Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
H. E. Marshall

Madison—War with Great Britain

M EANWHILE in Europe a terrible war between France and Britain was raging. And the effects of this war were being felt in America. For in order to crush Britain Napoleon declared that the British Isles were in a state of blockade, and forbade any country to trade with Great Britain. In reply the British declared France to be in a state of blockade, and forbade any country to trade with France.

These decrees and others of the same sort hit American trade very hard, and under them the American people began to be restive. Then added to this the British still claimed the right to search American vessels for deserters from the British navy. And very often American citizens were carried off and made to serve in the British navy. This right of search perhaps annoyed the Americans even more than the Berlin Decree or the Orders in Council, as the French and British decrees were called, and at length many of them became eager for war.

Napoleon was doing even worse things than the British. But in spite of a good deal of friction France was still looked upon as a friend, while the bitterness against Britain had not yet been forgotten. Then too it was easier to fight Britain than France. For to fight France it would have been necessary to send an army across the sea, while to fight Britain it was only necessary to march into Canada. A good many of the Americans were rather pleased with that idea, hoping that they might conquer Canada and add it to the States.

But Madison hated war and loved peace almost as much as Jefferson who had said "our passion is for peace." But many of the older men who had helped to found the Republic and laboured to keep it at peace had now gone. In their place there had risen some eager young men who earned for themselves the name of War Democrats. They overpersuaded Madison, and on June 18th, 1812, war with Great Britain was declared.

As soon as war was declared Tecumseh, with all the braves he could command, immediately went over to the British side. The British at this time had a very clever General named Brock, and for some time things went ill for the Americans on land.

But on the sea they had much better success. The first great fight was between the American ship Constitution  and the British ship Guerrière.  The Guerrière  was a good deal smaller than the Constitution,  but the British captain was so certain that any British ship, no matter how small, could beat any American one, no matter how large, that he cared nothing for that.

It was afternoon when the two ships came in sight of each other, and immediately prepared for a fight. Nearer and nearer they came to each other, but not until they were scarce fifty yards apart did the Constitution  open fire. Then it was deadly. The mizzen mast of the Guerrière  was shot away; very soon the main mast followed, and in less than half an hour the Guerrière  was a hopeless wreck. Then the British captain struck his flag and surrendered.

The Constitution  was scarcely hurt, and after this she got the name of Old Ironsides.  She sailed the seas for many a long day, and is now kept as a national memorial in the navy yard at Portsmouth, Mass.

The loss of one ship was as nothing to the great sea power of Britain. But it cheered the Americans greatly, and it was the beginning of many like successes. So this way and that, both on land and sea, fortune swayed, now one side winning, now the other.

At the battle of Queenstown, a city in Canada, on the Niagara River, the British won the victory, but lost their great leader Brock, so that victory was too dearly bought.

Yet still the British continued to win, and after one battle the Indians began to torture and slay the American prisoners. The British general did not know how to curb the fiery Redmen, and he let the horrid massacre go on. But when Tecumseh heard of it he was filled with wrath and grief.

With a wild shout of anger he dashed in among the Indians. Two Indians who were about to kill an American he seized by the throat and threw to the ground. Then, brandishing his tomahawk furiously, he swore to brain any Indian who dared to touch another prisoner. And such was the power that this chief had over his savage followers that they obeyed him at once.

Then Tecumseh turned to the British leader. "Why did you permit it?" he asked.

"Sir," replied General Proctor, "your Indians cannot be commanded."

Tecumseh looked at him in utter scorn. "Begone," he said; "you are not fit to command. Go and put on petticoats."

Things went so badly for the Americans that instead of conquering Canada it seemed almost as if they were in danger of losing some of their own territory. For the British had over-run the great peninsula of Michigan and had command of Lake Erie. The Americans, however, determined to get control of Lake Erie. They had no ships there. But that did not daunt them in the least. There was plenty of timber growing in the forest and out of timber ships could be made. So they felled trees, they brought sails and cordage from New York and Philadelphia in waggons and sledges, and worked so fast and well that very soon ten splendid vessels were ready.

Meanwhile the British commander watched the work and determined to pounce upon the ships as they were being launched. But just for one day he forgot to be watchful. The Americans seized the opportunity, and the ships sailed out on to the lake in safety. The squadron was under the command of a clever young officer named Oliver Hazard Perry. He was only twenty-eight, and although he had served in the navy for fourteen years he had never taken part in a battle. His men were for the most part landsmen, unused alike to war and ships. But while the ships were building Perry drilled his men untiringly. So when the fleet was launched they were both good marksmen and seamen.

It was a bright September day when the great battle took place between the British and American fleets. Much of the British fire was directed at the American flag-ship named the Lawrence,  and soon nearly all her men were killed, and the ship seemed about to sink.

But Perry was not beaten. Wrapping his flag about his arm, with his few remaining men he jumped into the boats, and rowed to another ship called the Niagara.

