The War of 1812

Painting of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

The War of 1812 is often a forgotten war in modern times. It was a war that tested the Americans’ resolve in staying an independent nation and ultimately a war that brought together Americans in a way that no previous event had. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 699.

It was also a war that brought about seemingly unusual events, particularly in retrospect. For example, the Americans, led by William Hull, planned and attempted a three-pronged attack on Canada. Id. at 677. Then, perhaps even stranger, the governor of Massachusetts entered into negotiations “with the British, offering part of Maine in return for an end to the war.” Id. at 693.

Ultimately, the British invaded the United States and made an unexpected march directly on Washington, burning much of it to the ground. That was the extent of damage in America, however, and both countries entered into negotiations of a peace treaty. President James Madison led the way in negotiating a treaty with Britain, the Treaty of Ghent, which would peacefully end the war. Id. at 697.

President Madison, a Jeffersonian Republican, conducted himself with the logic that it was better “to allow the country to be invaded and the capital burned than to build up state power in a European monarchical manner.” Id. at 698. Madison’s skillful handling of the war would result in 57 “towns and counties throughout the United States” being named after him, “more than any other president.” Id. at 699 citing Forrest Church, So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (New York, 2007), 350. John Adams told Thomas Jefferson in 1817 that Madison had “acquired more glory, and established more Union than all his three Predecessors, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, put together.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 699 quoting John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 2 Feb. 1817, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill, 1959), 2: 508.

Thomas Jefferson concluded in 1818 that “[o]ur government is now so firmly put on its republican tack that it will not be easily monarchised by forms.” Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 23 Nov. 1818, in Gilbert Chinard, ed., The Letters of Lafayette and Jefferson (Baltimore, 1929), 396.

The War of 1812 has many quirks, as discussed above but perhaps most notably was the Battle of New Orleans, which took place after the Treaty of Ghent was signed but before word had reached the whole country. The Battle of New Orleans, led on the American side by Andrew Jackson, inflicted massive casualties to the British. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 698.

Of course, the Star Spangled Banner was also a byproduct of the War of 1812 as well.

As forgotten as the War of 1812 may be, it had significant consequences for the future of the country. America became a unified country, with the collective hardship of fighting the British twice creating a bond between Americans that would be strong, even if short-lived. It also was a war that illustrated the Republican principles of Madison and Jefferson could be successful. This set the stage for Republican dominance in politics, which was already underway by the time the War of 1812 began.

While the Civil War would eventually come to define the 19th Century for America, with its horrific nature and result of keeping the country united, the War of 1812 ensured that there was an America worth fighting for. Had the War of 1812 not occurred, perhaps the Civil War would have been waged differently and perhaps the course of American history would have had a noticeable absence of patriotism. While it is impossible to predict, the wise decisions of American leaders in those tumultuous years and those who fought for their young country give modern Americans much to be thankful for.


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