The War of 1812 may not have been so just. At least that was the conclusion slightly more than half of my students at Walters State Community College reached.
As a historian and a college instructor, I frequently look for ways to do more than lecture in my courses. But I don’t want classroom activities simply for activities’ sake: I want my students to understand the complexities, the contingencies of history. So, here’s a look at how I ran one of my 55-minute courses, based on the help of a range of scholarly work and textbooks:
- The causes of the War of 1812 were the subject for the day. So I gave a roughly 15 minute overview lecture. I displayed statements from the 1790s by James Madison declaring war unjust, yet it was Madison who became a war President. I noted some of the international conflicts brewing in the years before 1812. I explained how some legendary nineteenth-century politicians campaigned in 1810 on a war with the British. I also told the students how the congressional vote to go to war was incredibly close.
- After that, I divided my class into three groups. I gave each group one of the key reasons for war. The reasons I chose: impressment, tensions with Native Americans, and the British Rule of 1756. I gave each group a paragraph or two that concisely explained each reason. I gave the groups 20 minutes to accomplish two things: discuss if their particular reason was a just enough reason to declare war and then vote, based solely on their reason, on whether or not war was justified.
- The voting was extremely close. On impressment, the vote was 4-3 against war. As for tensions with Native Americans, the vote was 5-2 for war. And the Rule of 1756: 3-5 against war.
- I put the vote totals on the board, and I invited students to voice their perspective. It was interesting, to say the least. I was probably most surprised that the group who had impressment didn’t find it a solid reason for war; their textbook reading emphasized impressment above all else. My students concluded that while impressment was unsatisfactory, a war shouldn’t happen given United States debt and the fact that the nation was still relatively new. Impressment, bad as it was, they said, wasn’t worth the risk of facing the British military.