The War of 1812 was a war fought over immigration and citizenship.
Though the American Revolution officially severed them, the United States and Britain were still very much tied together in the early 19th century. At that time, many people believed that contrasting ideologies were the main difference between the two societies.
Americans favored republican self-government and a relatively egalitarian society. The British thought that to be a dangerous experiment destined for failure; they preferred the power and stability of their constitutional monarchy.
These different approaches to government caused a great flow of people between the two countries. Hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants poured into America, while some 30,000 “Late Loyalists” left the United States for British-controlled Canada.
A torrent of Irish immigration
In the earliest decades of the United States, the Irish made up more than 50% of the immigrants to the nascent republic. Many blamed the Crown for the poverty and oppression they faced at home. A violent but failed rebellion in 1798 sent even more Irish fleeing their homeland.
Irish emigrants who had already settled in America frequently wrote back home extolling the virtues of this new republican life, where it was possible for hard-working common people to succeed and live in religious freedom.
How the Irish changed American politics
Once in America, the Irish played a key role in shaping the political landscape of the new country. They arrived in the midst of an intense political struggle between Federalists, who favored a strong central government, and Republicans, who preferred state governments to dominate.
The Republicans painted Federalists as secretly loyal to the British crown – it was easy to draw parallels between a strong federal government and the centralized constitutional monarchy.
The message of the Republicans resonated with Irish immigrants. They had seen the dark side of an overly powerful central government back home, and the fact that Federalists were associated with the Crown didn’t help things either.
Despite Federalist efforts to suppress immigration, naturalization and voting rights, the Irish population vaulted the Republicans to political dominance through their sheer numbers. Once the Republicans came to power, they continued to open up immigration, naturalization and voting rights, leading to even more Irish coming over.
This massive Irish emigration was a central cause of the war. Britain viewed these new Irish-Americans as very dangerous for their country. Not only were they losing a huge percentage of manpower for their labor and military force, but Irish abroad were considerably harder to control than Irish at home.
So Britain rejected the idea that subjects of the Crown could ever give up that status and refused to recognize anyone naturalized as an American citizen.
They began to treat all emigrants as fugitives or deserters. When able to, they stopped American ships and impressed sailors who they discovered were born in Britain. They essentially gave them two options – return to serve in the Royal Navy (which was hurting for sailors due to the Napoleonic wars) or be hung as deserters of the Crown.
Irish in the war effort
All of these factors led Irish-Americans to be gung-ho about going to war with Britain. The Republicans were extremely anti-British and pro-war, viewing the Crown’s colony in Canada as a threat to America’s independence that must be snuffed out.
In addition to being loyal Republicans and always looking for a chance to strike back at the British, those in favor of a free Irish Republic saw invading Canada as a way to achieve that. Many believed that if Americans could wrest Canada away from the British Empire, that would greatly damage the Crown and inspire a this-time successful Irish rebellion.
For these reasons, Irish-American newspapers and politicians encouraged Irish immigrants to enlist in the army. Promised the chance to spill British blood, and a way to earn land and a paycheck, the opportunity was too good to pass up.
The Irish joined in numbers far greater than their proportional representation in the overall population of America. The British viewed these Irish immigrants as absolutely essential to the US war effort once the conflict got under way.
Britain doubled down on their efforts to restrict immigration and impress expatriate sailors. Irish-Americans that were captured by the British were given a similar option – serve in the British military or be hung as a traitor.
But at this point it was too late. Irish-Americans were consistently on the front lines of the conflict and were heavily invested in the cause. Although the war ended in an arguable stalemate, our Irish ancestors were an integral part of successfully defending America in what could have been a nation-ending conflict.
Do you have Irish Ancestors that were in America at this time? If so, see how they were involved in the war – search the 1812 Pensions for free today.