By Colin Woodward
While studying in London way back in the 1990s, one of my professors at King’s College said in reference to the War of 1812, “Don’t ever let an American tell you they didn’t lose a war until Vietnam.” I thought that was pretty funny, and there’s some truth in it.
For the most part, the War of 1812 was not America’s finest military hour. Yes, there was the shattering defeat of the English at New Orleans by Andrew Jackson’s racially-mixed rag-tag force. But that happened a month after the peace treaty was signed. The Americans did pretty well in the naval battles on the Great Lakes and elsewhere. But the U.S. was defeated in its attempts to conquer Canada (for the second time. The first attempt was during the Revolution and failed miserably. Don’t take Canada lightly, I guess). Also, in 1814, English troops, freed for the moment from battling Napoleon in Europe, burned the White House (then called the Executive Mansion) and other buildings in the capital. The flight from the White House was so swift that English troops found dinner still warm on the dining room table.
Rather than a Vietnam War-like debacle, the War of 1812 was probably more of a draw. Not much changed on the map, though afterward, the English stopped impressing Americans onto English ships–a cruel practice that had contributed much to the war. Thankfully, it’s the last war the U.S. and England have fought. Nowadays, the U.K. is the U.S.’s closest ally.
Whatever you think of the War of 1812, there’s an interesting online resource for those interested in “Mr. Madison’s War.” Also, if you prefer to read on actual paper, Gordon Wood, the best living historian of the Early Republic, has a review essay on the War of 1812 in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (surely one of the great periodicals of our time).
I found one portion of Wood’s essay interesting: “like so many of America’s wars, it was a ‘war of choice.’ We initiated it.” It was the first war Congress officially declared, and Wood adds, “Unfortunately, since World War II we have fought five significant wars without any of them being formally declared.” Unlike other presidents, Madison’s conduct of the war was in keeping with democratic principles. Congress approved it. There was no draft. No alarming violation of civil liberties or free speech, as happened during the Civil War, took place. No income tax. No internment camps.
However, America’s prosecution of the war was perhaps too inchoate. Madison was many things–a stellar political theorist and pretty good president overall–but a great commander-in-chief he was not. General Jackson emerged as a leader with long-term potential, eventually riding the wave of his military glory at New Orleans and elsewhere to the presidency. But it was clear that the country needed a stronger central government, especially a better standing army and national bank. Nothing swells the power of the federal government like a major war, and the War of 1812 was no exception.
This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812. But, despite the fact that it gave birth to the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the famous line, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” the war is likely to remain one of our more forgotten. It didn’t free the slaves. It didn’t produce an atom bomb. Oliver Stone didn’t make a movie about it. And since photography didn’t exist then, neither probably will Ken Burns.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.