This summer marks 205 years since the United States declared war on the British Empire, a brief, but critical, conflict that became known as the War of 1812. This is a good opportunity to pause and take stock of its historical significance and relevance today.
The explosion in historical studies prompted by the bicentennial rehabilitated the War of 1812 from a widely disregarded conflict studied by a handful of specialists into the mainstream. The War of 1812 has received a modern makeover: scholars probed the conflict from every angle, considering the roles of race, gender, religion, technology, sectionalism, public opinion, nationalism, Atlantic and global contexts, and more. Included in these studies is some of the best historical scholarship of our young century, and historians and their students unquestionably have a better understanding of the complexities and significance of the war and the era as a whole than ever.
But will the War of 1812 slip back into historical irrelevance in the decades to come?
It might, but it should not. For starters, the War of 1812 provides useful lessons about the relationships between military power, public opinion, and wars’ outcomes. Britain was unquestionably the superior power in 1812, yet it failed to achieve a decisive victory primarily due to the constraints of domestic politics and public opinion. Even tied down by ongoing wars with Napoleonic France, the British had enough capable officers, well-trained men, and equipment to easily defeat a series of American invasions of Canada. In fact, in the opening salvos of the war, the American forces invading Upper Canada were pushed so far back that they ended up surrendering Michigan Territory. The difference between the two navies was even greater. While the Americans famously (shockingly for contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic) bested British ships in some one-on-one actions at the war’s start, the Royal Navy held supremacy throughout the war, blockading the U.S. coastline and ravaging coastal towns, including Washington, D.C. Yet in late 1814, the British offered surprisingly generous peace terms despite having amassed a large invasion force of veteran troops in Canada, naval supremacy in the Atlantic, an opponent that was effectively bankrupt, and an open secessionist movement in New England.
Why did Britain quit while it was ahead? The reigning Liverpool ministry in Britain held a loose grip on power and feared the war-weary, tax-exhausted public. The War of 1812 had never been popular, particularly in the central and northern manufacturing regions of England, who relied heavily on American markets. Following peace with France, the government feared the true cost of the war with America would be exposed. So the British abandoned their initially harsh terms (which included massive forfeiture of land to Canada and the American Indians) in favor of a quick peace.
The War of 1812 also debunks long-held suppositions that freely elected governments and economic partners do not go to war against each other. The United States and Britain were both governed by elected governments (with the very large caveat that women, slaves, and the poor were excluded from formal participation) that were acutely sensitive to public opinion. The British colonies that would become Canada also enjoyed elected colonial assemblies—some of whose members opted to fight on the side of the United States! They were tied by a common culture and kinship, with the vast majority of Americans tracing their roots to the British Isles and many of Canada’s inhabitants tracing their roots to the United States, and tightly bound economically. The United States was Britain’s overseas market and breadbasket, acting as the main supplier of grain for Britain’s forces in European and West Indian slave colonies, even after the War of 1812 started. Meanwhile, Canada was an economic satellite of the U.S. The bulk of Upper Canada’s (now Ontario’s) settler population were ‘late loyalists’—Americans seeking economic opportunities who emigrated in the decades following American independence. Such ties partly led to the widespread assumption of an easy conquest, or what Thomas Jefferson boasted would be ‘a mere matter of marching’.
Perhaps most importantly, the War of 1812 is a poignant reminder that the subjectivity of ‘facts’ has a long history. Then, as now, public perception could trump reality. The war’s conclusion and immediate legacy is a clear example. The Treaty of Ghent, which brought peace between the U.S. and the British Empire, declared no formal winner and called for a reinstatement of borders to their prewar status. Technically, this meant British victory, because the U.S. failed to achieve the aims listed in its declaration of war. Contemporaries, however, saw it otherwise. Few in Britain declared the war a success, with the London Times, the most popular newspaper of the day, reflected popular sentiment in a long series of editorials that bitterly lamented Britain’s defeat. In Canada, savvy colonists sought to boost their standing by propagating the false notion that Canada’s survival was owed to the inhabitants’ loyalty, unity, and stoic endurance of great hardships—forging the heart of Canadian founding mythology. In reality, many Canadians fought alongside the Americans, militia turnout was abysmal, and colonists often resented British forces, whose presence disrupted trade and resulted in forced requisitioning of food from hard-pressed farmers, as much as the American ‘invaders’.
In the U.S., President Madison and his supporters declared victory with celebrations that embraced the War of 1812 as a second war of independence. The interpretation of the war as an American success had significant consequences. The hero of these victory legends became Andrew Jackson. A popular Boston broadside exclaimed at the news of peace by calling Jackson “a second Washington”. Populist Andrew Jackson personified many qualities of the new American spirit; President Trump, eager to draw similarities between his paradigm-shifting agenda and America’s past, has recently embraced Jackson as a kindred spirit. To Jackson’s supporters and perhaps to himself, he was a no-nonsense, messiah-like outsider who would cleanse the capitol of corruption and lead the U.S. to its ‘manifest destiny’ to dominate North America. To Jackson’s opponents and victims, he was a crass bully who violently doled out his beliefs on his political opponents, African Americans, American Indians, and Spanish colonists who he insulted, enslaved, killed, and dispossessed both during the War of 1812 and afterwards as the seventh President of the United States. Unlike Trump, Jackson’s victory of the popular vote, left the opposition in tatters and his own party supplicant, enabling him to easily secure a second term and lasting legacy.
Featured Image credit: Action between U.S. Frigate Constitution and HMS Java, 29 December 1812, Painting in oils by Charles Robert Patterson. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.