It is a common misperception that only recent wars have been politically controversial. When the House and Senate voted 69% and 77% respectively in favor of the Iraq War Resolution in 2002, this was not the first time Congress was divided on starting a war. In the summer of 1812, the House and Senate voted with only 61% and 59% in favor of declaring war on Great Britain. The Federalist Party unanimously voted against the war, labeling it “Mr. Madison’s War,” a moniker eerily familiar to those who have lived through a decade of criticism of “Mr. Bush’s War.” The Federalist Party did not survive politically for their “unpatriotism” of opposing what many saw as a victorious war.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his (in)famous presentation to the UN concerning Iraq’s biological weapons production on February 5, 2003, it was not the first time a high-ranking federal official presented misleading information in front a large political body to argue in favor of war. On June 1, 1812, President Madison made a similar presentation in the form of a fiery speech to Congress. In it, he provided statistics that claimed the British had forced at least 6,000 American sailors into indentured service in the Royal Navy.1 These numbers obviously riled up Americans, but subsequent investigations indicated these numbers were inflated.2 The British were prepared to stop such practices, but while their message was en route, America was at war with Great Britain, again.
Critics of Iraq have claimed the United States was unprepared for the war, but again, this was not the first time America went into a war unprepared. In 1812, believing their strength was on land and Britain’s weakness was in Canada, the U.S. began a three-pronged invasion of its northern neighbor, believing they could end the war in a single campaign season. The invasion ended in catastrophic failure, including some of the worst American defeats in history. Conversely, the U.S. was very successful in single frigate actions, capturing a number of British warships and damaging British morale both at home and in the Royal Navy. At the time, the Royal Navy was widely considered the most formidable navy at sea, and the loss of a number of single ship actions between similar sized vessels – at least on paper – caused embarrassment and consternation to the British. The presupposed strengths of America and Britain at the start of the war were, in reality, weaknesses. Their presupposed weaknesses were their strengths.
America’s inflated sense of its military prowess did not begin with its victories during the world wars; it began with the Revolution and was greatly enhanced by General Andrew Jackson’s overwhelming defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans (1815), occurring after the War of 1812 concluded via treaty. Due to the glacial speed of news back then, the diplomatic end to the war coincided with news of Jackson’s victory. Americans wrapped the news of both up in the same discussion, believing that Jackson’s victory was a capstone to their successful efforts to defeat the British in war. It was not.
Some of us were surprised to see how the events of the Iraq War unfolded. Many cited Vietnam as the perfect example of America wildly dashing off to war. Unfortunately, Vietnam remains too close in memory and many still argue over the necessity of the war and the reasons for America’s defeat. The War of 1812, with 200 years of distance, provides an opportunity for some objective reflection. If we all had a firm footing in the history of the War of 1812, we would at least appreciate the precedence for such events as we saw in the past decade.
This is only scratching the surface, as the War of 1812 gave us “The Star-Spangled Banner,” an affirmation of the fundamental belief in American exceptionalism, and sowed the seeds of Manifest Destiny. In other words, the war helped define the character of America that lives on to this day.
And that is why you should care about the War of 1812.
- John R. Elting, Amateurs, to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), 69. [↩]
- In 1813, a committee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives determined that out of 21,060 American sailors employed over the course of 15 years, only 107 impressment instances occurred. James H. Ellis, Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812 (New York: Algora Publishing, 2009), 55-56. [↩]