War of 1812 A Senate Debate Role Play


Despite Washington’s warnings in his farewell address of 1797 to stay out of foreign entanglements, Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson found it very difficult to avoid them. Each in his own way, tried very hard to stay out of the great conflict between France and Great Britain that consumed much of Europe between 1793-1815.

Remember that the French Revolution started in 1789 and grew increasingly radical through the 1790s, culminating in Napoleon’s consolidation of the revolution. France under Napoleon became an Empire.

During Adams’ presidency from 1797-1801, the United States briefly went to an “quasi war” with France. Take it away Wikipedia. During this quasi-qar, Congress passed and Adams signed the Alien and Sedition acts in 1798 making it illegal to criticize the government during war-time. (Of course this is contrary to the First Amendment, but taking law to the Supreme Court to judge its Constitutionality hadn’t yet happened.) This law was so unpopular that it helped the Democratic Republicans under Jefferson take the Presidency 1801.

The Democratic-Republicans and Jefferson

The Democratic-Republicans wanted a weaker, smaller central government. Thus, when Jefferson became President in 1801, he paid back the national debt (Hamilton hated that idea!) and cut spending. He cut the budget, eliminated taxes on whiskey, houses, and the enslaved, and fired all federal tax collectors! He also slashed the size of the army to 3,000 soldiers and 172 officers, the navy to 6 frigates, and foreign embassies to 3 in Britain, France, and Spain.

Despite his desire to stay out of the war between Great Britain and France, there were three main issues that confronted him:

Chesapeake-Leopold Affair
  1. Impressment- Britain’s navy was taking sailors right off of American merchant ships. This practice was called "impressment" and it infuriated Americans. From the British viewpoint, impressment made sense. Conditions in the Royal Navy were extremely harsh, and many British sailors deserted to American merchant ships which paid better. Britain did not recognize this. It thought – Once an Englishman, always an Englishman- and simply viewed these men as deserters. Therefore, Britain felt justified in seizing any of its citizens found on American ships. The impressment issue grew to a crisis in the early 1800s. Britain needed all the men that could be found to fight Napoleon and was often careless and seized any able-bodied English-speaking man. The American government gave sailors documents to prove their American citizenship, but these papers were usually ignored by the British.
  2. Right of the Seas- The United States’ economy was largely based on agriculture and the export of raw materials such as lumber and fur. England and France were blockading each other. Thus England blocked American ships going to France and France blockaded American ships going to England. Jefferson tried his best to stay neutral and came up with a non-violent solution, the Embargo Act in 1807. It didn’t work. All told, about 15,000 Americans were impressed. Britain's navy was huge. It had 176 "ships of the line". Ships of the line were the aircraft carriers of the era. The 250 foot long ships were armed with upwards of 128 cannons on four decks and were manned by 1,280 sailors. (By the way, America had no ships of the line) Britain had 600 ships overall and needed 140,000 sailors to man them.
  3. Native Americans in the “West” were organizing under the great Tecumseh and were a real threat to American expansion. The British were happy to help Native Americans.

President Madison, a close ally of Jefferson’s, became President in 1809. Madison was a short, shy, but brilliant man who was behind-the-scenes leader in getting the Constitution ratified. Though woefully old-fashioned- he was still wearing breaches when they were 20 years out of date- he had somehow charmed and married a Philadelphia Quaker of famed beauty and sophistication named Dolley Todd whose husband had died in the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1794. She was the first prominent First Lady. (By the way, since she married a non-Quaker, she was "read out" of her meeting.) But we digress...

James Madison tried to reach a deal with England. He proposed and Congress passed a non-Intercourse Act which said American would trade with whoever left us alone. He also sought to make a deal with British Minister Erskine, who was friendly to the U.S because he was married to an American, that basically resolved every issue to the United States’ satisfaction. But the British Foreign Secretary turned down the deal and replaced Erskine with a tougher minister who completely repudiated Erskine's agreement. Tensions with England reached a boiling point.

Young Democratic-Republican “War Hawks” from the south and west now openly advocated for war by this point. Federalists, comprised mostly of New England merchants, opposed this push for war.

The United States faced two options that are laid out below. They are written in present tense as you will be arguing from the point of these two sides in the late spring of 1812.

The Options

Option 1: Avoid War. It is Unjust and Unnecessary.

All 42 Federalists members of Congress oppose war with England. It should also be noted should that the Democratic-Republicans themselves are split. The war is unnecessary, dishonorable, and ruinous to the nation. It is unnecessary because the British have not attacked the United States and because compromise is still possible. It is dishonorable because the Madison administration is intent on attacking America’s peaceful neighbor to the north, British Canada, and perhaps annexing it. It is potentially ruinous because Great Britain could blockade American ports and attack vulnerable east coast cities and towns (which indeed happened as the war progressed-Washington DC was burnt down).

Supporting Arguments for Option 1

The U.S. Navy is no match for the gigantic Royal Navy, which has hundreds of active warships including 176 ships of the line and 600 warships altogether. The U.S. Navy has just 16 ships, including the 12-gun USS Viper and the 44-gun USS Constitution.

