“Strange indeed did it appear to me to find so many names, familiar household words, as enemies—the very names of officers in our own army. … How uncomfortably like a civil war.” —British Lt. John Le Couteur upon visiting an American Army camp (1813)
Americans, sadly, know little of their own history. Who among us recalls anything about the War of 1812? Few, if any. What those few do tend to remember are patriotic anecdotes from a long-ago war: Andrew Jackson mowing down foolish redcoats at the Battle of New Orleans; Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington just before the British burned down the capital; Francis Scott Key penning “The Star Spangled Banner” as he observed the bombardment of Fort McHenry.
These are carefully selected snapshots in an otherwise hazy war. None of this comes together—except in the minds of academic historians—into anything resembling a coherent tale. Why did we fight? Was it necessary? Did we win? The cherry-picked anecdotes of jingoism answer none of these vital questions, but ask them we must. The decision to take a nation to war, to send young men into combat, is a solemn one indeed. And the War of 1812 is one of only five wars the United States has officially declared.
The conflict deserves our attention for the last reason alone, but also because the war and its complexities are instructive to today’s engaged citizen. Though it is rarely remembered this way, in some ways this was a civil war, fought between men who spoke the same language, practiced the same religion and had remarkably similar customs. It was also a war of conquest, suffered worst by the native peoples of the Ohio Country and Upper Canada. It was, too, a sideshow theater of the broader Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815); as historian Gordon Wood wrote, “The U.S. was born amidst a world at war.”
This much is certain: It was a peculiar war, full, in equal measure, of paradox and farce. Thousands died, but little was gained. In some cases brother fought brother. And, in a strange tinge of irony, the side that best championed liberty was not always American. For all its complexity, perhaps because of it, the War of 1812 deserves a fresh look, and our attention.
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“[The War of 1812 was] a metaphysical war, a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport, [but rather] a war for honour, like that of the Greeks against Troy.” —Republican politician John Taylor of Virginia
Why fight another war with Great Britain? Why fight it in 1812? These are, and were, important questions for the leaders of the nascent American republic. Most histories, and most rhetoric of the day, focused on British insults inflicted upon the American state. Much of the controversy was naval, and involved the American struggle to protect its neutral rights to trade with any and all of the warring parties in Europe. Impressment—the British practice of boarding U.S. merchant ships and capturing or forcing the enlistment of American sailors (the Brits claimed they were all British navy deserters)—was considered the most heinous affront of all.
Still, this was an odd grievance to start a war over. After all, the British Empire had a massive army and unparalleled naval strength. The young American republic was unprepared for war and nearly defenseless. Besides, the British had a point. Though they often captured genuine American citizens, America’s own secretary of the treasury estimated that up to one-third of American sailors were indeed British deserters. And it makes sense: The U.S. paid more, had lower standards of discipline and wasn’t at war! The British were at war; in fact they were engaged in an existential struggle with French Emperor (and continent conqueror) Napoleon Bonaparte. They neededthose deserters back to man the navy that protected the British Isles. Stranger still, soon after the U.S. declared war (this was a war of choice!), Britain repealed the Orders in Council, the very policy that resulted in impressment. Once President James Madison received word of this reversal, the U.S. might have rescinded the declaration and saved thousands of lives. It did not.
Part of the reason is this: The War of 1812 was about honor as much as anything else. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides claimed that nations go to war for either “fear, honor, or interest.” Wars fought primarily for honor rarely appear in the course of history, but this was one such case. The Americans felt the British had disrespected them, were trying to maintain the U.S. as a de facto colonial dependency. Many Republican (the party of Thomas Jefferson and Madison) leaders became avid “war hawks”—adding that term forever to the American lexicon—and believed that war with Britain would be a regenerative, purifying and unifying act. They would be proved wrong, but not before thousands perished in two and a half years of combat.
There were other motives for this war besides the affirmation of neutral rights and the reclamation of national honor. Many Westerners (who tended to be avid Republicans) had long coveted Canada, then a British colony. In fact, the Continental Army had previously attempted, unsuccessfully, to conquer Canada during the Revolutionary War. And, strikingly, the first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, claimed the province of Canada as a future state within the expanding American union. In 1812, “Free Canada!” became a rallying cry, and the U.S. would spend most the war in this fruitless endeavor. We were the invaders!
Other American Westerners, especially in the Ohio and Michigan Country, feared and loathed the Native Americans who had the gall to demand autonomy. Ever-expansive settlers wanted all land east of the Mississippi and saw war with Britain as a means to that end. The Brits, after all, were allegedly arming and funding the very native peoples who had the propensity to raid American settlements. The powerful native confederation—recently brokered by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh—had to be broken. War would make that possible.
Seen through a wider lens, the American declaration of war is discomfiting. By attacking Britain, the young republic was now tacitly allied with the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte of France in his ongoing war with the United Kingdom—a hypocrisy the British relished in pointing out.
There were many other ironies to this war. The British didn’t want it, and the weaker Americans insisted upon it. The war didn’t unite the country. On the contrary it fiercely divided the Federalist (which dominated in New England) and Republican (powerful in the South and West) political factions. Indeed, the Senate vote on the declaration of war was the closest in American history. The paradoxes just piled up. The Southern and Western senators voted for war, even though the impressment of American sailors most affected New England. The Republicans clamored for war even though their party supposedly hated standing armies and militarism. To wage this war, Madison and the Republicans would have to restrict trade, build a military establishment and coerce obedience—the very actions most abhorred in Republican ideology.
This would prove to be a strange conflict indeed.
David or Goliath: The Myths of 1812
“Many nations have gone to war in pure gayety of heart, but perhaps the United States were the first to force themselves into a war they dreaded, in the hope that the war itself might create the spirit they lacked.” —Henry Adams, great-grandson of President John Adams, in 1891
In Americans’ collective memory, then and now, the U.S. played David to Britain’s Goliath. Our fragile little republic, so the story goes, stood up to the bullying British and—just barely—saved our independence from the imperial enemy. But is it so? Just who was David and who was Goliath? That, of course, depends on one’s point of view.
In point of fact, the British were busy and spread thin. They had been at war with the powerful French on a global scale for some 19 years. The only British force within striking distance of the U.S. was in Canada, and this—in a stunning reversal of the popular myth—represented a stunning mismatch. There were barely 500,000 citizens in Canada, compared with about 8 million in the United States. The British had only a few thousand regular troops to spare for the defense of this massive Canadian landmass. The Americans might be unprepared, and might prove “bad” at war, but by no means was the initial deck stacked against the large and expansive American republic.
The myth of American defensiveness is also belied by a number of other inconvenient facts. The United States declared this war, a war that Britain had no interest in fighting. Furthermore, despite the exaggerated claims of war hawks and patriots of all stripes, this was not a Second War of Independence. There is no evidence that the British sought to reconquer and colonize the mammoth American republic. Any land seizures were planned to be used only as bargaining chips at an eventual peace settlement. Tied down in an existential war of its own, Britain had neither the capacity nor intent to resubjugate their former colonists.