Soon after this, two of the British ships got entangled with each other. The Americans at once took advantage of the confusion and swept the British ships from end to end with a terrible fire.

For half an hour longer the fight went on. Then the British Commander struck his flag. For the first time in history Great Britain surrendered a whole squadron, and that to a young man of twenty-eight with little experience of warfare.

Perry at once sent a message to headquarters to tell of his victory. It was short and to the point. "We have met the enemy, and they are ours," was all he said.

This great victory gave the Americans control of the Lakes and made many of the British victories on land useless. Perry's fleet was now used to land soldiers in Canada and General Proctor began to retreat.

At this Tecumseh was disgusted. "You always told us," he said to the British leader, "that you would never draw your foot off British ground. But now, father, we see that you are drawing back. And we are sorry to see our father doing so without seeing the enemy. We must compare our father's conduct to a fat dog that carries its tail erect till it is frightened, and then drops it between its legs and runs away."

But General Proctor would not listen. He continued to run away. At length, however, the Americans overtook him, he had to fight.

In this battle the British were defeated and brave Tecumseh was killed. It is not quite known when or by whom he was killed. But when the Indians saw their leader was no longer among them they had no more heart to fight. "Tecumseh fell and we all ran," said one of his braves afterwards. Thus the power of these Indians was broken for ever.

The war still went on, and it was fought not only in the North but all along the coasts and in the South. The Americans marched into Toronto, the capital of Upper Canada, and burned the Parliament House. The British marched into Washington, and burned the Capitol and the President's House, deeds which no one could approve even in the heat of war.

The proper name for the President's house is the Executive Mansion, but it is known, not only in America, but all the world over as the White House. According to one tradition it was only after being burnt by the British that it received this name. For when it was repaired the walls were painted white to cover the marks of fire. According to another tradition the people called it the White House from the beginning in honour of the first President's "consort" Martha Washington whose early home on the Pamunkey River in Virginia was called the White House.

At sea American privateers did great damage to British shipping, and so daring were they that even the Irish Sea and the English Channel were not safe for British traders.

For two and a half years the war lasted. Then at length peace was made by the Treaty of Ghent. It was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, and for more than a hundred years there has been peace between Great Britain and the United States of America. Let us hope it will never be broken.

Nothing was altered by this war. No territory changed hands, and as for the things about which the war began, they were not mentioned in the treaty of peace. For the war with France was over, so of course the blockades which had hit American trade so hard were no more in force. On both sides peace was hailed with delight. In America bonfires were lit, bells were rung, and men who were the greatest enemies in politics forgot their quarrels, fell into each other's arms and cried like women. Everywhere too "The Star Spangled Banner" was sung.

It was during this war that this famous song was written. The British were about to attack Baltimore when Francis Scott Key, hearing that one of his friends had been taken prisoner, rowed out to the British fleet under a flag of truce to beg his release. The British Admiral consented to his release. He said, however, that both Key and his friend must wait until the attack was over.

So, from the British fleet Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry which guarded the town. All through the night the guns roared and flashed, and in the lurid light Key could see the flag on Fort McHenry fluttering proudly. But before dawn the firing ceased.

"What had happened," he asked himself, "was the fort taken?"

Eagerly he waited for the dawn. And when at last the sun rose he saw with joy that the Stars and Stripes still floated over the fort. There and then on the back of an old letter he wrote "The Star Spangled Banner." People hailed it with delight, soon it was sung throughout the length and breadth of the States, and at length became the National Anthem.

During Madison's presidency two states were added to the Union. In 1812 Louisiana was added as the eighteenth state.

The State of Louisiana was only a very small part of the Louisiana Purchase, and when it was first proposed that it should join the Union some people objected. Louisiana should be kept as a territory, they said, and they declared that Congress had no power to admit new states except those which were formed out of land belonging to the original thirteen states.

"It was not for these men that our fathers fought," cried a Congressman. "You have no authority to throw the rights, and liberties, and property, of this people into hotch-potch with the wild men on the Missouri, or with the mixed, though more respectable, race of Anglo-Hispano-Gallo-Americans who bask on the sands in the mouth of the Mississippi."

He declared further that if this sort of thing went on it would break up the Union. But in spite of him and others who thought like him Louisiana became a state.

In 1816, just about two years after the end of the war with Britain, Indiana was admitted into the Union as the nineteenth state. You know that besides the Constitution of the United States each state has also its own constitution. Thus when a territory wanted to become a state it had to frame a constitution which had to be approved by Congress.

In June, 1816, a convention to frame a constitution was called at Corydon, which was then the capital of Indiana. The weather was warm, and instead of holding their meetings in the State House the members used to meet under a great elm which stood near. Under the cool shadow of its branches the laws for the state were framed, and from that the elm was called the Constitution Elm. It still stands as it stood a hundred years ago, and the people of Corydon do everything they can to protect it, and make it live as long as possible.