I can't skip over this to get to Jacksonian America, because even though we might not be commemorating this war on the U.S side of the border in a major way (Baltimore and New Orleans are, as are the towns in Ohio near the naval battles on Lake Erie), Canada is celebrating it on its side. With good reason, because had Britain LOST the war, there would be no Canada.
The Bicentennial? From the Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2012
"The War of 1812 has no compelling narrative that appeals to the average American,'' said Jerald Podair, a history professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. "It's just a hodgepodge of buildings burning, bombs bursting in air and paintings being saved from the invaders, all for a vaguely defined purpose."It's one of our most unpopular wars, but that has to do with the fact that its genesis is in party politics, and the parties at this point were regionally oriented. You'll remember that the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by a Federalist administration to prepare for a war with France. This time, a Democratic-Republican administration was trying to stay out of another war with Britain, but that didn't happen either. Our protagonist? The second Jeffersonian president, James Madison.
The war, and something about the bicentennial celebration, below.
The problem? Madison had neither Jefferson’s prestige nor his skill as a politician. Beside, he was hampered by rivalries in his cabinet that forced him to direct foreign affairs by himself; accordingly, his first administration was dominated by a sense of national impotence and frustration. Madison had two major challenges: keeping the United States out of war and guiding the country back to prosperity it had enjoyed a few years earlier, before Jefferson severely underestimated the importance of America's foreign trade by placing an embargo on commerce with both Britain and France.
In May 1810, Congress passed Macon’s Bill no. 2, which removed all restrictions on American trade, and promised that if either Britain or France lifted their restrictions against American commerce in the next year America would reimpose the non-intercourse act against the country which had not acted. This revived the British transatlantic trade, but the Federalists thought, since Britain was now the world’s leading naval power, that this made a war with Britain unavoidable as soon as American ships tried to reach France. Napoleon, learning about the bill, withdrew the French decrees on condition that the American Congress pledged to punish any nation that kept its anti-American maritime edicts in force, which meant Britain became the target of American restrictions. John Quincy Adams, by now Minister to Russia, understood the French actions as a “trap to catch us into a war with England.”
At this point in the nineteenth century, there were two possible sources of war for the United States: Indians and foreign powers. The Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee prophet, had begun to recruit tribes for another round of resistance to the United States as early as 1805.
(Incidentally, EVERY representation I've seen of the brothers looks like this: Tecumseh as honorary white man, Tenskwatawa very "other)
Tenskwatawa preached both cultural renewal, as Neolin and Handsome Lake had, and pan-Indian confederation. This came to a head in 1811 both in Shawnee territory and in the South, and the action the government took against the Indians in the Indiana and Illinois territories and Florida were prompted by the demands of white frontiersmen and settlers, AND by a group of new Congressmen called “War Hawks” -- Republicans at this point, although the Federalists also admired them -- elected in 1810, mostly from new states in the West (Henry Clay) or backcountry/frontier areas of existing states (John Calhoun).
The War Hawks felt that the United States should pursue a more aggressive policy in defense of its interests.
As for the British, they continued their policy of recruiting men for the British Navy by means of impressment, the act or policy of seizing people or property for public service or use. In 1811, Madison ordered the heavy frigate U.S.S. President to patrol the Atlantic coast, and, in an encounter with the H.M.S. Little Belt, the President killed nine of the Little Belt’s crew and wounded 23 others. Since in 1807 the H.M.S. Leopold had done the same to the U.S.S. Chesapeake while attempting to kidnap some of the Chesapeake crew, the United States saw this as revenge. Britain, however, saw it as a reason to clamor for war.
Americans had assumed that, if there were to be another war with Britain, the main way it would be fought would be by the invasion of Canada, because this was the only area in which the British appeared vulnerable. More than anyone else, Henry Clay of Kentucky led the nation to war from his position as Speaker of the House, a post to which he was elected on his first day as a member. Clay recommended to Secretary of State James Monroe that Madison should send a confidential message to Congress recommending a 30-day embargo to make sure as many American ships were in port and out of reach of the British navy as possible, and then to declare war.
In the latter part of May, 1812, Madison prepared a war message which he sent to Congress June 1. This arraigned the British for exercising “municipal prerogative” over American ships which MIGHT be harboring British subjects, and claimed that American commerce interfered with a monopoly over the Atlantic trade Britain wanted for itself. Specifically Britain had impressed American seamen, maintained illegal blockades under the name of Orders in Council, and exerted a malicious influence over the Indians in the Northwest Territory (land that is now Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin).
John Calhoun introduced a war bill that made it through the House in two days, passing 79-49). The bill ran into trouble in the Senate because the Federalists (and some Republicans) supported limiting war to the high seas – partially as lesser of two evils, but also as the best method of upholding the nation’s rights. After nine days of negotiation, the Senate passed the original bill 19-13 in the closest vote on any declaration of war in American history. 81% of Republicans voted for it, all the Federalists (39) voted against it.
The War of 1812 echoed the ideology, the issues and, by now, the Anglophobia of the American Revolution. The Republicans saw British encroachment in the Old Northwest as a means of keeping the United States in a sort of quasi-colonial subjugation. Madison was hampered by a lack of financial support, by problems in mobilizing and organizing the military effort, and by political dissent from the Federalists. Like the Revolution, the U.S. should have been crushed in a military contest with a major European power but it wasn’t, and bungled military campaigns in 1812 and1813 caused no immediate military threat.
