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Publick Occurrences 2.0

June 18, 2012

The Bicentennial is Upon Us

Filed under: Early Republic,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 8:05 am

Well, here we are. The waiting is over. Today marks the 200th anniversary of the declaration of war against the United Kingdom that started the War of 1812. Over the next two and a half years, fighting occurred along the US-Canada border, at sea, and most famously, in the mid-Atlantic, before concluding with the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814 … and the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. And today’s bicentennial is rather momentous in at least one respect: it’s the first time that Congress exercised its Constitutional power to declare war.

Over the past few months, Publick Occurrences 2.0 has been following some of the debates about the war’s commemoration. As with much other news in the United States these days, the media seem more concerned with the process story—are we commemorating as much as Canada? Why not?—than with the substance of the war or its significance. And indeed, most of the time all we remember about the War of 1812 is that it gave us a postwar construction boom in Washington, DC, a poem that was rather catchy when set to a British drinking song, and Andrew Jackson.

Nonetheless, with the anniversary today, it seems like a good time to provide some links and resources about the war and its bicentennial.

  • Last fall, PBS aired a two-hour documentary on the war as a “strange and awkward conflict that shaped the destiny of a continent.”
  • A Guide to the War of 1812 from the Library of Congress.
  • The American History Guys at BackStory featured an insightful discussion about the War of 1812 for their weekly radio show.
  • And, in case you’re catching up, we’ve had discussions about the war here, here, and a Twitter discussion here. And yes, part of that discussion was about whether the War of 1812 was worth commemorating.

On the other hand, Troy Bickham points out at the Oxford University Press blog that the way we remember the war elides all opinions about it other than its triumphs and heroisms:

The truth is that the War of 1812 was a conflict that few wanted. Not a single member of the Federalist party in Congress voted for a declaration of war. Governors and legislatures of New England states, where the Federalists were strong and anti-war sentiment even stronger, announced statewide days of fasting and prayer in mourning. In a public address sent to Congress in the response to the declaration of war, the Massachusetts House of Representatives declared that: “An offensive war against Great Britain, under the present circumstances of this country, would be in the highest degree, impolitic, unnecessary, and ruinous.” New England clergymen used their pulpits to rail against the war and discourage young men from service, with such ministers as Nathan Beman of Portland describing the army camps as “the head quarters of Satan.”

In other words, we’re unlikely to see a re-enactment of the Hartford Convention, as riveting as that might be.

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May 16, 2012

More on 1812 Commemorations, Canadian Edition

Filed under: Congress,Early Republic,Joe Adelman's Posts,Military — Joseph M. Adelman @ 1:46 pm

A few months ago I and several others had a conversation (here, on other blogs, and on Twitter) about the dearth of commemorations of the War of 1812 in the United States. As part of the discussion, we noted that the war was receiving far greater attention in Canada as a moment of national creation (some five and a half decades in advance).

This is not, apparently, without controversy north of the 49th parallel. This morning, I read a post by Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, authors of a new book on Canada as a “Warrior Nation,” arguing that the 1812 commemorations in Canada are an outcropping of the militaristic political style of current Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

According to Stephen Harper, or more likely one of his hirelings, the war helped establish Canada’s “path toward becoming an independent and free country…. The heroic efforts of Canadians then helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.”

This though there was no such thing as Canada at the time. The famously undefended border has become a militarized “security perimeter.” And few Canadians are known to indulge in patriotic displays of flag-waving.

No matter. In 2012 Canada is being treated to sanitized glorifications and events designed to attract tourists. In early June the anniversary of the Battle of Stoney Creek will bring scores of re-enactors to suburban Hamilton. There will be music, costumes, games, readings and tours. And certainly musket fire.

Framed this way, I’m almost surprised that the United States hasn’t more heavily promoted the War of 1812—stalemate though it may have been—as the “Second War of Independence,” finally ridding us of the British menace. Maybe for the sestercentennial in 2062.

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January 25, 2012

Should we remember the War of 1812?

Filed under: Early Republic,Historic sites,Joe Adelman's Posts — Joseph M. Adelman @ 3:05 pm

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:

View the story “What Deserves Commemoration?” on Storify

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?

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