Newswise — In commemoration of the bicentennial of the start of the Revolutionary War, the United States went to great lengths to celebrate the war that led to the founding of an American nation. Events were planned across the country. Reenactments depicted battle scenes. Even anniversary coins were minted to celebrate 200 years since the Declaration of Independence.
In 2012 however, none of those items are on the docket for the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Despite the similarities in foes, as the U.S. squared off against Great Britain for a second time, several circumstances have seemed to downgrade the War of 1812 into mediocrity in the minds of Americans today.
“The Korean War is often called the ‘Forgotten War,’ but that moniker might better fit the War of 1812, with all due respect to veterans of the Korean War,” said Jonathan Beagle, assistant professor of history at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “Chronologically, the War of 1812 sits between two of the most significant and transformative wars in American history which have historically overshadowed it. The War of Independence gave birth to a nation and became the touchstone of American identity. The Civil War’s ghastly death toll dwarfed that of wars before it and fundamentally remade the nation.”
But the War of 1812 is not just a victim of bad timing. Also going against it is a declaration of war by Congress and President James Madison without having made any preparations for making it successful.
“We basically had no army, no navy, and no money to create either one,” said James Broussard, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. “The only plus was that the British were focused on beating the French and Napoleon and they were pretty much fighting us with two arms and one leg tied behind their back.”
The war was not universally popular at the time either. Despite being the region most-hampered by the British impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, New England vehemently opposed the notion of taking on the British again. There were even talks of seceding from the United States.
There were also no big victories for the country to rally around until the Battle of New Orleans, which ironically was fought after a peace treaty had already been negotiated. Nevertheless, at the time when news traveled slowly, folks who heard about the victory in New Orleans and the subsequent peace treaty made a connection that the U.S. won. In some ways they did and others they did not.
“To the 19th century American, the outcome was important because for the second time, USA had stood up to British bullying and the British had backed off,” said John Selby, professor of history at Roanoke College. “It effectively ended our 40 year quarrel with Great Britain which allowed for the building of the groundwork for a new relationship that in the 20th century would be one of strong allies.”
Through the glasses of hindsight, there are many intricacies that a 21st century American can’t ignore when determining a victor. No territorial control was altered at the conclusion of the war and Washington, D.C. had been occupied and burned during a British campaign, which eventually stopped just short of Baltimore at Fort McHenry. That battle would lead to the writing of The Star Spangled Banner as Francis Scott Key personally witnessed the shelling.
“The United States did not lose, but neither did it win and no American likes ties,” said Daniel Fountain, associate professor of history at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “This is the foremost reason that many have wrongly forgotten the War of 1812.”
The idea of western expansion was also at the forefront of the cause of the war. The British were believed to not only advocate for Native American attacks on western settlers, but also provided them with the firepower to make them more lethal. Although accepted at the time, western expansion is one topic that Americans today struggle to accept.
“Once celebrated as ‘Manifest Destiny,’ westward expansion today is more often likened to greedy, land-grabbing and remembered for injustices committed against Native Americans,” Beagle said. “Why would we want to remember or celebrate a war that had such consequences as opposed to say, a war that led to a democratic nation or the end of slavery? The War of 1812 has an image problem that makes it hard to celebrate today as we reflect on our national self-image.”
Whether the population remembers or not, it is undeniable that the War of 1812 played a significant role in United States history. The war illustrated a need for an organized and powerful military for the country to supply the muscle behind its trade exports. Although founded in 1802, the United States Military Academy at West Point was largely neglected until after the War of 1812.
Attendants at any major sporting event hear the words written by Key before the game begins and Olympic athletes this summer will again hear the Star Spangled Banner as they take the podium in victory. These are subtle reminders of the ramifications still seen today.
“President Lincoln spoke of the Civil War as a ‘new birth of freedom.’ The War of 1812 did not define the nation in such fundamental ways, but it did transform the nation, and left lasting legacies,” said Beagle.