The War of 1812: A bicentennial worth observing

This year, the United States observes a number of anniversaries.

The year 2014 is part of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (1861-1865), with late 1864 marking the turning point in the fortunes of battle in favor of the Union.

It’s the 225th anniversary of the beginning of government under the American Constitution, with 1789 as the year when George Washington took office as the nation’s first president.

And it’s the centennial year of the start of World War I in 1914; America didn’t enter the war until three years later, but the groundwork for our alliance with Britain and France was laid 100 years ago.

Then there’s the War of 1812.

Two hundred years ago, the United States was engaged in battle with Great Britain on land and sea in a 32-month conflict that started with the American declaration of war in June 1812, and ended with the Treaty of Ghent, ratified by the United States in February 1815.

Despite the bicentennial of the war, media have been curiously silent about it.

There are several reasons. First, the treaty returned all borders to their lines prior to 1812.

Second, the complicated nature of diplomatic arguments about the rights of neutral nations on the high seas — one of the primary causes of the war — is foreign to most of us today.

Third, as wars go, the War of 1812 was a relatively minor one in terms of lives lost and infrastructure destroyed.

Fourth, war support was sectional in nature, with the Northeast opposed and the South and West in favor.

And finally, events outstripped the causes of the war, bringing about an easy peace treaty.

War came in 1812 for a number of reasons. England and France had been doing battle for nearly 20 years as a result of Napoleon’s attempt to bring all of Europe under the banner of the French Empire. Both nations demanded that neutral countries, like the United States, halt trading with their opponent, and took American ships as prizes if the traditional trading practices were continued.

Also, the British had tried ever since the American Revolution ended to prevent American expansion beyond the South and West frontiers of settlement (“West” at that time meant the forests between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River). To that end they had forged alliances with native American tribes who were of the same mind, providing them financial and military aid.

A related cause of the war was the desire of many Americans, particularly Democrats in the South and West, to annex Canada, which some like Thomas Jefferson felt would be an easy conquest.

In addition, the English crown had desperate need of more sailors for the Royal Navy. During peacetime, British ships had an adequate supply of seamen, but with the coming of war with France, those needs increased sharply.

British commanders looked to American ships as a source of supply.

United States law provided for naturalization of British immigrants, including sailors. But British law was different: once British, always British. British warships therefore halted American ships on the high seas and “reclaimed” formerly British seamen (a practice called impressment), and were not particularly careful to distinguish between British-born and American-born personnel.

American victories in the war included the defeat of the tribes, such as the coalition under Tecumseh north and west of the Ohio River and the Creek Nation in Georgia and Alabama; Commodore Perry’s victories on Lake Erie, which severed the British supply lines between East and West Canada; the successful defense of Baltimore and New York City; and Andy Jackson’s stunning victory over British troops at New Orleans (which actually took place after the peace treaty was negotiated but before word of it had arrived in America).

British victories included the successful defense of Canada against ill-advised American incursions; the forced surrender of Detroit early on in the war; and the capture and burning of government buildings in Washington in 1814. There were also victories by both sides in naval battles on the high seas.

The war ended rather quietly.

After the British coalition defeated Napoleon in 1814 at Waterloo, the Crown’s need for additional sailors came to an end, and Britain halted its practice of impressment, thereby ending one of the causes of the war.

After American troops defeated the tribes in the South and West, British hopes for an Indian buffer to American expansion came to end, and England stopped providing aid and comfort to hostile tribes. And commercial interests on both sides were eager to resume the lucrative prewar trade between the two nations.

So the peace treaty ending the war proved to be rather simple to forge.

On the surface, with borders returned to their prewar lines, and trading lanes once again open to all nations, it would seem that not much was accomplished by the War of 1812. But the defeat of Tecumseh and the Creeks opened up vast areas of territory to American settlement, and Jackson’s defense of New Orleans discouraged further European designs on American territory.

The end of the war also spelled the death of the Federalist Party, whose wartime opposition was now highly unpopular, and thereby opened the “Era of Good Feelings” under which partisan politics in the United States decreased to a status never before seen up to that point nor since. And America had fought to a standoff the world’s greatest naval power.

So even though the War of 1812 was not one of the nation’s major wars, it firmly established the United States as a significant player on the world stage.

That’s a consequence that deserves bicentennial recognition in American history.

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