To the Editor:
We commemorate wars not for their glory – there is little of that in lives cut short, public wealth spent on destruction, and in the case of 1812, a national capital laid waste by British invaders – we honor what was gained.
So, as we observe the bicentennial of the War of 1812, we should ask the question: What was gained? In terms of the goals under which this country declared war against Britain, the answer is a distressing – precious little.
As a response to Britain’s impressment of thousands of U.S. sailors into the British navy, literally stealing them off their ships at gunpoint, it was an utter failure. In the end, the British refused to negotiate away what they considered their king’s sovereign right.
There was also a territorial objective. Canada beckoned to the north, and many believed that with Britain fighting the larger territorial ambitions of Napoleon in Europe, the crown’s troops could do little to prevent the Americans from taking it. American success was such a foregone conclusion for most that Thomas Jefferson called Canada’s conquest ”a mere matter of marching.” While the United States did claim territory in the war, it was in the opposite direction – western Florida – and it was taken from Spain, not Britain.
America’s entrance into the war was a disastrous mistake for other reasons. Certainly few nations have ever been as ill-prepared to conduct a war they declared as the United States in 1812. The Navy, which was supposed to contend with the 600-ship British navy, consisted of just 16 ships.
The Army wasn’t even that well prepared. There were only 6,744 officers and men, with another 5,000 men in the volunteer militias. In the war’s first two months, three American forts were surrendered to British attackers, each without ever having fired a shot in its own defense.
Financially, the First Bank of the United States had gone out of business the year before, when Congress refused to extend its charter. By 1814, the country was borrowing money from a few of its wealthiest citizens at exorbitant interest rates, in a desperate effort to finance the war.
Yet for all that, there were some startling accomplishments.
His majesty’s navy, the most powerful military force on Earth, had dominated the navies of Europe, particularly after the destruction of a combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar seven years earlier. But the vastly outnumbered American navy not only matched the British, in 25 major ship engagements, the Americans won 13 – a stunning blow to the British idea of naval superiority.
Because American merchants could no longer import manufactured goods through a British naval blockade, an entrepreneur named Henry Cabot Lowell built a cotton mill on the Waltham River. That mill brought to these shores the industrial revolution Britain had so desperately tried to preserve as a national monopoly.
Even the Erie Canal, which did so much to make New York the Empire State, was a legacy of the war. Transporting supplies and weapons to troops fighting on the Great Lakes frontier had proved incredibly difficult. Among the stated reasons for the 1817 legislation authorizing the canal was to ”mitigate the calamities of war, and enhance the blessings of peace, consolidate the union, and advance the prosperity and elevate the character of the United States.”
Perhaps the most important legacy of the war is that this country gained a new sense of national identity: Both our national anthem and the figure of Uncle Sam are legacies of that war.
Like the world wars that followed in the next century, 1812 advanced America’s role on the world stage. That’s something the far larger Civil War did not do. Just eight years after the United States and Britain signed the treaty of Ghent, on Christmas Eve 1814, President James Monroe issued a doctrine warning the nations of Europe to stay out of this hemisphere’s affairs.
What made the Monroe Doctrine credible was the way this country faced Britain in the War of 1812. So as we mark this bicentennial, let’s celebrate what was gained.
Tom Shanahan lives in Schodaack Landing, near Albany. He is a speaker in the New York Council for the Humanities’ bicentennial commemoration series of lectures on the War of 1812.