It’s amazing what happens when you take a day to get some lecture writing done. I turned my back from social media for a day, and I return to find a fascinating discussion on Twitter about the War of 1812. The discussion was subsequently picked up on the blogs of Joe Adelman and Dael Norwood. The key question was whether there should be greater support for commemorations of the bicentennial. This blog post is going to offer a couple of facetious suggestions as to why there should be public commemorations of the War of 1812. Of course, in making these suggestions, I’m also demonstrating exactly why there isn’t a clamour for commemoration. But here goes:
1) The most stellar careers are never universally successful.
When we think of James Madison, we’re most likely to think of the Father of the Constitution. The worthy student of politics who invested so much of his time and energy to minute the Constitutional Convention. The author of some of the best writing on political behavior ever committed to paper. The democrat whose determination ensured the adoption of the Bill of Rights even when many of his contemporaries had moved on.
Not a bad list of achievements, by any means. But his record as President was far more in keeping with his small physical stature. Though obsessed for many years with preventing British attacks on American shipping and the impressment of seamen, his policies were disastrous. The Embargo of 1807 did little to affect Britain, though it did destroy the New England economy. The War of 1812, meanwhile, was a struggle from the start, with the New England states unwilling to commit militia. The absence of a national bank, whose charter had recently expired, made the war hard to finance. Not the record you’d hope for from a ‘war President’. Public attention to Madison’s executive career would be a salutary reminder that even the wisest of men aren’t able to achieve great things all the time.
2) There are limits to what governments are able to achieve in terms of policy, even in the realm of international relations.
The History Channel would like us to remember the War of 1812 as a ‘Redeclaration of Independence’. Yet to suppose that the War of 1812 is remembered in Britain as a defeat would be to stretch the imagination beyond belief (in other words, Americans, get over yourselves). It’s no accident that, as Dael points out, it is the Canadians who want to commemorate the war. After all, they did the really cool stuff, especially in burning down the White House.
The broader point is that for all that the US was able to claim victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the ‘victory’ (such as it was) had little to do with achieving the original aims of the war – to prevent British abuses on American naval power. Whether in embargoes on trade or in fighting, the federal government was unable to achieve its foreign policy aims. Government cannot always provide a direct solution to problems, no matter how great the resources it is prepared to use.
3) Public protest has always been a feature of American politics – even during times of war.
New England really did not like the War of 1812, or ‘Mr Madison’s War’, as they termed it. Let me restate that – they really, really didn’t like the War of 1812. They disliked it so much they went so far as to call a secret convention at Hartford to discuss changing the constitution to make sure that it could never happen again.
Of course, New England had the curse of bad timing. By the time they made their meeting public and went to Washington to seek constitutional amendments, the war was over and the country was celebrating the glorious triumph of Old Hickory in New Orleans. Consequently, the Federalists were all the more easily portrayed as unpatriotic and looking after number one, and never seriously competed on a national level again.
Yet I find it remarkable that such vehement dissent was tolerated. One of the key principles of my own research is that conflict is inherent in politics – and that this conflict can be inherently productive. In today’s world, I think it would be productive for both sides of the political divide to realize that protest and opposition has always been present in American history – even at times when the future of the nation was at stake. The opposition of the Hartford Convention failed – but it demonstrates there were real alternatives to Madison’s leadership. The outcome of the war (and the war-making powers of the Presidency) were by no means set in stone.
4) The outcome of events is often contingent on other, distant, uncontrollable events.
It is one of the famous ironies of history that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war ended. That didn’t make things any better for those killed, of course – but there wasn’t enough time for news of the Treaty of Ghent to reach the US before hostilities commenced. Why did peace come at this time? Well, because the USA was tiring of the war, and Britain was tiring of diverting resources to protect Canada when it really wanted to give Napoleon a good whipping instead. Without understanding an international context, the events ending the War of 1812 simply do not make sense. It’s a point that has been made by other authors in the past – but especially when it comes to military matters, small, seemingly insignificant factors can assume signal importance. Remembering the War of 1812 was a sideshow in a war convulsing the major world powers of the time would be another useful reminder that history sometimes requires a broader purview than investigating a narrow locality.
The War of 1812 ultimately demonstrates that history is not an uncomplicated victory march. It is, in some ways, the lack of memorable events which makes the war itself worth commemorating. War is not a glorious, pre-ordained victory march. Nor is it necessarily best characterized as a valiant struggle carried by self-sacrificing troops. It’s messy, there are winners and losers, and it reminds us of the limits of human actions. Salutary lessons, I submit, and worthy of wider reflection.