Economic Historiography of the War of 1812
While the overall focus of most scholarships related to the 32-month War of 1812 concentrates on the war’s political and military history, it is also imperative to examine how scholars and historians framed its economic contexts. In particular, one major discussion is about the economic causes or factors for this conflict, alongside its economic implication. The economic historiography of the War of 1812 received relatively less attention after the war itself and throughout the nineteenth century as historians focused mainly on its maritime aspects. However, contemporary historians of the early twentieth century began to expand the contexts of war, by citing America’s economic agenda—American expansionism and desire to conquer Canadian lands—as one, if not the main causes of war.1
During and after World War II toward the Vietnam War era, the focus shifted again, this time, recognizing that economic causes were precursors but not entirely central to the start of war. In any period, however, historians conducted minor studies on the economic losses and problems during and following the War of 1812, especially in reference to the United States. Nonetheless, the historiography in comparison with the economic causes of one of America’s ‘forgotten’ wars can be sharply characterized by It’s changing focus and shifting scholarly consensus over the years.
Prior to the onset of the World War II in 1939, the post-war writings on the economic causes (and lack thereof) of the War of 1812 can be divided into two phases. The first phase covers historical discussions after the war ended in 1815 and throughout the nineteenth century. During this period, historians such as Henry Adams noted that the major causes of war were centered on maritime issues.2 Adams used traditional and common interpretations to account that certain maritime disputes, such as when a British warship launched an attack against a U.S. war frigate in 1807, were direct precursors to the war.3
It should be noted, however, that although Adams proposed a strong thesis for maritime issues, this historian recognized the minor role of economic factors. According to Warren H. Goodman for instance, “Henry Adams seems to have been the first to recognize that an interpretation of the causes of the War of 1812 almost exclusively on the basis of maritime matters was an oversimplification and, consequently, a distortion.”4 Yet again, economic causes of the War of 1812 remained far from the scholarly focus of nineteenth century historians.
Although some writers of the period discussed few economic contexts of the war, majority of these works were dedicated to the evaluation of the war’s economic impacts. In 1895, Henry Salant, in his work entitled “The Economic Wastes of War,” discussed the negative effects of the Embargo mandate of 1807 on employment and maritime trade. Salant writes that in the U.S, statistics estimate that around 100,000 men lost their jobs due to trade restrictions.5 During and after the war, land and naval battles also led to budgetary deficits and increase of government debts due to massive military spending for the war. However, the causative relationship of the American embargo and the beginning of the War of 1812 was not explored in-depth.
The second post war phase is in the earlier decades of the twentieth century when historians began considering economic factors as major causes of the war. In 1911, Howard T. Lewis premised that the war was carried out when the West began to covet Canada’s agricultural land reserves. Lewis argued that the maritime theory has been unable to adequately explain the eagerness of the Western territory (U.S.) in terms of pursuing the war. As Goodman notes, Lewis “sought the reason for the bellicose attitude of that section”6 and concluded that “the key to the situation was to be found in the ‘imperative demand for more territory into which the western immigrant might go and still be within the jurisdiction of the U. S.’”7
The scholarly support and affirmation of Lewis’ thesis came more than a decade later when Julius W. Pratt advanced the theory of American expansionism in 1925, primarily in terms of domain ownership on Canada. In his writings, Pratt agreed that the U.S. developed an interest on Canadian lands and that waging war against Britain was the only recourse to carry out its plan on expansion.8
Aside from Lewis and Pratt, George Rogers Taylor also advanced non-maritime arguments as the underlying cause of the war. Focusing his writing on the events and sentiments that took place in the Mississipi Valley before the war, the historian concurred that the economic issues took its toll in the West, which compelled the government to take aggressive actions. In one of his essays, Taylor writes that the agriculture of the West suffered from “a severe economic depression in the years just before the war, and this depression was an important factor in determining the support which the frontier gave first to the Embargo and Non-intercourse acts and finally to war.”9 Taylor’s position strengthens the fact that since the beginning of the 1900s up to the 1930s, historical writings on the War of 1812 shifted focus on economic causes than military, political or nationalism-related factors. In part, this shift can be attributed to the sentiments and associations on the Great Depression, a widespread economic downturn that affected many nations, including the U.S.
During the World War II period, historians did not revert to earlier nineteenth century arguments about the cause of war nor mainly focused on the economic reasons. Instead, this period featured a careful assessment and analysis on grounds that instigated the War of 1812. Goodman evaluated and synthesized that the economic factors were also crucial to the development and stimulation of the war.10 However, Goodman did not rank the causes based on each one’s importance or weight. Rather, the historian suggested that divergent causes can be appropriately combined as a list. In 1941, Herbert Heaton made a focused study on the Non-Importation Act, which was subsequent to the embargo, as among the direct causes of the war.11 However, Heaton did not single out this cause. Instead, he emphasized that this legislated trade restriction and ban intersected with political and maritime causes.
