On the 200thanniversary of the War of 1812 Monday, NPR’s “Morning Edition” noted that this obscure conflict resulted in the sacking of Washington in 1814, but also gave us the Star Spangled Banner. This reassuring balance of costs and benefits makes for a tidy historical footnote while managing to gloss over the few reasons why the War of 1812 still matters today.
It matters mostly as an occasion for patriotic pomp and circumstance in the mid-Atlantic states and Canada where the war was fought. Maryland has issued a commemorative license plate, complete with bombs bursting in air. Replicas of the tall ships of that era are sailing in Baltimore Harbor. But the war also has some historical relevance. In Foreign Policy, James Traub calls the War of 1812, the “most important war you know nothing about.”
The War of 1812 matters because it was America’s first war of choice. The United States did not have to declare war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, to survive as a nation and indeed President James Madison did not want to. The newly founded United States was growing westward but the “war hawks” in Congress pressed for a conflict with America’s former colonial masters in the hopes of gaining even more territory to the north. The term “hawk” was coined in the run-up to the War of 1812 and the hawks of U.S. foreign policy have been with us ever since.