The Deafness of George III – A Cause of the War of 1812? – Part I

Robert Traynor
June 20, 2012

Hearing International looks at the War of 1812 on its 200th anniversary. We will consider in a multipart series the question:   Could the War of 1812 (called the Anglo-American War in Britain) and, possibly, the US Revolutionary War have been caused directly or indirectly by King George III’s possible deafness?  First some background information on the War of 1812.

The US Perspective

 Going to war with Britain was presented to the US Congress as a result of British infringement on US neutral rights in their war with Napoleon’s France that caused the actual outbreak of hostility.  Actually, infringement on neutrality was secondary to the desire of US frontiersmen for free land, which could only be obtained at the expense of the Native Americans and the British. Moreover, the US suspected the British, with some justification, of attempting to prevent American expansion, as well as encouraging insurgence and arming Native Americans.

These issues came to the forefront after the Battle of Tippecanoe (1811).  In Congress, a radical group of Western politicians believed that the British had supported the Native American confederacy and dreamed of expelling the British from Canada and making it part of the US. This militant policy was supported by Southerners, who wished to obtain West Florida from the Spanish who were allies of Great Britain at the time.

Among the prominent “war hawks” in the 12th Congress were Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun (both to become major leaders in the future), Langdon Cheves, Felix Grundy, Peter Porter, and others, who managed to override the opposition of John Randolph and the moderates.  By the end of May 1812, President James Madison felt that war with Great Britain was not only inevitable, it was required if the United States was to continue as a sovereign, maritime nation with an economy dependent on freedom of the seas and free trade. On 1 June, he made his case for war in writing, in what became known as his “war message to Congress.” On June 18, the Congress declared War against Britain, Canada, and various Native American Tribes, thus beginning the War of 1812.

Meanwhile in Britain……

The reigns of George III and George IV encompass the elegant, glittering world of the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. This period, from the beginning of war with France in 1793 to George IV’s ascension to the throne in 1820, was one of vast change in England’s economic and social face. It included the Napoleonic Wars, the madness of George III, the War of 1812, and the Regency (1811-1820).  This period marked a definite period of transition in British history as England rapidly moved from an artisan/cottage industry firmly into the industrial revolution. War with America was a direct consequence of the

Napoleonic conflict as Britain relied on a maritime economic blockade to defeat France. When American merchants tried to exploit their neutral status to breach this blockade by selling supplies to France, the British introduced new laws, the ‘Orders in Council’, to block this trade.  In the same spirit, when British warships stopped American merchant ships, they forcibly impressed any British sailors they found into the Royal Navy. While some of these men were Americans, most were British and some had deserted from the Royal Navy, a hanging offense.  Since Britain was in an all-out war with France they could not tolerate neutral countries trading with France or amnesty for deserters who had become Americans.

No one in England doubted Britain’s right to repossess her sailors and all blamed the Americans for employing British seamen when the Royal Navy needed them. A decade of American complaints and economic restrictions only served to convince the British that President Jefferson and President Madison were pro-French and violently anti-British. Consequently, when America declared war it had very few friends in Britain. Many there remembered the War of Independence, some had lost fathers or brothers in the fighting; others were the sons of Loyalists driven from their homes in America.

Although the British had no interest in fighting this war, once it began their clear goal was to keep the United States from taking any part of Canada. In an effort to avoid war, the British revoked the order to board US vessels. In response, President Madison demanded an end to impressment, well aware that Britain would not make such a concession in wartime. Thus, Britain went to war with no troops to spare to reinforce Canada; its defense was left to a handful of British regulars, plus Native Americans and Canadian militia. The British imposed the same devastating economic blockage on the US that had crippled France. It carefully targeted states like Virginia that had voted for war. By autumn 1814, the American economy had collapsed.


The British followed up with amphibious forces raiding around Chesapeake Bay, raising regiments of former slaves as they went. In August 1814, 4000 British troops captured and burnt Washington, DC, including the White House.

Next Week ….a look at George III and George IV……

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