exclaimed “What a noble stroke would be an embargo! It would probably do as much good as harm at home, and would force peace on the rest of the world, and perhaps liberty along with it.”

So in December 1807, Congress passed the Embargo, which banned all American ships sailing to foreign ports. In 1808, American exports plummeted by 80%. However, this Embargo Act had little effect on Britain. In all honesty, she couldn’t care less; the British were far more interested and consumed in their battle with the French. In fact, the only people who suffered were the Americans, as the economies of port cities suffered. Exports fell from $108 million in 1807 to $22 million in 1808, and imports fell from $138 million to less than $57 million. To say the Embargo Act backfired would be an understatement - it was an absolute disaster! The Non-Intercourse Act was introduced instead, which banned trade only with Britain and France, who were still locked in combat. To win this war, Britain saw it as necessary to “kidnap” sailors from American ships in order to increase manpower, which brings us on to the next cause of the War of 1812.


2. Impressment

If there was one thing in particulr that annoyed the Americans, it was impressment. This was when the British would board American ships, and take sailors they believed to be British citizens. Granted, many were, but many had also become naturalised Americans. Between 1793 and 1812, the British impressed more than 15,000 US sailors in an effort to boost fleet numbers in their war with France.

The process of impressment started back in 1664, as the Royal Navy organised gangs to roam the countryside, forcing British subjects to join. By the 18th century, these gangs were boarding neutral merchant ships to kidnap men to serve in the navy.

Americans regarded the practice of impressment as a violation of a person’s liberty, as stated in the Declaration of Independence. So when the British started boarding American ships and taking men, this was obviously going to cause considerable tensions.

Why were so many British men working on American ships? Simply put, American ships offered better pay and working conditions. It is estimated that 35 to 40 per cent of US naval crews were made up of British seamen in the nineteenth century, often deserters of the Royal Navy. Many of these had become naturalised Americans, but in British eyes, no subject could ever renounce their citizenship. The Americans conceded the right of the British to impress their own subjects from American ships. However, when legally naturalised Americans were taken, this was a cause of huge irritation. And when US-born people were impressed, this caused even greater tension. Between 1803 and 1812, at least 5,000 sailors were snatched from American ships and forced to serve in the Royal Navy, and it is estimated that three out of every four were Americans.

The most controversial case of impressment occurred in Virginia on June 22, 1807. A British warship called the HMS Leopard opened fire on an American ship called the USS Chesapeake. The British boarded the ship, looking for deserters from the Royal Navy. They found and impressed four men, but only one was an actual British citizen. The incident outraged the American public, with President Thomas Jefferson remarking: “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.” War was looming ever closer…


3. Expansion

American expansionism can also be cited as a cause of the War of 1812, as the country tried to extend its influence to the north-west, in places such as Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. As the Americans tried to expand, they faced fierce resistance from Native Americans, who wanted to keep their land from the colonists, reform their habits, and establish a confederacy on American soil.

But what has this got to do with the British? Well, the British began to give support to the Native Americans by providing arms and supplies. They saw the Native American Nations as being valuable allies, while also hoping that a Native American buffer state would be formed, which would halt American growth and expansion, and ensure that Canada remained a British possession. In the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, the defeated Native Americans left behind rifles of British manufacture on the battlefield. This confirmed to the Americans that the British were up to no good, and along with trade interference and impressment, it seemed that the only option was to go to war, and that’s exactly what they did.  On June 1, 1812, President James Maddison gave a speech to the US Congress, in which he described American grievances against the British. The war officially began on June 18, as President Maddison signed the measure into law. This was the first time America had ever declared war on another country.


To sum it all up

The fundamental cause of the War of 1812 between America and Britain is pretty straightforward – both sides could not agree on what was theirs. The British believed that no person could renounce their citizenship, while Americans recognised legally naturalised citizens. This led to a disagreement over impressment, and who exactly was British and American. Sometimes, the British did not even care, and took whoever they wanted off ships, including Americans. This angered the Americans, as their freedom was being violated. On trade, Americans believed that as a neutral country, they should be able to exchange goods with whoever they wanted. Again, there was dispute over this, as the British disagreed. Finally, greed was also a major cause of war, as America wanted to expand its territory, but Britain did not want this, in fear of losing Canada.

America and Britain were like two children in a sweet shop, stealing each other’s sweets and arguing over which sweets were theirs, while also looking to expand their number of sweets! If only they had learned to get along…


You can find out more from Aidan Curran on his site here or his Twitter feed here.


Finally, read more about an adventure from the War of 1812 in issue 4 of History is Now magazine here.


  • Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!
  • John Garraty, Short History of the American Nation
  • Maldwyn Jones, The Limits of Liberty
  • Bradford Perkins.  Embargo: Alternative to War 
  • John P. Foley, The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia.
  • Samuel Eliot Morison, A Concise History of the American Republic

The story of how a JFK-backed, CIA-led operation to topple Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro unfolded. And how a decision by JFK changed everything.

The new issue of History is Now magazine is out now. And the cover story is a daring tale of intrigue in a country that had just been rocked by a revolution.

To find out more, take up a free trial of the magazine for up to 2 months and download your free copy of our interactive digital magazine for the iPad and iPhone today!

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And here is what our editor has to say about the new issue…

Issue four of History is Now magazine has arrived. Since we left you in January, we have continued to refine the layout of the magazine, as well as writing some great history articles!

This month we have two pieces on how Cuba and America dramatically fell out following the Cuban Revolution. Firstly, we look at the fascinating real story of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. This invasion took place in 1961 and sought to topple Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro from power. But with US President John F. Kennedy wavering in his support for the Cuban dissidents, this task became much harder. Our second article considers Castro’s rise to power and argues that Castro was not a committed Communist when he visited Eisenhower’s America in 1959. Even so, the US would go on to try and assassinate Castro a number of times. These articles are complemented by our podcast on the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event that very nearly destroyed our world.

