I had an interesting discussion on Twitter this morning about the War of 1812. It started when I linked to an article in The Wall Street Journal on the difficulties faced by those supporting bicentennial celebrations. Rather than restate everything that was said, I created a Storify that recounts the conversation:
I’m probably not the best equipped to make the case in favor of defending the War of 1812, but I’ll take a stab at a few points that make it worth commemoration.
- It established that Canada would remain British. At least from the early 1770s, when the Boston Committee of Correspondence tried to entice merchants in Quebec and Montreal to join their network of dissidents, Americans had their eye on including Canada in the Union. A failed invasion in the winter of 1775-1776 put an end to that dream during the Revolution, but the question remained open into the Early Republic. The stalemate in the war pushed that possibility out of the realm of reality and forced instead treaty negotiations to determine the exact nature of the border. Alan Taylor in The Civil War of 1812 makes a similar argument that the key to the was is in the battles between Americans and Canadians across the border.
- It established the United States’ right to exist. Perhaps it is a hackneyed or outdated view of American history, but it seems to me that even in stalemate the United States blunted a threat to its national sovereignty in defending itself against naval harassment by the British.
- The War of 1812 was an event of important significance in several locales. Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, site of the immortalized bombardment in September 1814, still guards the harbor and is a point of local pride. Upstate New York and Michigan were shaped by the war and home to many battles. And, as both the Journal and Taylor point out, the war was of great significance for Canadians. Whether or not a national commemoration takes place, surely these places will remember the war in their own ways. Maryland made the war the centerpiece of its default license plates in 2010 (to run through 2015).
On the other hand, I’m not a War of 1812 expert, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I have some of this wrong. So my open question is, should we be funding bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812? And beyond that, what should be the standard for selecting what to commemorate on a national level?