What do you know about the War of 1812? If you live in Boston, you know about the U.S.S. Constitution capturing the HMS Guerriere early in the war. If you live near the Great Lakes you know about Captain Oliver Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie. Everyone knows about the Fort McHenry and the writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” as well as Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans. And who can forget Dolley Madison saving the portrait of George Washington, But do you know why the war was fought in the first place?
In the Sunday Boston Globe, Ted Widmer had a long piece in the Ideas section titled “The silent bicentennial: In 1814, the US experienced everything you’d want to forget about a war. Which is exactly why we should be thinking about it now.” Although written from a New England perspective, Widmer has a number of interesting observations surprisingly relevant to national politics today.
After the fact, it was hard to remember exactly why war had broken out at all. The American Revolution had established the United States as an independent nation, but relations with England remained vexed—many Americans resented the motherland for its condescension, but also valued the memory of a shared heritage. In the years leading up to 1812, American tempers began to flare over the many ways the British conveyed their lack of respect for the upstart country, forcing American sailors to work on their ships and encouraging Indians to attack settlers in the interior.
Though serious at times, these irritants did not add up to grounds for war. England was America’s principal commercial partner, and wielded the greatest navy on earth. To anyone who participated in the maritime economy—as most of New England did—it was the height of folly to risk everything over a few insults.
Yet rhetoric, so easy to dish out, can be hard to take back. Driven by exuberant talk from Western and Southern politicians, Congress proposed a war measure in June 1812. New England and New York voted overwhelmingly against it, but it passed the Senate 19 to 13, and on that wobbly basis, the United States lurched into war. Its rationale was vague; its goals (which included some hope of gaining territory in Canada and Florida) were not entirely selfless; and it never resembled the kind of homegrown cause that had united the Colonists in 1775. On village greens around New England, church bells tolled in mourning.
Wars that are declared badly are often fought badly, and it soon became apparent that the United States was ill-prepared to wage a war against the world’s preeminent military power, whose troops had been toughened by years of fighting against Napoleon. The Republicans clamoring for war had balked at paying taxes, and voted down efforts to build up the Navy. Debt tripled. The War Department could never raise an army to even half the strength it sought, and had to resort to only 10,000 soldiers, who enlisted for a single year.
The young “War Hawks” in Congress were better at speeches than fighting. Henry Clay promised that he could conquer Canada with Kentucky militia; in the end, Kentucky only furnished 400 men. Among the many delusions was a belief that Canadians would surrender as soon as Americans appeared. They did not—in fact, many Canadians were former New Englanders who fought just as courageously as their cousins did, and to this day, memories of defeating the American invaders are as important to Canadians as Lexington and Concord are to Americans.
Sound kinda familiar?
It seems that despite voting against declaring war, New England ended up providing much of the money and manpower including Captain Perry and the Constitution.
Washington was burned and the “Star-Spangled Banner” written in late summer and early fall of 1814. But New England was tired and was looking for ways out.
Thoughout the fall, gloom settled around New England. In Boston, many leading citizens became furious at a stupid war going badly and began to threaten action. The Boston Gazette wrote, “If James Madison is not out of office, a new form of government will be in operation in the eastern section of the Union.” Madison was hanged in effigy in Augusta, Maine. Huge rallies filled Faneuil Hall. The Massachusetts House voted 406 to 240 to denounce the war as “awful” and “revolting.” The governor of Massachusetts, Caleb Strong, sent out secret feelers to his counterpart in Halifax. A new kind of flag was occasionally seen around New England, with five stars and five stripes—the five states of New England (Maine was then a district of Massachusetts). Throughout the interior, town meetings expressed deep feelings against the war—in much the same way that earlier generations had protested British tyranny. From these currents came a call for the New England states to convene a meeting at Hartford to consider options. The Hartford Convention began in December 1814, and to its credit, stopped short of any activity that might have led to New England breaking away from the United States. But it was a close call.
Another New Englander, John Quincy Adams, negotiated the Treaty of Ghent signed in December 1814 ending the war. Andrew Jackson didn’t hear about the Treaty until after the Battle of New Orleans. Just think, with modern communications, Jackson might not have become a hero and might not have become a two-term president. The war also had other unforeseen consequences.
The war had other unexpected legacies as well. Abraham Lincoln would later cite the heroism of African-American soldiers at New Orleans as an important precedent for allowing them to fight for the Union cause. Native Americans, on the other hand, were the clear losers of a conflict that did not produce much victory for anyone. Without the British to protect them, they were helpless before the relentless advance of settlers across the continent. That is not the most triumphant note for an anniversary reflection to end on. But how else do we commemorate a near-defeat, a conflict with an ally, and New England’s flirtation with secession? Perhaps by acknowledging the fragility of history itself, the fickleness of the forces that separate “victory” from “defeat,” and the many possible results in between.
Cover of sheet music for “The Star-Spangled Banner”, transcribed for piano by Ch. Voss, Philadelphia: G. Andre & Co., 1862
My class at St. John’s College in Annapolis will be holding its 45th reunion in September. Francis Scott Key was an alumni and we will be marking his anniversary by singing his anthem and setting of some fireworks. But I’ll also be thinking of the War of 1812 and unintended consequences.