The War Hawks

Further Reading

Impressment: An American Perspective

Trade Embargoes: An American Perspective

Napoleonic Wars: A British Perspective

An American Perspective

The War Hawks were a coterie of about twenty Democratic Republicans who persuaded Congress into supporting a declaration of war against Britain. These young, vocal members from the South and the western U.S. were voted into the House during mid-term congressional elections in 1810. They were united by outrage regarding the British practice of impressment (or abduction) of American sailors, and the British Orders in Council which were crippling the American economy.

The War Hawks were fed up with the plodding diplomatic tactics of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They were convinced that a declaration of war was the only honourable response to these repeated violations.

The new Congress met for the first time in 1811. Before long, a handful of War Hawks took over key positions which gave them considerable influence on the course of congressional debate, as well as ready access to the government's coffers. Henry Clay was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter B. Porter took control of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Langdon Cheves became Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

From November 1811 to June 1812, the War Hawks argued for war and the requisite financial and military preparations. Most congressmen were opposed to war, but many voted for increased military spending and an expanded militia. They were confident that Britain would yield to U.S. demands if it saw that America was seriously considering military action. After all, Britain was already deeply involved with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.

Ultimately, the War Hawks were able to convince the majority of congressmen to vote in favour of this "second struggle for liberty". Although many members bickered over insignificant details (like whether or not to increase the U.S. navy), they tended to agree that it wasn't realistic to expect a peaceful and diplomatic conclusion to the ongoing conflict with Britain.