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The War of 1812 is comparatively little known and rather confusing. American historians have trouble explaining a full-fledged war that was not touched off by any dramatic events, did not involve any clear-cut issues, and failed to produce any significant results after more than three years of fighting. Ultimately, the war revealed the United States to be a naively aggressive but still awkwardly emerging nation in a world of well-entrenched superpowers.

From the mid-1790s through the first decade of the nineteenth century, England and France sustained a more or less continuous struggle for control of Europe, and hence for control of the great European colonial empires. Known as the Napoleonic Wars, this series of massive conquests and counterattacks was the greatest armed conflict the world had yet seen, and it would culminate the long series of wars between England and France that punctuated the American colonial period and included the Revolutionary War . Though not directly involved in the Napoleonic Wars, Americans suffered from reductions in trade, raids and restrictions imposed by both belligerents (each afraid that the United States might aid the other), and the forced impressment of U.S. sailors into service on British naval vessels (on the pretext that they had been born British subjects and still owed service to the king). Added to years of international frustration were violent confrontations with Native Americans all around the nation's interior periphery. Americans pushing north and west resented Shawnee-led resistance and blamed the English in Canada for supporting the hostile tribes; Americans pushing south and west were hampered by Creek-led resistance and blamed the Spanish in Florida.

As frustrations accumulated in the second decade of the nineteenth century, a group dominated by young congressmen from interior districts pushed for a declaration of war against England. By 1812, they won the support of President James Madison. Many of them hoped to conquer Canada, thereby solidifying North America under control of the United States. Though they found pretext in the impressment issue, their call for war was closer to a political agenda than a national consensus. Indeed, most New England congressmen and politicians from commercial areas elsewhere bitterly opposed recourse to war and voted against the formal declaration. Nonetheless, the declaration passed in the House of Representatives on June 4, 1812 by a vote of 79 to 49 and in the Senate on June 18 by a vote of 19 to 13.

This module depicts the course of the war itself. In the early phases, American offensives failed to dent Canada. British counterattacks from Canada then also failed, but the English successfully invaded and burned the U.S. capital at Washington, D.C. In the war's final action, General Andrew Jackson repulsed a British invasion at New Orleans.