The relationship between Britain and the United States had been frigid since the latter gained their independence from the former. Trade had been substantial but diplomatic relations consisted of each party ignoring the other’s existence.
In 1793, Britain went to war against France in what became known as the Napoleonic Wars. The United States was neutral during this conflict but hostilities between the two belligerents interfered with its trade. The Royal Navy blockaded French ports and obliged all neutral shipping, especially American vessels, bound for France, to call first at a British port and pay duties on its cargo before being allowed to proceed. Furthermore the Royal Navy frequently stopped United States ships and pressed into service those seamen who had either deserted from the Royal Navy or were vaguely suspected of having deserted. This policy so incensed United States officials, that on 18th June 1812, President James Maddison declared war on Great Britain.
The Americans were ill prepared for war. An initial incursion into Canada was easily rebuffed. There were some minor naval skirmishes particularly involving the USS Constitution, which sank several Royal Navy vessels. The British army was too involved in Europe to send troops to fight, but British interests were preserved by supplying the Shawnee tribe with armaments to attack wagon trains, heading for Oregon. The Americans sent an expeditionary force into Canada, which burnt the city of York, now Toronto, and hurriedly retreated.
By 1814, after a series of victories in Europe, Britain had available resources to mount an offensive. An amphibious British force landed at Chesapeake Bay and after defeating the American army at the battle of Blandensberg, captured the city of Washington, destroyed the Capitol building and burnt down the president’s house. This residence was rebuilt soon after but had to be painted white in order to hide the burn marks, hence the name of the White House.
After such a disturbing and humiliating defeat, the Americans called a truce and signed a peace treaty, the Treaty of Ghent, which restored matters to the state they were in before the war.