Thirty years after the U.S. had won independence, the great powers of Europe --- France and England --- continued to treat the U.S. as a weakling nation lacking military or naval might. British and French aggression in the early 1800s seriously tested the convictions of Presidents Jefferson and Madison, both of whom hated war. Their well-documented lives demonstrate an unshakable devotion to using words and peaceful persuasion.
England armed Native America, who attacked American settlers. The British navy boarded U.S. ships and removing thousands of crew-members believed to be British. It also blocked trade with France as a part of their competition to dominate the sea. The French to a lesser extent engaged in similar tactics.
In response to these acts of aggression, President Jefferson instituted an embargo prohibiting trade with Europe. Its purpose, to gaining European respect and fair treatment, was never achieved. The 15 month embargo ironically racked havoc on U.S. merchants and the economy, while gaining minimal attention in France or England, both dominated by Napoleonic wars.
President Jefferson, disgusted with his failed embargo, retreated to Monticello for the last four months of his presidency. Madison, who succeeded Jefferson in the White House, offered a favorable trade agreement to France or England, whichever agreed to stop interfering with U.S. trade.
Then, eager for a negotiated resolution, Madison prematurely accepted the English ambassador’s offer of key concessions, and offered his own concessions, before learning that the ambassador had acted without authority. Next, Madison accepted the Russian Czar’s offer to mediate the dispute. But the Europeans rejected mediation.
As the problem dragged-on throughout Madison’s first term, frustration mounted within Congress, and among editorialists and Eastern merchants, impatient with Madison, they urged war. Finally, facing a Fall election, Madison caved to the hawks and asked Congress to declare war on England. Congress did on June 18, 1812. Two interesting memories of the war are the British overrunning and burning Washington, D.C., causing the Madisons to flea to Virginia; and our National Anthem, written by Francis Scott Key aboard a British ship bombarding Baltimore, where he had just negotiated a prisoner release.
In late 1814 after 17 months of war, England agreed to negotiations in Belgium. Then refused to listen to U.S representatives and demanded the return of the Great Lakes, New York and Massachusetts. Shocked by these extreme demands, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams prepared to return home. Fortuitously, Napoleon had just been defeated and the British Foreign Minister stopped in Belgium in route to European negotiations. He saw his countrymen as fatigued by twenty years of War and eager for peace in spite of anger with the Americans. He broke the impasse by suggestion that pre-war boundaries be restored, and thus moved the parties to a peace treaty on December 24, 1814.