June 6, 2012 — This year marks the bicentennial of a war most people don't often think about.
While the United States marks the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812, fought between the U.S. and Great Britain, will pass largely unnoticed.
Not by John Stagg, the editor of the Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia. He's the author of "The War of 1812: A Conflict for a Continent," published in March by Cambridge University Press, which examines the war that was the central event of Madison's presidency.
"The war was necessary for the United States to vindicate its neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars," Stagg said. "Since Americans equated neutrality with the fact of their independence from Great Britain, and the British did not respect American neutral rights, Americans felt that independence itself was in peril. So a 'second war for independence' became necessary."
While the Civil War redefined the nation, the War of 1812 helped define it in the first place. "The Star Spangled Banner" stemmed from the War of 1812; so did the Battle of New Orleans and the burning of Washington, D.C.
"Americans have forgotten the rest – the invasion of Canada and the temporary loss of U.S. territory," he said. "If U.S. forces had succeeded, Canadians could have been U.S. citizens today."
The War of 1812 came about because the British navy was violating American neutral trading rights and impressing American seamen. During the Napoleonic Wars, neither Great Britain nor France seemed concerned about the United States. What was unclear was the point at which the U.S. would fight to assert its rights.
In previous crises with Great Britain, presidents had avoided war, but in the summer of 1811 Madison concluded that the point had been reached at which the country would have to fight.
"Looking at it in hindsight, it seems a silly and unnecessary war, but the view from hindsight is predicated on our knowing how things turned out," Stagg said. "We know that Napoleon was overthrown in 1814. If the United States had done nothing for two years, it would not have had to go through the war. But in 1811 and 1812, no one was predicting that Napoleon would not be around for a long period of time."
He noted that at the time of the war, about 60 percent of the residents of "Upper Canada" (present-day Ontario) had migrated recently from the United States. "Land was easy to get in Canada and the locals were ambivalent about the war and their conduct was ambiguous," Stagg said.
But the war was largely a disaster for the United States. Its invasion of Canada failed and for a while it lost territory in both Michigan and the District of Maine. The British attacked multiple points on U.S. territory and much of Washington was torched.
The war ended with a treaty that effectively settled none of the issues of the war. But the U.S. had survived and maintained its sovereignty.
Afterward, the war was big business, with people writing books and plays and poems about it, and for years political candidates touted their exploits in the conflict.
"Without the War of 1812, it is unlikely that Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison could ever have won the White House," Stagg wrote in his book, "and between 1824 and 1852 many other candidates for the office of president and vice president similarly drew on their war records to justify their election.
"The Battle of Thames, for example, produced not merely one president and one vice president of the United States, but also, in Kentucky alone, three governors, three lieutenant governors, four U.S. senators and a score of congressmen."
The War of 1812 also boasted naval battles, including one that resulted in the USS Constitution's sinking of the frigate HMS Guerriere off Nova Scotia. While most of the naval conflicts were insignificant to the outcome of the war, Stagg noted that the modern U.S. Navy is marking some of the war's naval victories.
"The free flow of commerce is absolutely essential for our prosperity and that of other nations," retired Adm. Gary Roughead wrote on a Navy website. "As the past continues to inform the present and guides us to the future, the War of 1812 celebration will commemorate our rich history and heritage, positively influence the millions of Americans who come to see us, and showcase and demonstrate the capabilities of today's Navy."
The War of 1812 shaped the country in other ways. Jackson's campaigns in the South, for example, defeated the Creek Indians and destroyed much of the Indian political structure, consolidating control over the region, something that could not taken for granted before the war. Cotton became king, leading to an antebellum agrarian economy built on slave labor and setting the stage for the Civil War, Stagg said.
While the War of 1812 has faded from U.S. memories, Canadians still remember it fondly, because they repelled the American invaders. "Their federal government has appropriated $30 million for a celebration," Stagg said. "The Canadians started planning this two or three years ago."
Stagg said many Madison biographies give scant attention to his presidency, focusing on the early years of his life, the forming of the republic and the drafting of the Constitution. Yet "he was the only president to be driven from the capital by invaders," Stagg said.
"We have a triumphalist history, going from greater to greater," he said. "This is an embarrassment, three years we would rather forget about – a nightmare from the nation's childhood."
– by Matt Kelly