Similarly, because of Jefferson’s small government policies, we have only 3000 soldiers ready to fight against one of the strongest armies in the world.

The real enemy is Napoleon, who was described by one Federalist as the “arch-Fiend who has long been the curse and Scourge of the European World.” (from - http://beyondthebattleofbladensburg.blogspot.com/2014/06/)

War will devastate our Northern shipping industry and eventually the entire country. The Embargo Act of Jefferson’s deeply hurt our entire economy. Going to actual war will be even worse!

Arguments Against Option 1

So far, negotiating with GB to stop impressment of American sailors has proved futile. Why will negotiations work now when they haven’t before? Madison even reached a deal and the British reneged.

Great Britain is supporting Tecumseh and other Native Americans and stopping our expansion Westward and harassing our settlers on the frontier. More talking will just stop our progress.

Option Two: Attack now while Britain is distracted.

British actions demand war. We would rather have war than further "submit" to British insults.

Though France and Britain both harm the United States, Britain is the greater offender. Britain’s tightening rules on neutral trade frustrate our American merchants, and the British policy of impressment should be insulting to all Americans- especially New England Federalists.

Canada is vulnerable; an attack on that British colony will force Britain to make concessions on both trade and impressment. At the same time, the conquest of Canada will remove a longstanding threat to America’s security on the North American continent and restore national honor.

Thus, we propose to invade and conquer Canada and use it as a negotiating chip with Britain.

As President James Madison argued in his message to Congress on June 1, 1812, we charge Britain with impressing thousands of American sailors, in effect kidnapping them and forcing them to crew Royal Navy ships; the British have repeatedly harassed Americian merchant ships and cut off our “legitimate markets” in Europe and the Caribbean; and that British agents are working with hostile Native Americans on the northwestern frontier. As negotiations have failed to end these “injuries and indignities which have been heaped on our country,” the only recourse is war!

Supporting arguments for Option 2.

  1. Great Britain's Navy is stretched thin by the Napoleonic Wars.
  2. Invade Canada! We in the rural South and the American West —(then the territory stretching up the Mississippi basin to the Great Lakes.) are eager to strike at the British in Canada because they are arming Native American tribes standing in the way of our westward expansion.
  3. The invasion will be easy. Ordinary Canadians will want to shake off their British overlords just as we did. The "acquisition of Canada," predicts former President Thomas Jefferson, "will be a mere matter of marching."
  4. After all, the United States beat Britain before in the Revolution with a small army at the start. Why should this time be different?

Arguments Against Option 2

  1. The United States has a puny army and a small navy. How can it possibly win?
  2. Jefferson’s Embargo Acts hurt the American economy. This war could destroy it.
A Role Play

Your Assignment: Your group has been called upon to prepare for a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Your assignment is to persuade Senators that your option should serve as the basis for U.S. foreign policy. You will be judged on how well you present your option.

Organizing Your Group:

Members of your group will take on one of the following roles:

  • The group director is responsible for organizing your presentation to the Senate.
  • The military adviser is responsible for describing your option’s response to the leading threats and problems facing the United States. This person should research the military aspects of the situation before you.
  • The economics expert is responsible for explaining the economic implications of your option. Consider recent events, such as the Embargo and non-Intercourse Acts and economic conditions in the United States.
  • The historian is responsible for explaining how the lessons of history help justify your group’s position.

In your presentation, be sure to use quotations and evidence from this reading and outside sources to help explain the views of your group.

Making Your Case

After you complete preparations, your group will deliver a three-to-five minute presentation to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Speakers should speak clearly and convincingly. During the presentations of other options, you should try to identify their weak points. After both groups have presented their options, members of the Senate will ask you clarifying questions and allow you to ask questions of each other. Any member of your group may respond during the question period. However, Mr. McDonnell does ask that everyone speak at least twice.

Consider the following questions as you prepare your presentation:

  1. What is your option’s long-term vision for the United States?
  2. According to your option, what policies and strategies should the United States pursue to achieve this vision?
  3. How will your option affect people in the United States? People in other countries?
  4. How might your option be challenged or resisted?
Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Your Role

As a member of the U.S. Senate, you consider issues relating to U.S. foreign policy. As you know, the world is constantly changing. U.S. foreign policy must keep up with the changes that have taken place. The challenge facing you today is what to do about the escalating tensions with Great Britain.

Your Assignment

While the option groups are organizing their presentations, you should prepare 3 questions for both options.

Your questions should be challenging and critical. For example, a good question for option 1 might be:

Wouldn’t Option 1 simply allow Britain to take thousands more of our sailors?

During the simulation, the two sides will present their positions. After their presentations are completed, Senate committee members will ask questions. Then, the Senate will moderate a debate between the two sides keeping track so that each side has an equal chance to make their case.

Senators will then meet, discuss and then vote on what Option they prefer. Ideally, this will be based more on the quality of the presentation than one's own personal preferences. Of course, this is very hard to do in reality.

After this activity is concluded, the Senate will be called on to explain its evaluation of the option groups.

Created By
Alex McDonnell


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