Salutary Neglect and the War of 1812

Over at Slate.com, James Lundberg has asked why there is no clear public memory for the war which made Andrew Jackson famous. I’ve previously dealt with the topic of the War of 1812 on here before; in that post I made a slightly tongue-in-cheek argument for public commemoration, essentially arguing that cultivating public memory of obviously complicated events might inspire a more sophisticated consideration of the past in wider society. Today, though, I want to make a somewhat more serious argument.

By happy coincidence, this week I will be finishing my Early Republic course with a consideration of the War of 1812. As I told my class on Thursday, finishing the course in 1815 is a tricky finishing point, as it symbolizes a meeting point between the rising political figures of the Age of Jackson and the last remnants of the Revolutionary generation. Lundberg points out that 1812 sits in a period often considered moribund and lifeless, or, in the words of Richard Hofstadter, ‘dreary and unproductive … an age of slack and derivative culture’.*

And sure, the 1810s and 1820s might not have as many tales of derring-do and American awesomeness as the Revolution did. Then again, there’s a reason that the Revolution is such an epochal moment in world history – events like that don’t happen often. If they did, not only would the world be a much scarier place, but the Revolution would lose much of its exceptionalism.

It is harder to place the War of 1812 on such a historical pedestal in American public memory. This isn’t for want of trying – the recasting of the War as a ‘Redeclaration of Independence’ certainly had a rhetorical appeal for the History Channel. Ultimately, though, neither Americans nor the British care much to remember the whole affair. British Prime Minister David Cameron joked about this on a recent visit to the White House, saying “we so much more prefer talking about defeating the French.”

Many a true word is spoken in jest. For it is preposterous to think that the outcome of the war would have been so poor for the British had the USA not declared war at the end of a protracted European conflict. It was the desire and necessity of defeating Napoleon that exercised the great minds of Britain in 1815 – US belligerence was something akin to an annoying cousin yapping at you while trying to sort out a serious dispute with an angry neighbour. As Lundberg writes, ‘both sides proved able arsonists’, but lacked clearer final objectives. Even though the shadow of the Battle of New Orleans would be hugely significant in the course of American history, Britain treats the event to this day with something of a shrug. Waterloo is a much happier memory.

Ruminating on all of this, it occurs to me that Burke’s notion of the ‘wise and salutary neglect’ of the American colonies in the 18th century is equally applicable to the 19th century. While ‘we won because Britain didn’t care’ might not be the most glorious epitaph for a war, it does explain an awful lot. Freedom from European wars did count for a lot in the development of early America.

Looking back on the 1800s, Republicans were able to have the luxury of chronically underfunding the military – allowing the flourishing of a version of republican ideology that ultimately fuelled the growth of popular democracy. Heck, the lack of British interest in recolonizing North America even allowed New England state governments to actively undermine the leadership of the President in a time of warfare and more or less get away with it.

The thing is, the marginality of the USA in 19th century geopolitics hardly worked out badly in the long run. Working out how to turn notions of popular sovereignty into stable forms of government, or how to bring western territories into a constitutional order, or how to develop an integrated national economy might not be as glamorous as Washington and friends kicking some imperial ass at Yorktown. But history does not consist of simple morality tales of awesomeness.

Sometimes, it’s a good thing not to be important in the grand scheme of things. Britain mostly looking in a different direction in 1812 actually provided an opportunity for greatness. Salutary neglect was not just important as an 18th century phenomenon – Britain’s lack of attention to the USA during the Napoleonic Wars had similarly beneficial consequences for American growth and development.

*Given that my next research project will be looking at the formation and revision of state constitutions in the early 19th century, you can take it as read that I disagree with this statement.

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About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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