The United States had many reasons for going to war in 1812: Britain’s interference with its trade and impressment of its seamen; Americans’ desire to expand settlement into Indian, British, and Spanish territories; aspirations to conquer Canada and end British influence in North America; and upholding the nation’s sovereignty and vindicating its honor.
However, nations go to war infrequently, and a more interesting question is why the United States declared war. While the young members of Congress—the War Hawks—were in favor of war, the nation’s two presidents during this era, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were not. Both viewed war and its consequences—a standing army, increase in government size, and debt—as antithetical to republicanism. They were convinced instead that self-imposed restrictions on American trade would force Britain and France, who were fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, to respect American neutrality.
The New England states particularly feared great losses to their trade, and their representatives in Congress voted against war. Others argued that America was totally unprepared for war against the mighty British Empire. Perhaps, however, War Hawk John C. Calhoun glimpsed the real cause in his observation that the conflict was “a second struggle for our liberty,” to finish the struggle for our independence.