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War of 1812 Caricatures


Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation. 


After the American Revolution, relations between the United States and Great Britain remained strained. In its long war with France, Britain imposed a blockade on neutral countries, including the United States, that disrupted shipping and trade. Additionally, the British seized sailors from American ships and impressed them into the British navy. In 1812, Congress approved a declaration of war, and the United States was soon fighting a war with the motto "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights."

The battles ranged throughout the United States and into Canada, with naval battles fought in the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. In Virginia, the British blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and raided coastal settlements. In August 1814, the British marched into Washington, D.C., and set fire to the Capitol and the White House. Days later, the city of Alexandria, which had no forces to defend it, surrendered to the British who promised not to destroy the town if the citizens surrendered all naval stores, shipping, and merchandise being exported. In September, the British attempted to capture Baltimore, Maryland, but were repulsed by the American troops at Fort McHenry. The war ended when the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814.

These two engravings by Scottish-born artist William Charles (1776–1820) contrast the resistance—or lack thereof—to the British invasions of Alexandria and Baltimore. As their cities fell under attack, citizens were left with a difficult choice: fight the invaders and risk losing everything, or submit and hope for mercy. In the drawings, the Baltimore militia chooses resistance and surprises John Bull (the symbol of England) with their ability to defend their city. In the other drawing, John Bull forces the Alexandrians, who are depicted as cowards, to forfeit all their goods. The prints were likely intended to be sold together as companion pieces.

Citation: "Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians" and "John Bull and the Baltimoreans," lithographs by William Charles, 1814. Special Collections, Prints & Photographs, Library of Virginia.


Social Studies: GOVT.1 VUS.1
Art: 4.1, 5.1

Suggested Questions

Preview Activity

Look at It: Look at the caricatures. What do you immediately notice about them? Who do you think the Bull represents? Why?

Post Activities

Analyze: Read the transcriptions for the caricatures. Based on the information, what does the information provided reveal about the repercussions for the decisions made in Alexandria and Baltimore?

Another Perspective: Pretend you are a citizen of a city under invasion. What course of action would you take in relation to your invaders? What are the pros and cons of your plan?