Sunday, August 24, 2014

What Was the War of 1812 About?

Two hundred years ago today the British burned down Washington. They invaded, and the Americans retreated. Dolley Madison saved the painting of George Washington, but that was a small consolation for all that was lost. Honor, hope, dreams.

Nobody remembers the War of 1812 today, except for a handful of historians, largely because there is no consensus as to what this war was about. Other wars carry handy labels:

The American Revolution -- "No taxation without representation."

The Civil War -- On the winning side it is known as "the war to free the slaves". On the losing side, it is known as "The War Between the States", and the cause is "States' Rights."

World War I -- "The War to End All Wars." People laugh, but they still remember that.

World War II -- "The War against the Nazis." I know that is not an official label, and of course that Japan was also involved, but when certain people cite WWII as a "moral war", that seems to be what they mean.

The undeclared wars that happened after WWII are as problematic as the Quasi-War with France. So is the Spanish-American War. But the War of 1812 is the one most people will readily admit that they know nothing about and never really understood.

It may very well have been the war to pay for the Louisiana Purchase. It was the war that was won by privateers, but it was also the war that put an end to privateering. It may have been the war that put an end to our belief that we could live without a standing army. Some see it as the second war of American independence, but ultimately it was a war that had us very much a vassal of Britain for quite some time. It was a war that was won in the Battle of New Orleans but lost in Ghent with the signing of a treaty that pre-dated that battle.

The Signing of the Treaty of Ghent.
Admiral of  James Gambier is shaking hands with U.S. Ambassador  John Quincy Adams

None of the American aims in declaring the War of 1812 were accomplished. No reparations were made by the British for the damage they did during the war, both by burning Washington and in all their other forays on American soil, including most notably The Sack of Hampton.

The War of 1812 may be neglected by history teachers in the schools because the way it was managed was embarrassing, but it is well worth studying in order to understand how we came to be where we are today.

To learn more about the war itself, and the part Jean Laffite played in it, read this novel.

The Battle Against Britain

For a better understanding of the aftermath of that war, read this one.

The War Against Spain

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