‘1812: A Nation Emerges,’ at National Portrait Gallery
Published: June 25, 2012
WASHINGTON — Noah Webster’s American Dictionary. The Erie Canal. Uncle Sam. Andrew Jackson’s presidency. “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The beginning of the end for American Indians. “Don’t give up the ship!”
What episode, rarely referred to outside of high school history classes, lay behind those disparate phenomena? And not just those. Here are others:
¶Three more presidencies (John Quincy Adams, James Monroe and William Henry Harrison).
¶John Jacob Astor’s fortune.
¶The westward expansion of the United States.
¶The growth of New England manufacturing.
¶“We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
As we learn from a major new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery here, all this (and “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”) grew out of the War of 1812. It was, you recall, a war between the generation-old United States and its onetime master, Britain. It was fraught with posturing and missed cues, brilliant strategy and clumsy planning. Its beginning was overshadowed by Napoleon, who controlled much of continental Europe, had begun an invasion of Russia and had his eyes set on the conquest of Britain. The war’s ending left neither nation a victor and seemed to resolve no aspect of the conflict.
Yet on the occasion of the war’s bicentennial, this exhibition asserts that it had an even more profound impact than this list might suggest: It shaped a sense of American identity. The Revolutionary War established independence, but the War of 1812 forged a nation.
The exhibition, “1812: A Nation Emerges,” combines more than 100 artifacts and paintings, including loans from Canada and Britain. It displays some of the finest examples of early American portraiture, paintings of nautical battles (some of which yielded colorful proclamations), uniforms, a model ship, videos from the History channel, maps and drawings, early American flags and a few historical documents. Nothing here is in itself highly dramatic or revelatory. Yet the show’s curators, Sidney Hart, the senior historian of the Portrait Gallery, and Rachael L. Penman, an assistant curator, have harnessed this material to tell a compelling and vivid story (which can also be followed in the show’s catalog).
We learn first just how far from a world power the United States of 1800 was. Its new capital on the banks of the Potomac River was mostly a swampy wasteland. With Thomas Jefferson as president, and James Madison as his secretary of state (Gilbert Stuart’s famous portraits of each man are here), the nation’s approach to international conflicts — including the confrontations between Napoleon and the British — was to avoid them. Jefferson’s Embargo Act (of 1807) was actually a weird, self-imposed embargo, ending United States international trade altogether, imprisoning America’s ships in harbors rather than letting them maneuver around opposing French and British demands.
We learn, too, how the British regularly infringed on American sovereignty by stopping ships and “impressing” British “deserters” on board into service in the British Navy. The problem was partly that the British considered any British-born sailor a deserter if he came to the United States after 1783. It is estimated that 6,000 men were abducted from American ships.
But a bust of Napoleon here, once owned by Jefferson, is a reminder that Napoleon was the ghostly presence at this war, without whom it might never have happened. He had closed European ports to British trade, thus increasing international pressure. He later left the British so distracted that they never fully focused on the American war.
Debates raged in Congress over how much should be tolerated from the British, an issue made more urgent because of a strengthening alliance between the British and American Indian tribes. The final tallies in Congress voting for war: 79 to 49 in the House and 19 to 13 in the Senate. The bill was signed on June 18, beginning the War of 1812 (which was really the War of 1812-15).
The split in Congress reflected a division in the population, which is why the war’s earliest casualties were not from foreign attacks but from native strife. Henry Lee, a Revolutionary War hero, father of Robert E., and an opponent of the war (shown here in a Stuart portrait), was trapped in a Baltimore house with a newspaper editor who shared his views. Outside, riots raged. For their own protection, they were jailed. But angry citizens broke in. Lee never fully recovered from his wounds.
As for the war itself, the British Navy had 500 ships in service, the Americans only 17. So American ports were easily blockaded. American naval victories tended to be on inland waterways and lakes. The fighting seesawed back and forth inconclusively.
There is a marble statue here of a dying Indian warrior, Tecumseh, who had led his fighters into an alliance with the British and played an instrumental role in several early battles. But his death, and the course of the war itself, meant that never again would there be a similar military alliance of Indian tribes.
The high-water mark for the British came in the burning of Washington in 1814 (partly avenging the 1813 American torching of York — now Toronto). We see here a remarkable British cartoon of the time mocking the Americans, with President Madison (“Maddy”) fleeing the flames, running, we are told, “to his bosom friend,” Napoleon.
In real life, Madison’s wife, Dolley, apparently had the presence of mind to rescue the famous Stuart portrait of Washington as the president’s house was evacuated. She was also said to have fled with the red velvet drapes; one hypothesis is that a dress shown here, which she kept throughout her life, was made from that fabric.
The low-water mark for the British actually came after the Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814. The treaty ended the war by simply restoring earlier conditions, but not having heard the news, Jackson defeated the British in a dramatic battle in New Orleans.
So how, out of this assemblage of seemingly isolated battles with mixed results, did the war have such a profound impact?
It was, first, an emphatic demonstration that the United States’s autonomy was not something to be assumed, but had to be constantly affirmed. Out of the possibility of imminent failure, patriotic nationalism developed.
That was also what led Francis Scott Key to express his relief that the American flag “was still there” at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, despite a night of British bombardment. The wonder was not at victory but at survival. The exhibition here is content with reproductions both of his manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and of a Congreve rocket like those the British were firing.
And despite the war’s inconclusive end, it united many political opponents on at least one point: War preparation was a necessity; it was a way of ensuring peace. With the disintegration of the Indian military alliance, the path was also left open for the country’s westward expansion — and for the government’s continuing wars against the Indians.
In a final gallery results accumulate (though some were amplified by the war rather than fully caused by it). Because of the war’s nationalist spirit, a Troy, N.Y., supplier for meat to the Army, Samuel Wilson, who stamped his barrels “U.S.,” evolved into the figure “Uncle Sam.” Because of the boycott of British goods, manufacturing expanded in New England. Because battles extended over the entire country, it became clear how poor the roads were and how important it was that new modes of transportation be developed (including the Erie Canal). Because of the new national identity, Webster conceived of a standard-setting dictionary that might eliminate regionalism and affirm Americanized versions of British spellings.
And Astor’s fortune? It was partly from the fur trade before the war, but we learn that he also lobbied for an 1814 law that allowed only United States citizens to trap on American soil. Astor’s American Fur Company boomed. He bought Manhattan real estate and became the young nation’s most famous example of Old Money.
This exhibition is not revolutionary in its interpretation of the war, which is understood by many scholars in similar terms. But the show reveals how remarkable that war really was: When else has something affected so many with so much, when it so often seems so slight?
“1812: A Nation Emerges” is on view through Jan. 27 at the National Portrait Gallery, 800 F Street NW, Washington; npg.si.edu.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 26, 2012
An earlier version of this review misstated the timing of the Treaty of Ghent. It was signed in 1814, not 1815.