Timeline (with commentary)
There's an Official War of 1812 Bicentennial site, operated by the bi-national Niagara Legacy Council. Good on 2012 events, but past then, sketchy. Most of the links below are to bicentennial commemoration sites.
October 13, 1812: British forces won the Battle of Queenston Heights in Canada. Reenactment in Queenston & Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON & Lewiston, NY
Incidentally, we had an election in 1812, which Madison won handily.
January 22, 1813: An American army advancing toward Detroit was defeated and captured at Frenchtown on the Raisin River. Celebration in Monroe, Michigan.
April 27, 1813: American forces captured York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. They later burned some public buildings. Toronto has already begin to celebrate the Bicentennial, and, as the Times says,
Canadians, who consider the war a pivotal conflict in their nation's history, have made 200th anniversary celebrations a national priority and are opening government coffers to stage a splashy show.September 10, 1813: American naval forces under Master-Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie. The commemoration will be headquartered in Cleveland.
October 5, 1813: American forces under General William Henry Harrison won the Battle of the Thames River in Moraviantown, an Indian village in Canada. Tecumseh is killed in the battle. This is one of the major events of the Canadian commemoration.
December 1813: British forces crossed the Niagara River, captured Fort Niagara, and burned Buffalo and neighboring villages.
July 25, 1814: American forces under Major General Jacob Brown and Brigadier General Winfield Scott crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo and defeated the British at the Battle of Chippewa.
August 24, 1814: British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the Capitol and the White House.
September 11, 1814: American naval forces defeated a British fleet in the Battle of Lake Champlain.
September 13, 1814: Siege of Baltimore fails. The Smithsonian has the star-spangled banner Francis Scott Key wrote about, and here's the image:
The War of 1812 Concludes
Dec 15, 1814: Hartford Convention begins. Yes, New England was considering secession. Caleb Strong, the governor of Massachusetts, sent a secret emissary to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in September 1814 to learn if a separate peace might be negotiated (in violation of the Constitution) In December, 26 delegates from New England met at Hartford with a shared conviction that the peace negotiations were going nowhere to consider secession, but a minority of extremists lost out to those who wished to stay in the Union. James Monroe, by then secretary of war, considered sending an army detachment to Connecticut but decided it wasn't necessary. The convention recommended a few Constitutional amendments: these included requiring 2/3 vote in congress to admit states, to impose commercial restrictions, and to declare war; abolishing the 3/5 rule, confining federal office holding to native born, limiting president to one term, and prohibiting any state (like, say, Virginia) from furnishing two consecutive presidents.
December 24, 1814: The Americans and the British signed a peace treaty in Ghent, Belgium. Negotiations had begun in August 1814, and the treaty, which didn’t do much but end the fighting, was signed the day before Christmas. It restored the state that existed before the war. Each side agreed to evacuate all enemy territory, not to carry off any enemy property and to return all prisoners of war; promised to make peace with the Indians and to “restore to such tribes . . . all the possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed or been entitled to” in 1811, and both promised to “use their best endeavors” to stamp out the slave trade.
January 5, 1815: Hartford Convention ends. Two delegates were appointed to go to Washington with the resolutions, but they arrived after the peace treaty had been signed.
January 8, 1815 American forces under General Andrew Jackson won the Battle of New Orleans. The bicentennial celebration has begun already in New Orleans, and you can be sure it will continue through 2015, possibly to avoid the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the capture of New Orleans during the Civil War. And if you were listening to the radio during the summer of 1959 . . .
News of the treaty and of Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans arrived on the east coast almost simultaneously. An opponent of the war in Congress had read the preliminary dispatches from New Orleans and, from them, decided Jackson had already surrendered, so on the eve of February 4, the Federalists were convinced Madison was finished. 24 hours later, news of Jackson’s victory reached Washington, and news of the treaty reached Madison February 13. Madison submitted the treat to the Senate on February 15th, which ratified it without opposition. As the British had already ratified it, this marked the end of hostilities
After the War of 1812, Americans could agree on national greatness. Fourth of July orators insisted that the United States was the “only republic on earth” and suggested that the Old World, like Asia and Africa, was perhaps not yet ripe for the establishment of a free government There were even bipartisan celebrations between 1814-1820 (hence the term "The Era of Good Feelings"), although conservatives, especially in New England, insisted that the war had merely preserved existing British liberties which had been earned in the Revolution.
As usual, if you had ancestors who were involved in the war, your stories will be especially welcome in the comments. Next week, Indian removal under (Bloody bloody) Andrew Jackson!
Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution (2000) - actually, about 1800-1840, based on the memoirs of Americans born between 1776 and 1800
David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 (1997) -- about the importance of political festivals in the early American republic.
Steven Watts, The Republic Reborn: war and the making of liberal America, 1790-1820 (1987)
10:26 PM PT: and thank you, Community Spotlight.
Wed May 23, 2012 at 8:12 AM PT: I'll be away from my keyboard for the next 4-4.5 hours doing some morning errands. Don't think I'm neglecting you!