Then there is the story of David Porter and the USS Essex during the War of 1812, a tale of adventure, some success against the British, and much more. An equally intriguing article looks at the life of Sidney Reilly. Reilly was a Russian-born British spy who successfully changed the course of oil exploration in the Middle East in the early 20th century, and more significantly, almost changed the course of Russian and world history. Following, we finish our story of the Imjin War and look at Yi Sun-shin’s epic victories when faced against a Japanese fleet of epic proportions. This is a true story of success and tragedy – like many of the most captivating events in history are. Our final article takes a light-hearted look at food in the 19th century. What food did the average person normally eat? How did the upper-class dine? And what constituted good manners for a lady? You’re about to find out!

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George Levrier-Jones

In this article, Cindy Vallar tells the tale of the legendary early 19th century pirate, Jean Laffite, a man who played a major role in fighting for America against Britain.


Jean Laffite first appeared in New Orleans in 1803, but where was he born?

Marseilles, Bordeaux, St. Domingue? No one knows, because he told different stories to different people. He was the son of aristocrats guillotined during the French Revolution. He fled the slave revolts on the island of Haiti. Yet his instinctive familiarity with the marshes and bayous from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico and his ability to converse in French, Spanish, English, or Italian suggest that he grew up in the region where he plied his trade.

A depiction of Jean Laffite

A depiction of Jean Laffite

In 1803 New Orleans became part of the United States, but it was settled by the French, sold to the Spanish, and then returned to the French before Napoleon sold the territory to Thomas Jefferson. In spite of these changes, the city retained its French customs and language. Americans, including the new governor – William C. C. Claiborne – were not welcomed, partly because they considered the citizens of New Orleans to be lazy and lawless. They were aghast at the Creoles’ toleration of smuggling, which hindered merchant trade. Things came to a head between Claiborne and Laffite in 1813 when the governor issued a $500 reward for the privateer’s arrest. Within a week of the posting of those notices, new wanted posters appeared, offering $1,000 to anyone who delivered Governor Claiborne to Barataria. They were signed, Jean Laffite.

Barataria lies on the Gulf of Mexico, about 100 miles south of New Orleans. It was home to buccaneers and fishermen, but Jean Laffite organized them into a company of privateers and smugglers. He built a house, cottages, warehouses, barracoons (stockades that held slaves awaiting auction), a cafe, gambling den, and brothel. His men numbered one thousand, came from many countries, and included navigators, gunners, carpenters, cooks, sail makers, and riggers. He devised laws to protect the men and their women from lawless rampages. Retribution was swift: cast adrift for molesting a woman, hanged for murdering a Baratarian. He prized the American Constitution, believing in its freedoms. He prohibited his men from attacking American ships, naming death the penalty for violation of this rule. His ships sailed under letters of marque from Cartagena, a republic of Colombia fighting for its independence from Spain. (A letter of marque allowed privateers to legally plunder ships of the country at war with the country who issued the letter of marque. Pirates attacked any ship without this legal document.) They plundered cargoes of Spanish and English ships for slaves, silks, spices, jewels, furniture, household goods, art, food, and medicines.


Laffite and war with Britain

Two years after the United States declared war on Britain in 1812, a boat was lowered from HMS Sophia and sailed into Barataria under a white flag. Aboard were two British officers, Captain Lockyer and Captain McWilliams. They sought Laffite’s help in infiltrating the bayous and capturing New Orleans. They offered him land, gold, and a commission in the Royal Navy. Laffite told them he would give them his answer in two weeks, but once the officers returned to their ship, he forwarded the letters to Governor Claiborne. The governor believed in the authenticity of the letters and sought to postpone a planned naval assault on the smuggling enclave, but the majority of his council voted to carry out the attack as planned. While Jean waited for the governor’s response, more ships appeared off Barataria. Since they flew the American flag, the Bartarians greeted them with enthusiasm, but the Americans destroyed Laffite’s fleet and stronghold, then captured fifty of the smugglers, including Dominique Youx.

In spite of this, Laffite sought out Andrew Jackson, the Tennessee soldier who came to protect New Orleans. Although initially against any offer from the “hellish banditti,” Jackson reassessed his decision after Laffite offered him two things he desperately needed: 7,500 flints with powder and 1,000 fighting men. Although the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the treaty to end the war was signed (but not ratified), there was little doubt the British would have captured New Orleans had Laffite and his men not fought under Jackson. The two batteries manned by Baratarians cut large swathes in the enemy rank. British casualties were enormous, but Jackson lost only thirteen men. President Madison pardoned Laffite and his men for their bravery.

For the next two years, Laffite tried through legal means to regain his property and ships confiscated when the Americans attacked Barataria, but he was forced to purchase them at the auction block. New Orleanians became less accepting of smugglers plying their trade. They wondered why a hero would violate the law. Jean felt betrayed and, in 1817, he sailed from New Orleans and established a new colony on Galveston Island. The colony prospered, but Laffite failed to prevent the influx of fugitives who defied his laws. In 1821 the American Navy delivered an ultimatum: leave or be blown to bits. Under cover of darkness, Laffite slipped away after setting fire to his stronghold.

Therein lies the final mystery of Jean Laffite. What happened to him? Did he die of fever in the Yucatan? Was he killed fighting pirates while at sea? Did he retire and raise a family, then die a quiet death in Illinois? No one knows. In death Jean Laffite continued to be what he’d been all his life – a legendary enigma.


By Cindy Vallar

This article is provided by Cindy from Pirates and Privateers. Click here to see more great pirate-related articles from Cindy.


Now, why not take a look at a former image of the week from New Orleans? Click here.