Bicentennial of a Muddle

by Fred Schwarz

Two hundred years ago today, President James Madison sent Congress a request for a declaration of war. Seventeen days later, after it had passed both houses by narrowish margins (79 to 49 in the House, 19 to 13 in the Senate), Madison signed the declaration. Thus began the conflict that we call the War of 1812 and our opponents in that war, the British, don’t call anything, because they had bigger frogs to fry at the time.

The war dragged on for two and a half years, and when the smoke had cleared on land and sea, it wasn’t a clear-cut victory or defeat for either side. While I’m hardly the NR staff’s biggest expert on this period, I’ll try to run quickly through a few ways that the war’s effects can be seen today:

Facile Historical Parallel-A-Rama: Its indecisive nature makes the War of 1812 a tempting analogy for some of America’s other less-than-triumphant conflicts:

** War of 1812 equals Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Why that makes sense: It was controversial at the time and based on questionable premises, the goal was unclear, and it went worse than expected. Why that’s bogus: In 1812 we spent two years getting pounded (mostly), then managed to scrape together a draw; in Iraq and Afghanistan, we won swiftly, then fumbled the follow-up.

** War of 1812 equals Vietnam. Why that makes sense: Same reasons as above, except more so. Why that’s bogus: In 1812 we lost militarily, but it looked like we won; in Vietnam we won militarily, but it looked like we lost.

** The burning of Washington equals September 11. Why that makes sense: It was a sudden, shocking attack on the homeland that unified the nation against the aggressors. Why that’s not entirely bogus: The burning of Washington did unite Americans against Britain and make opponents of the war lie low, just as September 11 did. Diplomats from both sides took note of this and hammered out a peace treaty within a few months. That’s the sort of thing you can do with a sovereign state with which you have longstanding trade and cultural ties, and really nothing much to fight over. But if the war had gone on much longer, the unity would have started to fade, just as it did in the War on Terror.


Economic effects: As with most economic analyses of historical events, you can slant this one whatever way you want. There are those who say that by cutting off imports, the war jump-started America’s economy, and this is an argument for protectionism (though “free trade” was supposedly the biggest casus belli). Others point out that a recession followed the war, so maybe it wasn’t such a hot policy initiative after all. The lack of a national bank (the first one’s charter had expired in 1811) left the federal government just short of begging on street corners for money to fight the war. This led to the charter of a second national bank in 1816 — though it was far from a universally acclaimed success, and when its charter expired, it was not renewed either.

Fear the Canuck: Counting the Revolution and the War of 1812, the U.S. is 0-for-2 lifetime on invasions of Canada. No wonder we decided not to mess with them any further, and have been at peace since 1814. (Though we do usually win the Stanley Cup, and that must hurt even more.)

Were the Federalists right?: The War of 1812 and the Hartford Convention effectively spelled the end of the anti-war Federalist party, who by 1814 had become the paleocons of their day. But however unpatriotic they sound in retrospect, what they were arguing for basically amounted to small government close to the people. Instead we ended up with an expansionist policy, federal infrastructure spending, eventually a civil war, an ever stronger central government, a global empire, etc. On the whole, we’re probably better off with our present Shamu/Leviathan hybrid state, but you have to give the Feds credit for staunchly standing athwart — and suffering the fate that usually befalls stand-athwarters.

Era of Good Feeling, My Foot: After the Federalists crashed and burned, we had about a decade in which there was just one party of any consequence. But (a) that party quickly split into bitterly opposed factions (e.g. New York’s pro- and anti-Clintonians), eventually giving birth to the Whigs, and (b) the Monroe administration made as many missteps as any other, despite the absence of an opposing party. Is it possible that Tom Friedman and Mann and Ornstein are mistaken in their yearning for united government and disdain for the two-party system? Nah, couldn’t be.

The Oddly Persistent Anti-Britain Fixation: Anglophobia has declined along with Britain’s status as a global power, but the reflexive hatred of the British found in certain quarters has never really died out since the Revolution. In 1812, attitudes towards the war mostly depended on whether you were rooting for or against Britain against Napoleon. Similar sentiments colored American policy as late as World War I, when German and Irish immigrants vehemently protested our entry into an intra-European conflict. As for World War II, Patrick Buchanan has retrospectively found a way to blame the Brits, and even today, President Obama loses no opportunity to dis them.

The War of 1812’s anomalous status is perhaps reflected best in the two hit songs, of very different kinds, that it inspired: “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Battle of New Orleans” (a #1 hit for Johnny Horton in 1959). Both songs celebrate battles in which America was attacked on its home ground and barely managed to stave off the invaders, then spun the result as a stirring victory. And despite the war’s haphazard nature, often dismal results, and inconclusive outcome, two generals used it as a springboard to the presidency. It was that kind of war.

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