War Of 1812 Bicentennial Approaches: Americans Largely Uninterested (But Probably Should Be)

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Posted: June 16, 2012

War of 1812 - Battle of New Orleans

18 June marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

Now, if you are like most Americans, you may have dealt with the War of 1812 briefly, in high school, before shuffling it off to the dusty corner of your brain where you keep all that impractical, unimportant information you’ve accumulated like the specific gravity of water and the role of symbolism in the Great Gatsby.

This is not to say that the bicentennial is going unnoticed.  USA Today reports that the first big battle of the war – the Battle of Queenston Heights – is set to be re-enacted this fall along the Niagra River in Ontario.  But unlike the historical battle, participants in this struggle will be exclusively Canadian.

As it happens, the War of 1812 is a big deal for Canada, and it’s not surprising why.  The War of 1812 helped forge Canada’s national identity as Canadian soldiers (then under the British Crown) repelled several American attempts to invade.

The war demonstrated that Canadians are surprisingly resilient under pressure (which they demonstrated again during World War II), and that American attitudes towards Canada haven’t changed all that much in two hundred years (Thomas Jefferson predicted that conquering Canada would be a “matter of marching”).

Americans’ unfamiliarity with the War of 1812, by contrast, is not terribly surprising.  On 17 May 1944, General George S. Patton famously stated that “America loves a winner…America plays to win.  That’s why America has never lost and will never lose a war.”  Of course the next two wars that America fought after World War II were a tie (Korea) and a loss (Vietnam), respectively.  But Patton wasn’t correct in saying this even in 1944; his own grandfather was a veteran on the losing side of the Civil War, a conflict that roughly half the nation, while American, definitively lost.  And of course there was the War of 1812, which ended as a tie.  Sort of.  America has a nasty habit of ignoring its military failures.

So it’s not really your fault entirely if you are unfamiliar with the War of 1812 (and in all honesty, I myself knew nothing about it until taking a 19th Century American History class in college).  The Patton quote doesn’t so much reflect the nation’s actual military history so much as it accurately reflects United States’ attitude towards it.  To this day the Army won’t admit that it lost Vietnam, citing the fact that it wasn’t technically a war (Fun fact #1, the last time Congress officially declared war in World War II.  Seems like we’ve fought a few wars since then, doesn’t it?).

But what you probably don’t realize is that we Americans probably ought to care about the War of 1812, the conflict that gave us our national anthem, a little bit more than we do.  As foreignpolicy.com correctly notes, it was actually pretty important.

The call for war with Great Britain in 1812 was massively popular with some in the U.S.  Many Americans saw the war as a second Revolutionary War – a chance to demonstrate that the United States was its own master by beating its former ruler again.  And that notion isn’t entirely untrue.

Still, the war didn’t go terribly well for the United States.  New England as a region was vehemently opposed to the war; the Federalist Party that controlled the region very nearly led a secession from the rest of the nation that was dominated by the Jeffersonian Republican party of then-president James Madison (Fun fact #2, that party was actually the precursor to the modern Democratic party.  Go figure!).  After the war the Federalist Party’s bad attitude effectively castrated its political influence and ushered in the “Era of Good Feelings,” so-named because it represented the only period of American history during which one party reigned unopposed.

The war demonstrated that James Madison (often styled as the Father of the Constitution), by all accounts a brilliant political philosopher, was actually a pretty milquetoast president.  The most sterling example of his capabilities as a wartime president has to be the British invasion of Washington D.C., which was such a surprise that Madison and company had to flee the White House to escape the British soldiers just as the president was preparing to eat dinner.  After the Madisons beat a hasty retreat, British soldiers found themselves a nice meal, and then by way of after dinner entertainment set about burning down the capital.  Madison’s military leadership rankled his Secretary of State, James Monroe (the fifth and subsequent U.S. President), who after the aforementioned episode took on the additional role of Secretary of War in 1814.  Monroe drafted plans for yet another invasion of Canada, but the war ended before he managed to launch the scheme.

The War of 1812 also served to put Andrew Jackson (of $20 bill fame) on the map.  The British and United States agreed to stop the fighting with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814; the British were uninterested in continuing the war as Napoleon Bonaparte’s pesky attempts at conquering Europe proved a more pressing issue, and the United States, if it isn’t clear by this point, didn’t have much going for it at the time militarily and agreed to stop because it had run out of money.  The catch is, a certain British fleet didn’t get word of the end of the war in time and went ahead with its planned invasion of Louisiana, where the hapless Brits ran into Andrew Jackson and his army.  The British were soundly defeated in the only really meaningful victory of the war for Americans (which occurred after the war had already ended) and the timing of the victory gave Americans of the time an excuse to go ahead and call the War of 1812 a win anyway.  With the help of his new fame, Jackson went on to become the seventh President of the United States.

While the War of 1812 wasn’t quite the shining nationalistic moment for the United States that it was for Canada, it certainly had its moments.  And though it might be a stretch to suggest that it really did represent a second American Revolution, it was by no means inconsequential, and deserves to be given a bit more attention.

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