For the early decades of the nation’s history, relations between the United States and Great Britain remained strained. Their relationship deteriorated sharply with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1803. Britain imposed a blockade on neutral countries such as the United States. In addition, the British took American sailors from their ships and "impressed" them into the British Navy. In Congress, southern and western Democratic-Republican "War Hawks," such as the new Speaker of the House, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Representative John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, led the sentiment for war, calling for a defense of American interests and honor. On June 1, 1812, President James Madison asked for a declaration of war. Shortly afterward, Congress, despite the opposition of every Federalist, approved the declaration.
The War of 1812 produced a string of American military disasters. The most shocking of these was the British Army’s burning of the Capitol, the President’s house, and other public buildings in Washington on August 24 and 25, 1814. (Americans had previously burned public buildings in Canada.)
In 1814, both sides were working to come to a resolution and agreed to discuss peace terms. A meeting in Belgium of American delegates and British commissioners ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. Great Britain agreed to relinquish claims to the Northwest Territory, and both countries pledged to work toward ending the slave trade. America, in turn, gained influence as a foreign power. News of the treaty spread slowly, and word of peace did not reach the American and British armies for some time. American forces, led by Andrew Jackson, won the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, ending the hostilities after the official peace.
For more information, visit the National Archives’ Treasures of Congress Online Exhibit.