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.