The Warts of 1812: The Unglamorous Truth About a Hyped-Up War

Forget the bombs bursting in air over Baltimore. The conflict actually started with a botched U.S. invasion of Canada. 

tall-ship.jpgA historical reenactor watches tall ships dock at the Port of New Orleans during a War of 1812 bicentennial celebration. (Reuters)

Former President George W. Bush drew both titters and groans last month when he teasingly implored Michelle Obama to rescue his freshly unveiled presidential portrait if an invading foreign army ever decides to set fire to the White House again. This was, of course, a reference to First Lady Dolley Madison, who so boldly saved George Washington's portrait as the British army cut through Washington, D.C., in August of 1814 and set public buildings ablaze -- one of the few widely recognizable episodes that survives from the War of 1812.

Of the many holes in the American national memory, the War of 1812 may be the most gaping. The war that gave America its national anthem, birthed Uncle Sam, and anointed four future presidents as war heroes remains the Jan Brady of American conflicts for good reason: not only was it book-ended by two vastly more significant wars, but its causes weren't sexy, its conclusions were muddy, and its most famous battle took place after peace was declared. And so 1812 remains the only American war known by its date. (Even Congress refused to establish a bicentennial commission, leaving the commemorations up to the states.)

But as history buffs, state and local governments, and (doubtlessly) some zealous reenactors begin the mark the conflict that started on this date in 1812, there is much that modern-day Americans can learn from this clumsy moment in the nation's childhood.

First, some brief background. America -- deeply politically divided, militarily insecure, and fiscally feeble -- was stuck in neutral as the French and British warred in Europe, each demanding that the United States not engage in trade with the other. Unsurprisingly, Britain turned out to be the more austere and hectoring of the two, using its navy to capture, impress, and even kill American sailors at sea and confiscate cargo set for export.

Back in the States, the nation clamored for war. (And what delicious historical irony that just half a century before the Civil War, New England was railing against big government and even talking of secession from the Union!) President Thomas Jefferson, who had stripped down the army to reduce the national debt, chose to avoid war in favor of an economy-crippling embargo. This made the United States both poor and weak by the time James Madison -- effete, Lilliputian, and "too tender" (as one congressional contemporary put it) -- succeeded him.

Congress finally declared war on Britain, with impeccably bad timing: Just a few days earlier, the British foreign minister had decided to rescind the policy towards American trade that had caused all of the hullabaloo to begin with. But word did not reach America in time, and ill-equipped U.S. forces fecklessly staggered into Canada to show the British not to mess with American trade (and to possibly snag some of Canada's sweet farm land). Aided by a confederacy of Native Americans, Canada mostly repelled the invasion and won a large number of battles.

The most ridiculous moment of all featured the United States surrendering the entire city of Detroit without firing a shot in defense. "It was the most colossal screw-up of the war," Alan Taylor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian explained in an interview. "And it comes at the worst possible time in the first major invasion. The Madison administration was counting on winning a quick victory in invading Upper Canada from the western end via Detroit to render the war popular. And instead, he got a catastrophic defeat."

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Adam Chandler is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers global news.

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