War of 1812

Essential Questions:

Was the War of 1812 a “Second American Revolution”?


Was the War of 1812 a war of choice or a war of necessity?

Common Core Standards: RH9, WHST1 


1. Give students part of the third verse of the National Anthem, without telling them what it is, but saying that is from a song they all know and hear often. Ask them to do a 2-minute write on either what the verse means or what song it is from and explain their reasons.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore

That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion

A home and a country should leave us no more?

Their blood has wash'd out their foul footsteps' pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave

Or 2: Play a YouTube video of the National Anthem from a recent major event. Hand out the lyrics. Have students give reasons for and against keeping it as the nation’s anthem.

Learning Activities:

1. Causes of the War of 1812

Students will need to explore the background of the American ideal of neutrality during European wars. (See lesson on the Jay Treaty). The following primary sources will help students explore some of the major causes of the war.

New York Eveing Post, 24 July 1807

We say and we once more repeat it, that the Chesapeake, being a national ship, was not liable to be searched for any purpose, nor to have any of her crew taken from her. This is ground that ought to be maintained at every hazard. But on the other hand, candor demands the concession, that it was in every way improper in the American commodore to enlist four deserters from the British man of war, knowing them to be such; and whether they were English subjects, or had voluntarily enlisted and received their bounty (this being a conduct long since silently permitted by us), is immaterial. And we say further that if the Administration, on being applied to by the English counsul, refused to accommodate the affair, but insisted on protecting the men by placing them under the national flag, the Administration thereby became criminal, and are answerable to the people for their culpable conduct.

Such are the sentiments we hold on this subject: they have been often revised, and are believed to be correct.

The result is that our own Administration are considered as having been to blame; but not so that their misconduct justified the resort to force on the part of the English. On this point, we are ready to say that we consider the national sovereignty has been attacked, the national honor tarnished, and that ample reparations and satisfaction must be given or that war ought to be resorted to by force of arms.


2. Interactive Map

The map below will help students explore the geography of the war’s battles. It has transcripts and audio of each important milestone.


3.  Naval Strategy

Play this transcript of a letter written by Commodore William Bainbridge, captain of the U.S.S. Constitution, describing the attack on the H.M.S. Java in December 1812.


What reasons do we have to trust Commodore Bainbridge’s account of the battle? What kind of information would corroborate his report?

What can we learn about naval tactics during the War of 1812 from this letter?

4. Canadian Perspective

Have students view this 5 minute video from the PBS video on the War of 1812. Start the video before class to get past the advertisement at the start. You can pause the video right at the start of the segment.


High school students can also hear “The War of 1812” by the Arrogant Worms. The song satirizes American views of the war, but be ready to handle questions about “bringing matches to burn the Whitehouse again.” There are various YouTube videos, but be sure you preview them first. The song is a parody of  Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsRK3DNoa_Q


5. British and Canadian Perspectives

Teachers can get a good overview of the British perspective on the war here. AP classes might also benefit from this short essay.

http://www.pbs.org/wned/war-of-1812/essays/british-perspective/ (https://web.archive.org/web/20200307091549/https://www.pbs.org/wned/war-of-1812/essays/british-perspective/)


Students can read this recent interview with Andrew Pocock, the British High Commissioner to Canada, where he discusses the memory of the war for both the British and for Canadians.


Questions for students:

  • Why do Canadians view the war differently than Americans? Do you think the same thing happens in other wars?
  • What is the value of a commemoration of a war?
  • How important, according to the Commissioner, was the War of 1812 to the British?


6.  National Anthem

The Smithsonian has an interactive feature on the flag that flew over Ft. McHenry.


After giving students the details about the writing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” (available at  http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmah/starflag.htm) they can use the following sources from the debate about the official adoption of the song as the national anthem in 1931.

Students can also be asked what other primary sources would they explore to investigate why the “Star Spangled Banner” became the national anthem.


The quiz below asks students to determine about different textbook accounts of the war. The exercise is designed to help students think about historical perspectives and national memory. The students can take it online as a class exercise.


Additional Primary Sources:



http://teachinghistory.org/spotlight/war-of-1812 (https://web.archive.org/web/20120515101240/https://teachinghistory.org/spotlight/war-of-1812)


Further Reading:

The PBS film on the War of 1812 is online and free at:


You can see the entire episode, fast forward to segments you previewed before class, or watch dedicated segments on the Canadian perspective, military medicine, the British blockade, and more.

Brown, Roger H. The Republic in Peril: 1812. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Stagg, J.C.A. Mr. Madison’s War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Trautsch, J. M. “The Causes of the War of 1812: 200 Years of Debate.” Journal of Military History 77, no. 1, (2013): 273-93.

Watts, Steven. The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.