Festival of sail helps New England reconnect with its history

The Boston Globe

July 03, 2012

This week’s harbor festival of sail commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is a time to recall the bravery of the men who fought in the conflict against Britain, and to hail the region’s thrilling and underappreciated naval heritage. It’s a great civic moment, and should become a touchstone for family memories for decades hence.

It’s too easy, in this era of downsizing and base closings, for New Englanders to distance themselves from their own military history. But the region has a long maritime tradition, and a robust connection to the seagoing services in particular. From the great battles of Boston’s own USS Constitution, which marked the emergence of the United States as a naval power, to the most recent conflicts, New England has known the pain of war, and the resolve of fighting for shared values.

Tomorrow, the Fourth of July, is also an occasion to celebrate that history — including the parts that get proportionally less attention than battles do in the history books. In fact, the War of 1812, like some of the nation’s more recent conflicts, has a complex legacy. In addition to establishing the nation’s credibility as a naval power and easing expansion into the West, it launched another enduring institution: the anti-war movement, a crucial expression of America’s freedom of speech.

The War of 1812 was the first waged by the fledgling nation that provoked widespread, sustained opposition — and nowhere was the antipathy stronger than in New England. Eight out of 10 of the region’s senators voted against the declaration of war. Once the conflict started, the Commonwealth’s then-governor, Caleb Strong, called for a public fast in atonement. Antiwar politicians swept the 1814 elections. The most extreme voices in New England favored seceding from the United States entirely to get out of the conflict; Harvard rewarded one of them, John Lowell, with an honorary degree in the thick of the debate.

Yet, despite the deep antiwar sentiment in New England, many Massachusetts sailors were among the crew of the USS Constitution when it won critical battles at sea, providing a huge boost to the nation’s morale. Those warriors are now an honored part of history. But so, too, should New England remember those who spoke in dissent. The ability to disagree publicly and insistently in the court of opinion, but also to rally to the national interest, are bookends of American patriotism. Both impulses are foundations on which the nation was built.

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