Centennials, bicentennials, and other historical anniversaries — not to mention annual holidays — play a major role in the legitimation of power relations. And they can be sharp ideological battlegrounds like Columbus Day. This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812, an inconclusive two and a half-year war with Great Britain that is typically relegated to a sparse couple of pages in the secondary and college history textbooks. But this year, a bit more attention is being paid to the war by officialdom and by the mainstream news media, and some conservatives are predictably up in arms at “historical revisionism” as we historians on the left try to tell a more complete and truthful set of tales that inevitably ends up not casting American war aims and practices, like those of so many of our conflicts, in the most laudatory of lights.
The War of 1812 was fought in part to vindicate American neutral shipping rights in the context of a decades-long war for European supremacy between monarchical Great Britain and Napoleonic France — rights that were being violated by both hostile parties. British men-of-war were also stopping American ships on the high seas to search them for deserted British seamen. To get the rivals to halt these practices without having to go to war against much more powerful adversaries, the Democratic-Republican administrations of Jefferson and Madison had tried a variety of peaceful measures (trade embargo, non-importation) with precedents in the struggle for American independence. These remedies had accomplished little but hurt American trade and were violated by merchants and smugglers, especially in the New England states, pursuing their own rank self-interests over the hoped-for devotion to patriotism and republican virtues.
It was also a war pushed by young Congressional “war-hawks” to fulfill a long-held dream of expansionist Americans — to conquer British Canada and add it to the United States. A military expedition with this purpose in mind had failed miserably in 1775 in the first year of the American Revolution, the victim of a smallpox epidemic among the soldiers and hostility by the inhabitants of Quebec to hardcore Protestants from New England bigoted against their Catholicism. Once again in 1812, it was assumed falsely that many Canadians would welcome the invasion with open arms given an opportunity to participate in a republican form of government. Jefferson said it would be “a mere matter of marching.” But Canadian border areas now contained thousands of Loyalists to the King who had suffered persecution and confiscation of their property during the American Revolution and they wanted no more of the U.S. While some other Canadians were initially sympathetic to the Americans and offered their support, the abuse and plunder of civilians by the invading soldiers turned such feelings into hostility.
For many Canadians today, the War of 1812 has a quite different meaning than it does for those of us who live south of the border. As a Canadian writer put it in an article for Maclean’s Magazine about the Canadian version of the bicentennial: “The defence of Canada between 1812 and 1814 should be seen as a foundational moment for modern Canada. What was a disparate group of recent immigrants spread across a broad and lonely frontier became, once the war was over, a burgeoning nation with a distinct Canadian identity” (10/11/11). In effect, repelling the American invasions (which came on three different geographical fronts) was their version of the American Revolution. The writer not only accuses the U.S. of being the “aggressors” then but also of trying today to rewrite the ending of the war to make it look like the U.S. was the victor.
In truth, the U.S. lost most of the land battles of the war and even suffered the terrible indignity of having Washington D.C. burned by the British redcoats in August 1814 — in retribution for the American burning of York (now Toronto) the previous year. In September, U.S. forces did turn back a British invasion force in northern New York and we acquired an unsingable national anthem from the successful defense of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. A stunning victory over the British redcoats took place at New Orleans in January 1815. Out of that victory a new “George Washington” for the post-revolutionary war generation was created in the form of military hero, slave owner and Indian hater, Andrew Jackson. But the outcome of that famous battle, however exhilarated it made patriotic Americans feel, made no difference whatsoever to the Treaty of Ghent, which had already been signed in Europe before the battle of New Orleans was fought.
The War of 1812 generated a great deal of opposition. Whole militia units mutinied and refused to cross the border for an invasion into Canada arguing that they had only signed on to defend their native states. (Now if we could only get members of the National Guard to do that today!) When much of coastal Maine was occupied, many Mainers transferred their allegiance to the British. The war had gone so poorly up to the point of the battle of New Orleans that Federalists from the New England states, where the war had always been controversial because of their trading relations with Great Britain, met in Hartford, Connecticut in late 1814 and early 1815 to flirt with talk of secession. While much of this opposition derived from sectional self-interests rather than higher principles, out of the War of 1812 came the formation in 1815 of the New York Peace Society, forerunner of the American Peace Society which argued that war was inconsistent with Christian principles and which subsequently helped to mobilize opposition to the U.S. wars against Mexico and the Philippines and its involvement in the First World War.
Native Americans had their own aims in the war. For many of them, the War of 1812 in the North was a continuation of their decades-long struggle to prevent hordes of American settlers and land speculators from overrunning their homelands west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Ohio River. In the early 1800s, the masterful Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa the Prophet, had put together a pan-Indian resistance alliance and dreamt of creating an independent Indian nation in that region. But the year before the bigger war jumped off, this beautiful dream was derailed at the Battle of Tippecanoe fought with an American force at the principal Indian base in northern Indiana. Tecumseh kept organizing resistance. But he fell in 1813 while fighting alongside the British and Canadians to defend southern Ontario from one of the American invasion thrusts. Indians in the South were also big losers in the war, being forced to cede millions of acres of land after Creek supporters of native revivalism allied with Tecumseh and his brother were defeated at the battle of Horseshoe Bend in central Alabama in 1813. No Indians were invited to take part in the war-ending peace talks. Although the U.S. pledged in the treaty to halt hostilities against the Indians and restore relations to the pre-war status quo in terms of “all the possessions, rights, and privileges which [the Indians] may have enjoyed or been entitled to,” the white onslaught on land continued.
While some African-Americans (and a smaller number of Native Americans) saw a personal benefit to be gained in fighting for the U.S., between three and four thousand black slaves in Virginia, Maryland, and Georgia seized the opportunity to run away from the “land of the free” to British forces in the vicinity who offered them their freedom as part of a military strategy, which included a tight coastal blockade, to undermine the American economy. These plantation escapees were the largest group of emancipated U.S. slaves prior to the Civil War. Some ex-slaves volunteered as guides and spies for British coastal raids, and several hundred took up arms against the United States as “colonial marines” and fought alongside the British redcoats in the battles around Washington and Baltimore. Although the Americans demanded the return of their “property” in the peace talks, the British largely refused. Post-war, some of them settled in British-ruled Trinidad where they still have a self-identify today as “Merikens.”
With the War of 1812, as is the case with most of history, to put together an historical narrative from the experiences and perspectives of those who were the dissidents, outsiders, or at the bottom of society yields very different results from that written for — and by — the proverbial “dead white males” who still populate most of the history textbooks. Sorry, right-wingers. Get used to it. The world and its history — past, present, and future — belong not to you or your kind but to all of us — the workers, the peasants, the poor, the dispossessed, and the discriminated against.
The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, Bicentennial Edition, by Donald R. Hickey (University of Illinois Press, 2012).
The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies by Alan Taylor (Vintage, 2011).
“The Corps of Colonial Marines: Black freedom fighters of the War of 1812” by John McNish Weiss.
Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.