By TOM SHANAHAN, Commentary
Friday, December 30, 2011
On a late workday afternoon early last January, I visited the state Capitol’s Hall of Governors, reopened after 16 years of heightened security. As the framed visages returned my gaze, a door burst open, and a man in shirt-sleeves hurried down the hall.
“Governor?” I called out, and Andrew Cuomo came back to greet me, probably to the dismay of some speechwriter desperately trying to finish the next day’s State of the State address.
After introductions, he asked, “So what brings you here today?”
When I explained that I was taking advantage of the reopened historic space, we had a brief conversation about that history. Then he excused himself.
So how can a governor who takes time to discuss history with a stranger less than 24 hours before the first major speech of his administration, be accused of “indifference” about an important bicentennial?
That accusation, stemming from his veto of a bicentennial commission for the War of 1812, was the headline of a major newspaper story and repeated on history blogs across the nation.
Since about 50 percent of the war’s casualties occurred within a 35-mile radius of the Niagara River, New York should be anything but indifferent.
But let’s put this in context: More Americans died at the World Trade Center on 9/11 than were killed in battle during the entire War of 1812. Even for its time, the war was not particularly bloody. More men died at the battle of Borodino between Russia and France — celebrated in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — than wore American uniforms during the 2½-year conflict.
So, is it worth commemorating — especially in cost-conscious times?
Declaring war for the first time, Congress expressed its claimed indignation over British impressment of sailors at sea, by seeking to annex Canada. In two years, Washington was in flames, burned by marauding British troops. The war’s most decisive land battle, an American victory, was fought 15 days after the peace treaty was signed.
It produced defeats at places few Americans would recognize — Queenston Heights, Crysler’s Farm and Lundy’s Lane, all in Canada. New York knew the sting of defeat at places like Oswego, Ogdensburg, and a tiny frontier hamlet called Buffalo.
Still, the war gave us much.
It produced a victory, Fort McHenry, at the entrance to the Baltimore harbor, whose praises are literally sung every day, as our national anthem.
But a far more important victory took place three days earlier here in New York, when a full-scale British invasion, employing 10,000 veteran troops fresh from defeating Napoleon, was beaten back at Plattsburgh.
Even in recent years, New York has played a vital role in preserving the war’s history. Six years ago, the battle flag flown by Oliver Hazard Perry, proclaiming “Don’t Give Up The Ship,” was removed from its display at the U.S. Naval Academy, and restored at the state’s Peebles Island historic restoration facility.
So, is Cuomo truly “indifferent” to a war that provided new impetus for digging the Erie Canal, began the Industrial Revolution and gave the country new prominence on the world stage?
He is likely applying a lesson from that war. One reason for so many American defeats is that the country was financially unprepared, and went deep into debt merely to avoid losing. Refusing to commit funds the state doesn’t have, to commemorate a bicentennial, shows keen appreciation for that lesson.
But the governor’s appreciation for history seems anything but “indifferent.”
Last month, his office announced that the portraits in the Hall of Governors will be displayed chronologically, and that portraits of seven governors once relegated to storage will now be displayed. Among the new portraits will be Daniel D. Tompkins, New York’s governor during the War of 1812.
Tom Shanahan is a speaker on the War of 1812 for the New York Council for the Humanities‘ Speakers in the Humanities program (http://tinyurl.com/cffxmqu). He also heads the Shanahan Group, a government relations-communications firm.