Anniversaries are catnip for historians. They concentrate attention, they stimulate conversation, and the public likes them too. Just look at Lyndon Johnson—50 years later, a once unpopular president is all over the news, with a Broadway play to boot. But not all anniversaries can be compressed into a peppy Twitter feed, and the summer of 2014 will bring a flurry of complex opportunities for reflection. LBJ’s partisans, riding high over the Civil Rights Act of July 1964, will have to confront the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August. We will also see the centennial of the world’s failure to avert war in the summer of 1914.
Then there is another anniversary, below the radar, which New Englanders have safely ignored these past two years. If you haven’t heard much about this bicentennial, there’s a good reason. Nearly everything about the War of 1812 was uncomfortable, and remains so. It is there in the back of our minds—a half-second of recognition during “The Star-Spangled Banner” or a glimpse of the USS Constitution from a traffic jam on the Zakim Bridge. But it remains obscure, or just as often, misunderstood, its frustrations enshrouded by patriotic bunting.
Here in New England, there are special reasons to remember. The war severely tested the region, especially in the late summer of 1814, when the British seized eastern Maine, forced Nantucket to sign a neutrality agreement, and conducted raids at will along the coast, including into Boston itself. At that low ebb—the last time New England was invaded—local leaders seriously contemplated noncompliance with the war, and some whispered of secession from a government that appeared to be in collapse. This August marks the 200th anniversary of what was surely the all-time low for the American military—the burning of the White House by British regulars, marching with impunity through the heartland. When peace finally came, it resolved none of the issues that had led firebrands to push for war. Last week, the Pulitzer in History went to Alan Taylor, who argued that the war marked an advance in freedom for African-Americans—the ones who fled from the United States and joined the other side. No wonder we don’t celebrate it much.
But to ignore all this is a mistake. History becomes more interesting when it’s hard. The War of 1812 deserves a bicentennial—not because of its triumphs, but because it sheds light on the complexity of conflict, and the way that wars metastasize as they drag on. That may be instructive at a moment when interventionists are blaming President Obama for a “feckless” foreign policy, and the world’s nationalists are all too easily brought to a boil.
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.
Despite New England’s antipathy to the war, it furnished much of the manpower and money needed to fight it—19 Army regiments and a naval hero in Oliver Hazard Perry. But in the summer of 1814, the British began to close in. In addition to the coastal raids, an army was poised to invade from Canada, and Americans seemed powerless to stop them. At the same time, news was filtering back to Boston that the British had entered Washington, and that President Madison had fled in disgrace. The British troops torched the White House, after helping themselves to a meal that had been set. An eyewitness recorded that “the whole building was wrapt in flames and smoke” and “the spectators stood in awful silence.”
Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “the Union has never been so weak, or national prestige so low, as in that first week of September 1814.” At precisely that moment, Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics that would become “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a song whose eternal optimism does not quite conceal the alarming military reality that bombs are bursting in the air.
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.
Fortunately, at that very moment, John Quincy Adams was conducting the peace negotiations at Ghent that would finally end the bitter war, with almost no concessions from either side. After the treaty was signed, but before the news had reached America, Andrew Jackson repulsed the British at New Orleans, which created an enduring myth that the United States had won “the Second War of Independence.” Reality was less glorious.
To this day , scorch marks remain in the basement of the White House, a legacy of that night in August 1814. (I remember seeking them out in the 1990s, when working there—they seemed to give off heat.) That extraordinary insult to the United States did not prevent the special relationship from developing between the United States and Britain over time, thanks to some strategic amnesia on both sides. A new White House was built over the foundations of the old, and American history continued likewise, not too badly damaged. To an impressive degree, the mythmakers of the era were able to turn its indignities into a lasting set of symbols, including the USS Constitution, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Don’t give up the ship!” which turned a bungled naval engagement into a rallying cry. The war’s chief monument may have been Andrew Jackson, who converted his victory at New Orleans into a two-term presidency.
Two hundred years later, we can ask tougher questions—and what better way is there to celebrate the anniversary? At a time when wars still begin from loose nationalist sentiments, it is worth taking some time to come to terms with a chapter that has never been easy to write. We have seen more than our share of glory in these parts—the Freedom Trail is one rush of adrenaline after another. But the War of 1812 holds different rewards. It remains a cautionary tale, to presidents and historians alike, about wars begun incoherently, and then conveniently repackaged.
Over time, it has reverberated in surprising ways. After they pulled back from the brink of secession, New Englanders like Daniel Webster became prominent nationalists—defending the Union against the secessionist Southerners who carefully studied New England’s methods in 1814. A generation later, all the polarities were reversed.
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.
Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University and a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. His column, “Hindsight,” will appear monthly in Ideas.