What great event in history happened in 1812? I put this question at the weekend to people I know, all history alumni, mostly English though there were also a couple of Germans in the group. It was by way of experiment, you see. Almost everyone gave the answer I expected – it was the year that Napoleon invaded
Russia (one mentioned the Battle of Salamanca in the Peninsular War!) If I had asked a wider audience, people with a reasonable grasp of history, I’m reasonably certain that I would get the same answer.
Now, if I change the audience, if I put the same question to Americans and Canadians I think it reasonable to assume that the majority would answer differently; the Americans almost certainly would. For 1812 was the year that
America went to war with Great Britain. It’s a conflict that is remembered in The Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem. That the young nation survived a war with a great imperial power was a source of pride. It’s also the source of one or two national myths.
England it really is the forgotten war, one which made little impact then or later. It’s different for the Canadians, who, in resisting American invasion, found their own particular pride which was later to blossom into nationhood. I’m not sure if they are planning to mark the bicentenary of the outbreak of the war, which falls next month, but Americans probably shall, if only to remember the Burning of Washington and the ‘rocket’s red glare’, as Old Glory fluttered above Baltimore’s Fort McHenry.
America that declared war on Great Britain on 18 June, beginning a struggle that was to last for over two years. American grievances were genuine enough, principally caused by British interference with commercial shipping, an essential part of the total economic blockade of France. Stung by this and other issues, including the impressment of seamen who claimed to be American citizens, Congress declared war on the urging of President James Madison.
It’s was really all a bit of a gamble.
Madison calculated that Britain would be fully preoccupied with the war in Europe. After all, most of the army was fully engaged in the Peninsular War; most of the navy was blockading the coast of Europe. Now with Napoleon about to enter Russia there could be no better time to attack, with land campaigns against the Canadian provinces and naval attacks on British shipping in the West Indies and North Atlantic. But he had gone to war with an army scarcely fit to fight, evidenced by the fiasco that followed the invasion of Canada. The tiny American navy performed creditably in single ship actions, but beyond boosting morale these had no lasting effect.
So far as
Britain was concerned the war was no more than a little local inconvenience. As Andrew Lambert writes in a recent article in the BBC History Magazine (When Washington Burned), the government had one central war aim: to make the Americans leave Canada alone. Canadian garrisons were reinforced but no troops at all were withdrawn from Wellington’s army in Spain. Above all, there was absolutely no intention of challenging American sovereignty, and to describe the struggle as ‘second American War of Independence', as some were wont to do, is a huge exaggeration. It might, with greater accuracy, be described as the War of Canadian National Integrity.
None of this was new to me. I was surprised, though, to learn of a mood of hysteria and hyperbole that gripped at least one prominent figure in American public life – former president Thomas Jefferson. A letter of his was quoted – with admiration - recently on Blog Catalogue. Dated 28 June 1812, when nothing significant had as yet happened, he wrote;
Our present enemy... may burn
New York, indeed, by her ships and congreve rockets, in which case we must burn the city of London by hired incendiaries, of which her starving manufacturers will furnish abundance. A people in such desperation as to demand of their government aut parcem, aut furcam, either bread or the gallows, will not reject the same alternative when offered by a foreign hand. Hunger will make them brave every risk for bread.
New York was untouched, though British forces did attack and burn parts of Washington, including the White House, in August, 1813, in retaliation for a previous burning of the town of York, now Toronto. Contrary to Jefferson’s expectations
London survived intact, untroubled by fictitious gangs of starving insurgents.
I said earlier that
Madison’s actions were a gamble. But there is more to this than the military imbalance involved. There was also a political gamble, one which exposed the latent tensions in the American system of government, tensions left over from the formation of the Union that were not fully resolved until the Civil War.
You see, his Democratic Republican Party did not have the confidence of the nation as a whole. He represented the sectional interest of the states of the South and the West, committed to expansionism. Opposition to the war was strongest in New England, where the states enjoyed good commercial relations with
Britain. There was even talk of secession as the war progressed. Trade with the enemy, moreover, continued, as the British blockade was relaxed on this section of the Atlantic coast. Wellington’s army continued to be fed with American grain.
For generations after American historians celebrated the War of 1812 as a ‘victory’, though such a view is only tenable if one adheres to the second War of Independence thesis. The truth is the whole thing was a glorious stalemate, one which crippled the American economy and stored up unresolved political problems. By the time Napoleon abdicated in April 1814 the British blockade was acting like an anaconda, strangling trade, government revenue and domestic consumption. By October of the same year
America was bankrupt.
The war was finally concluded officially by the Treaty of Ghent, signed in December 1814, though the embers continued to burn for some weeks after. There were no victors and there were no losers (setting the Western tribes to one side). It was a case of status quo antebellum – just the way we were. So, yes, while Americans sing that their flag is still there it’s as well to remember that it was never
England’s intention to take it away.