The war by European powers against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Army expanded beyond the continent into the Atlantic Ocean and onto the American continent. In particular, the British Navy was guilty of involving the young American nation in the Napoleonic Wars in their effort to gain greater naval strength against French forces. The British, following their loss of the American colonies, realized the dwindling strength of their former naval greatness and the associated damage to national pride. In addition to this, many British marines and naval officers fled the navy because of the poor conditions and pay of the British naval service. The new naval strategy was the practice of impressing sailors on merchant vessels thought to be British deserters but were actually American sailors with questionable citizenship documents. Though the American government petitioned actively for the release of sailors from British holding, several thousand were held before the War of 1812 even began.
The impressment affair was not the only major issue with England that the American government had to contend with before 1812. In 1807, the American vessel “Chesapeake” was attacked by a British warship. The British claimed that British sailors were on board and left the “Chesapeake” in a state of massive disrepair. Then President Thomas Jefferson was in a bind, however. He either had to declare war on the British, do nothing, or exact economic sanctions against their greatest economic ally in the British. Jefferson chose the latter much to the nation’s consternation. The Embargo Act of 1807 closed all ports to “belligerent” British and French vessels, with the hope that shutting down the American export of wheat and corn would damage the war effort in Europe. However, it only served to damage the already fragile American economy. Americans resorted to smuggling such goods to the British in contravention of the treaty and Jefferson’s success James Madison faced the wrath of an American public that was frustrated with Jefferson’s policy. It would seem that the American public would have preferred war in 1807 to such a drastic economic action.
By the time June 1812 came long, President James Madison was faced with a long record of indiscretions, major and minor, that led to a declaration of war against the British (actually a nod toward a congressional declaration of war). The motivations for war were ones that would have worked quite easily in 1807, when many thought war should have been declared: the impressment issue was still rampant in the Atlantic and commercial interests dictated that the Americans become more independent in the world market. Tensions in the Ohio River Valley between remaining British troops, native tribes, and American settlers flared in 1811 and 1812, dictating a stronger definition of American interests in the West. Most importantly, however, was the definition of national honor and independence from the British by the Americans and the strengthening of northern and southern borders against infiltration by stronger European powers. The Napoleonic Wars gave the British a reason to continue their dominance over the Americans but it also gave reason to the American war effort in their “second war” for independence.