Just War Theory And The War Of 1812

Just War Theory

Going to war against another state is such a severe action with potentially gruesome consequences that political theorists, statesman and religious leaders, such as Augustine, Aquinas and Grotius, have put forth the concept of the Just War. This concept is an attempt to bring a sense of ethics and morality to shifting patterns of war and peace. The idea behind the just war theory is that a state’s grievance against another state should meet certain criteria before a declaration of war is issued. These are known as jus ad bellum principles, which deal with the justice of resorting to war in the first place.

The principles are a set of six criteria that should be met before a state can, or should, declare war. They are: proper authority and public declaration; just cause; right intention; last resort; probability and proportionality of success. Just war theory insists that all of these criteria must each be fulfilled in order for a declaration of war to be justified. Some scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that a declaration of war without all of these criteria being met would result in war crimes against the state and the people being attacked.

The War of 1812

The War of 1812 occurred about a quarter of a century after America won its independence from the United Kingdom in the Revolutionary War. At the time, Great Britain was at war with France in an attempt to stop Napoleon from imposing his will on the whole of Europe. However, the only way that Britain could defeat France was to maximize its naval power and defeat the French navy, and also stop France from receiving goods from other parts of the world. A major problem for the British was the high rate of desertion among its soldiers, especially its naval shipmen. If it was to maximize its naval power, it must have soldiers.

To fill the empty posts, the British used the practice of “impressment”, which was the forcible removal of sailors from America’s merchant ships. While most of these were actually Americans, the British used the philosophy that they were probably British deserters who had settled in America to avoid imprisonment. And, the British also enforced “orders in council”, which confiscated goods off American merchant ships for use by the British navy. This created a major disruption in U.S. trade with Europe. The Republicans in the U.S. Congress soon got tired of these practices and called a vote on a declaration of war with Great Britain.

Was the War of 1812 a Just War?

Given the nature of the War of 1812 and its closeness to the American Revolutionary War, many observers have questioned whether or not the war was a just war. This can be determined by analyzing the war against the six criteria of a just war.

Just Cause. The first criterion is whether or not the declaration of war was for a just cause. The most common reasons that might be labelled just causes are things such as self-defense, defense of others who cannot defend themselves, protection of innocents from aggression; and punishment for a grievous wrongdoing that remains uncorrected. It is questionable that the causes of the War of 1812 fall into any of these categories. The only one that might come close is the protection of innocents from aggression, which might fit the removal of shipmen from America’s merchant ships. However, this is questionable since the French navy was doing the same thing as the British navy and America did not declare war against France. Why then was it just to go to war with England and not with France when they were both removing merchant shipmen for their navies? The declaration seems to fail the first criterion.

Right Intention. The second criterion is whether or not the declaration of war was done for the right intention, or was the motivation morally appropriate and for the sake of the just cause? In the case of the War of 1812, there may have been multiple motivations that lay behind the declaration of war with England. For example, a Southern Senator, James C. Calhoun, said the U.S. would grab some of the Canadian land and expand our territory. This war was also called the Second War for Independence, and it may have taken on the motive of beating Britain again and stopping it from bullying America wherever it could. However, there was little in the way of overt aggression against America that really needed defending.

Proper Authority and Public Declaration. While the War of 1812 was declared by the Congress of the United States, it was approved by the narrowest margin of any war in U.S. history. The country was deeply divided over the war and the Federalist Party was against the war altogether. There was not enough money in the U.S. treasury to finance the war, and the slowdown in trade with Europe disrupted the balance of trade and helped to empty out the treasury farther.

As far as Britain was concerned, the declaration of war by America was an unwelcome distraction as its efforts were clearly on winning the war in Europe. Many of the members of the British Parliament did not take the war seriously, and when it came time to put together the terms of peace, nothing was actually changed for either country.

Last Resort. This criterion says that a state may go to war only if it has exhausted all plausible alternatives to resolving the conflict, especially diplomatic negotiations. It seems that instead of trying to resolve the conflict with Britain, Congress simply got tired of what the British navy was doing and declared war in an effort to stop it. There is little evidence of serious diplomatic negotiations over this maritime conflict between the two countries.

Probability of Success. This criterion says that a state may not resort to war if the evidence suggests that going to war would have no measurable impact on the situation. There were grandiose plans concerning the outcome of the war, but given the unpreparedness of the U.S. military, especially its navy, it seems clear that war was not going to have an appreciable effect on either America or Britain. In fact, the outcome left the status quo in place. It turned out that the British Parliament had already voted to stop the impressment and the orders in council before the war was actually declared. However, the slowness of communication between Britain and America did not allow the stopping of the declaration of war.

Proportionality. This criterion says that a state should not go to war unless it has weighed the universal good against the universal costs of going to war and found them to be proportional. In other words, the good created by the war will be greater than the costs of going to war. That was clearly not the case with the War of 1812. Again, grandiose intentions played a big part in leading the nation to war when a clear, objective analysis would have determined that nothing was really going to be gained by the war. The battles were largely confined to the U.S.-Canadian border, and we lost as many battle as we won because of our weak military status. One writer said that America was just a second-rate power at this time and could really not hope to do much substantial against Britain’s superior forces. As it turned out, in the end the situation was returned to the status quo.

The War of 1812 was not a just war, and it should never have been declared or fought.

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