A primer on America's most bumbling, most confusing, and most forgotten conflict
by James M. Lundberg
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, a fact that may elude all but the most committed enthusiasts of America's more obscure wars. Don’t expect coverage to compete with or even register alongside the steady drumbeat that has accompanied the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. It's hard to imagine a flurry of 1812 books flying off the shelves, or the New York Times commissioning a blog series about the conflict. Like Avogadro's number or the rules of subjunctive verbs, the War of 1812 is one of those things that you learned about in school and promptly forgot without major consequence.
There are plenty of reasons for this. The War of 1812 has complicated origins, a confusing course, an inconclusive outcome, and demands at least a cursory understanding of Canadian geography. Moreover, it stands as the highlight of perhaps the single most ignored period of American History—one that the great historian Richard Hofstadter described as “dreary and unproductive ... an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.”
Historians of the period and of the war may resent Hofstadter’s summary dismissal, but it offers some clues as to why neither is the subject of much popular interest. The very things that put Hofstadter off—the bumbling diplomacy, the bitter infighting, the ineptly executed war effort—force us to confront a vision of the United States that doesn’t generally fit our understanding of its origins. The war plays out as a disappointing second act to the Revolution, with the nation suddenly at the whim of Europeans and Indians and riven by internal dissent, and the heroes and heirs of 1776 acting without the pluck and ingenuity that we expect of them. How are we to commemorate that?
Uneasily, to be sure. But while Hofstadter was right in many ways, his broadside fails to register the war’s central place in the national story. The Revolution was supposed to have been a discrete event, one that created the indisputable fact of the American nation. Revisiting the War of 1812 reminds us that the nation remained incomplete in the early decades of the 19th century. The peculiar story of America’s second war with Great Britain is generally forgotten, but it was essential in affirming the legacy of the Revolution and the nation that it made.
The war was rooted in the tenuous diplomatic relationship of the United States with the traditional European powers. As much as Americans liked to see themselves as being providentially free from the wars and “entangling alliances” of the Old World, maintaining such freedom proved exceedingly difficult amidst the near constant war between France and Britain. When Napoleon’s reach for European hegemony renewed hostilities between the two countries in 1803, both sides implemented policies that denied American rights to neutral trade, making commerce with either an act of allegiance to one nation and hostility to the other.