Happy 200th Birthday, War of 1812!
A primer on America’s most bumbling, most confusing, and most forgotten conflict.
Anton Otto painting depicting the victory of the USS Constitution over HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812
Painting by Anton Otto Fischer. Courtesy the Navy-Naval Historical Center.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, a fact that may elude all but the most committed enthusiasts of America's more obscure wars. Don’t expect coverage to compete with or even register alongside the steady drumbeat that has accompanied the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It's hard to imagine a flurry of 1812 books flying off the shelves, or the New York Times commissioning a blog series about the conflict. Like Avogadro's number or the rules of subjunctive verbs, the War of 1812 is one of those things that you learned about in school and promptly forgot without major consequence.
There are plenty of reasons for this. The War of 1812 has complicated origins, a confusing course, an inconclusive outcome, and demands at least a cursory understanding of Canadian geography. Moreover, it stands as the highlight of perhaps the single most ignored period of American History—one that the great historian Richard Hofstadter described as “dreary and unproductive ... an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.”
Historians of the period and of the war may resent Hofstadter’s summary dismissal, but it offers some clues as to why neither is the subject of much popular interest. The very things that put Hofstadter off—the bumbling diplomacy, the bitter infighting, the ineptly executed war effort—force us to confront a vision of the United States that doesn’t generally fit our understanding of its origins. The war plays out as a disappointing second act to the Revolution, with the nation suddenly at the whim of Europeans and Indians and riven by internal dissent, and the heroes and heirs of 1776 acting without the pluck and ingenuity that we expect of them. How are we to commemorate that?
Uneasily, to be sure. But while Hofstadter was right in many ways, his broadside fails to register the war’s central place in the national story. The Revolution was supposed to have been a discrete event, one that created the indisputable fact of the American nation. Revisiting the War of 1812 reminds us that the nation remained incomplete in the early decades of the 19th century. The peculiar story of America’s second war with Great Britain is generally forgotten, but it was essential in affirming the legacy of the Revolution and the nation that it made.
The war was rooted in the tenuous diplomatic relationship of the United States with the traditional European powers. As much as Americans liked to see themselves as being providentially free from the wars and “entangling alliances” of the Old World, maintaining such freedom proved exceedingly difficult amidst the near constant war between France and Britain. When Napoleon’s reach for European hegemony renewed hostilities between the two countries in 1803, both sides implemented policies that denied American rights to neutral trade, making commerce with either an act of allegiance to one nation and hostility to the other.
British policies and actions proved the most inflammatory. British ships patrolled the Atlantic, lurking close to American ports and subjecting American merchant vessels to search and seizure. The British used those searches to address a manpower problem in their navy. Renewing the practice of “impressment,” they seized sailors judged to be either defectors from British naval service or simply born British. Mistakes were common, leading American citizens to be dragged into the miseries of service in the British navy—miseries that Winston Churchill would later sum up with characteristic pith as “rum, buggery, and the lash.” Seizing sailors from merchant ships was bad enough, but offense turned to outrage in 1807 when a British frigate opened fire on an American naval vessel, killing three men before seizing four alleged Britons.
Though full-throated calls for war could be heard up and down the country, President Jefferson demurred. To begin with, the country was in no position to fight. Upon taking office, Jefferson had pared the military down to a bare-bones army and a navy of just a handful of ships ready for service. Aside from insufficient military might, Jefferson believed that wars and the armies and navies needed to fight them brought nothing but debt, taxes, more wars, and the destruction of republics. Better, he said, to bring the British to heel through a total embargo—a form of what he called “peaceable coercion” that would achieve the same ends as war at a fraction of the cost. The policy failed miserably, choking the economy and fanning an already intense opposition to Jefferson and his party among New Englanders that would carry into the war itself.
The next few years brought more provocations from the British, but still no war. Standing 5-foot-4, Jefferson’s successor James Madison shared a diminutive stature with Napoleon, but not, apparently, the dictator’s bellicose tendencies. Still hoping to avoid war, Madison asked Congress to pass a Non-Intercourse Act—not an early measure for abstinence education, but a slight loosening of Jefferson’s embargo that proved no more effective.
James Lundberg M. is an assistant professor of history at Lake Forest College.