Moreover, other scholars and historians also acknowledged that the economic interest of the U.S. for agricultural domains was evident from the very beginning and that the West was willing to sacrifice political relations for territorial advancements. One of the World War II period authors who supported this insight was Frank L. Owsley. According to Owsley, “[s]uch doctrinaire conception of government and society boded ill for New England” and that “the period from 1801 until the end of the War of 1812 was filled with laws, decrees, and executive acts that seemed to threaten the economic and social existence of that section.”12 Meanwhile, economic historian William L. Thorp provided another analysis by stating that the direct relationship of the Embargo Act, the resulting War of 1812 from the said legislative failure, and the severe economic blows after the said war were exceptions to the usual historical war patterns.13 Anyhow, these historians agree that the War of 1812 was a combination of economic and non-economic causes.
Although the writings on the history of the War of 1812 existed even after the end of the World War II in 1945, considerable scholarly interest on this historical topic re-emerged only a decade after, particularly during the Vietnam War era. In the comprehensive book The Causes of the War of 1812 (1962), Reginald Horsman argues that while America’s economic policies fuelled the war, the main origin of the conflict began through several British policies (economic policies included), which threatened the interest of the U.S. One of these includes Britain’s failure to maintain the Anglo-French peace.14
Victor Sapio’s synthesis of Pratt’s and Taylor’s position about the economic causes of the War of 1812 also fills the economic historiography of this historical event. In his 1968 work concentrated on Pennsylvania, Sapio highlights that political pressures mixed with widespread economic depression supported the American government’s plan to push the war against Britain.15 These analyses continued the proposals of World War II period historians whose theses combined economic and non-economic factors related the origin of the war.
Based on the discussions, the economic historiography of the War of 1812 has been shifting since the early post-war decades up to the Vietnam War era. During the nineteenth century, the written history kept its focus on the immediate maritime or political factors that led to the war, and even the political climate and relations prior and during the war. The perspectives on this war started to change in the 1900s when scholars and historians considered examining the economic reasons for the war with given discussions on economic implications. This shift of historiography was not only a product of time per se; it may have resulted from the economic depression that peaked in the 1930s as well as inter-war climates from the early 1940s up to 1970s. This latter claim is subject to a separate analysis.
Adams, Henry. History of the United States During the Second Administration of Madison, Part 1. Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, 1890.
Egan, Clifford L. "The Origins of the War of 1812: Three Decades of Historical Writing." Military Affairs, 38(2), 1974: 72-75.
Goodman, Warren H. "The Origins of the War of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 28(2), 1941: 171-186.
Heaton, Herbert. "Non-Importation, 1806-1812." The Journal of Economic History, 1(2), 1941: 178-198.
Hickey, Donald R. "The War of 1812: Still a Forgotten Conflict?" The Journal of Military History, 65(3), 2001: 741-769.
Horsman, Reginald. The Causes of the War of 1812. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962.
Owsley, Frank L. "The Fundamental Cause of the Civil War: Egocentric Sectionalism." The Journal of Southern History, 7(1), 1941: 3-18.
Pratt, Julius W. "Western Aims in the War of 1812." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 12(1), 1925: 36-50.
Salant, Henry. "The Economic Wastes of War." The Advocate of Peace (1894-1920), 57(2), 1895: 30-32.
Sapio, Victor. "Expansion and Economic Depression as Factors in Pennsylvania's Support of the War of 1812: An Application of the Pratt and Taylor Theses to the Keystone State." Pennsylvania History, 35(4), 1968: 379-405.
Taylor, George Rogers. "Agrarian Discontent in the Mississippi Valley Preceding the War of 1812." Journal of Political Economy, 39(4), 1931: 471-505.
Thorp, Willard L. "Postwar Depressions." The American Economic Review, 30(5), 1941: 352-361.
1.) Donald R. Hickey, "The War of 1812: Still a Forgotten Conflict?" The Journal of Military History, 65(3), 2001: 759.
2.) Clifford L. Egan, "The Origins of the War of 1812: Three Decades of Historical Writing," Military Affairs, 38(2), 1974: 72.
3.) Henry Adams, History of the United States During the Second Administration of Madison, Part 1 (Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, 1890), 301.
4.) Warren H. Goodman, "The Origins of the War of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 28(2), 1941: 173.
5.) Henry Salant, "The Economic Wastes of War," The Advocate of Peace (1894-1920), 57(2), 1895: 31.
6.) Goodman, "The Origins of the War of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations," 174.
8.) Julius W. Pratt, "Western Aims in the War of 1812," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 12(1), 1925: 36.
9.) George Rogers Taylor, "Agrarian Discontent in the Mississippi Valley Preceding the War of 1812," Journal of Political Economy, 39(4), 1931: 471.
10.) Goodman, "The Origins of the War of 1812: A Survey of Changing Interpretations," 185.
11.) Herbert Heaton, "Non-Importation, 1806-1812," The Journal of Economic History, 1(2), 1941: 179.
12.) Frank L. Owsley, "The Fundamental Cause of the Civil War: Egocentric Sectionalism," The Journal of Southern History, 7(1), 1941: 11.
13.) Willard L. Thorp, "Postwar Depressions," The American Economic Review, 30(5), 1941: 355.
14.) Reginald Horsman, The Causes of the War of 1812 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962), 267.
15.) Victor Sapio, "Expansion and Economic Depression as Factors in Pennsylvania's Support of the War of 1812: An Application of the Pratt and Taylor Theses to the Keystone State," Pennsylvania History, 35(4), 1968: 401.