This week 200 years ago, Congress passed and President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain, then the world’s most powerful nation. Our young country had already fought three wars since adopting the Constitution in 1788, yet this marked Congress’s first such declaration, and the highly controversial act passed without a single vote from a member of the Federalist party. The War of 1812—mostly forgotten today—helped shape the national character and greatly refined Americans’ understanding of the common defense.

For years, lawmakers had been scrimping on defense spending, saving money in the short term while weakening the country’s long-term defenses. These lawmakers, and all Americans, would soon learn an expensive lesson.

The reasons for war given by Congress included attacks on U.S. shipping and the British practice of impressement—taking sailors off American vessels and forcing them into service with the British navy. In previous years, the British navy had detained dozens of U.S. ships and seized thousands of dollars’ worth of American goods. The U.S. viewed Britain’s continued policy of impressement as a violation of the rights of its citizens and a threat to U.S. sovereignty. “Our power upon the waves enables us to dictate the terms,” wrote one British journalist aptly characterizing the British position of coercive dominance. “Not a sail should be hoisted…without paying a tribute.” Tribute was synonymous with submission and so threatened America’s sovereign independence.

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