For the Preservation of the War of 1812

I

WHY I should have to bear the burden of this responsibility alone, I don’t know. I began working in behalf of this episode in our history about two years ago, when I moved to a provincial English town. Our first week there, a neighbor called to collect our yearly subscription to the League of Nations Union. She had an appealing, shy beauty, and though she was seventy years old she managed to make throughout the year more than three visits a day on behalf of this praiseworthy organization. She had never had any dealings with Americans, and did n’t realize that I was one. She happened to mention, as she rose to go, how distressed she was that Great Britain and the United States had not agreed to greater reduction of navies.

‘I don’t know why we don’t concede to them everything they ask,’ she sighed. ‘Or why they can’t concede it all to us. It would all be so much better that way. I had n’t understood the situation so well until last week. Then a lady from London was speaking to the Conservative Club, and she explained it all so clearly. She feels that the Americans are simply stubborn about it. Why should they want to build more ships, she asked, when they are n’t a seagoing nation? They won’t be able to make them go. They have n’t any experience in naval matters. Their ships will just be useless on their hands, all their money wasted. Still, I say, why should we want to interfere? The money is theirs. Let them waste it if they want to. It can’t make any difference to us. Let us conciliate them, I say. Thank you so much for your subscription. I must hurry on. Good morning!'

I said good-morning feebly. I shut the door after her, and sat down.

’Well!' I said. ‘This is extraordinary!’

Should I have told her that I was an American, and given her the pain of apologizing to me for her mistake? Should I have roundly opened her eyes to a few facts?

My husband came in just then, and I must have looked dazed, for he said at once, ‘What’s wrong?’

When I told him, he chuckled. His levity was intolerable, so I went hotly on.

‘If she does n’t know anything about history, she must at least have read about Sir Thomas Lipton! Has n’t she ever heard of Dewey and Manila Bay, a woman of her age? Has n’t she ever heard of the clipper ships? Or of the Barbary pirates? Has n’t she ever heard of the War of 1812?’ I was just beginning to warm to my subject when my husband interrupted me.

‘You mean 1776,’ he suggested.

‘I do not!' I said indignantly. ’I mean 1812.'

‘It began in 1776,’ he insisted, grinning.

He knows so much more about my country than most Englishmen that I was shocked. I reproved him.

‘The idea of you sitting there telling me, an American, that the War of 1812 was in 1776! Don’t you suppose I was made to learn all those dates? That was the first war, in 1776.’

He looked blank.

‘There were n’t two,’ he said.

‘Of course there were two!’

‘I don’t believe it.'

‘Ha!’ I retorted, jubilant to be for once so wise. ‘I will now prove it to you.’ I went to the bookshelves and took down a history of England. I turned to the index. I got a shock.

That whole stiff volume had no mention of the War of 1812.

Undeterred, I took down another. And then another. I took down every single one of them. It was all in vain. What had England done with our war?

‘Aha!’ said my Britisher.

‘You wait!’ I said. I took down the first American history I happened upon. It was Muzzey’s. I had n’t even to turn to the index. There it was, where it ought to have been, seven pages of it. ‘Read that!’ I hissed.

He sat down and read it all, hastily.

‘This is extremely interesting,’ he acknowledged. ‘But you can’t expect us to have known anything about it. There must be records of it somewhere in the Admiralty files. But look at what we were doing at that time! We were fighting Napoleon, in France and Spain and Portugal, and India, and Java, and it was the time of the Congress of Vienna, and all that!'

‘But see what a position you are putting me in, as a patriot! What can be more humiliating than to find that the enemy has never heard of the victories you won from him? Old Kaspar may not have known what the famous victory was about, but at least he did know there had been one. No one seems ever to have heard of ours! Do they mean it literally, then, when they say an Englishman never knows when he is beaten?’

II

I went to the public library, a Carnegie institution, used only by the lower classes and myself, and there I found one English history that gave my war three damning lines. It was n’t even called a war. It was called a state of hostilities! I found another short volume which was written by an English soldier as a sort of tribute of friendship to the Americans he met during the Great War. He mentioned what no one else in England ever has, the burning of Washington. The Encyclopœdia Britannica was a mild salve to my wounded pride. With my husband’s help I set about discovering some Englishman who had heard of our war. We outdid one another in devices for bringing the conversation to that topic. I suppose we had asked twenty welleducated, well-bred men about it before we found one who knew what we meant.

He was full of interest in the matter, because he had an estate on Dartmoor and had heard about the American prisoners of war who had been confined to the prison there.

‘The French prisoners used to behave themselves well,’ he said. ‘But your Americans were perfect devils. It took three times as many soldiers to manage them as it did the French. All the same, I like them for it. They were in the right, and I always say that George Washington was the finest Englishman alive at the time.’

‘But he was n’t alive. Not in 1812.’

‘Was n’t he? Of course he was.’

‘He died in 1799.’

‘You’re pulling my leg.’

‘No. Truly. Washington died thirteen years before that war began. ’

‘But why were those men still there, then, so long after the war was over?’

The next person who had heard of the war had seen a tablet erected in the church at Dartmoor to the memory of the men who died in prison.

‘That was the war in which there were so many babies,’ he commented.

He seemed to know more about it than I did. When I inquired, he hesitated. I was a woman, and it was a delicate subject.

‘At least, such a lot of daughters. The daughters of that war erected the tablet. Where were the sons, I always wondered.’

I explained about the sons and the daughters, and went on in my quest for a properly appreciative Englishman. I tackled one who sat next me at dinner, a polite man, but inclined to frivolity. When, with practised skill, I asked him if he had ever heard of the burning of Washington, he cocked an eyebrow at me.

‘You don’t mean the American Washington, do you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Now none of your hanky-panky,’ he said. ‘I know we did burn Joan of Arc. But George Washington — that’s a bit thick! You’re trying to stir up enmity between friendly nations.’

III

I persisted. I approached a woman who, after taking honors at Oxford, had been engaged in international work for years, in matters of intellectual coöperation. When I told her of the burning of Washington, she was shocked. ‘It sounds like the Germans at Rheims,’ she said. And then she looked at me thoughtfully.

‘Nevertheless, it was clever of us, was n’t it?’

‘I don’t see anything very clever about it.’

‘I mean to say — how did we manage to get there?’

‘You simply sailed up the river, and the little beginning of a city was undefended and you set fire to it.’

She laughed.

‘You Americans are priceless. We simply sailed up the river, did we? Up from where?’

‘Well — up the bay. It’s not much of a trick to get to Washington from the Atlantic.’

‘Oh, a continent is nothing to you, of course. I did n’t even know there was such a river. After all, it is on the Pacific coast, is n’t it?’

I knew her well. I spoke to her freely.

‘Well,’ she protested, ‘if New York City is in New York State, why should n’t Washington City be in Washington State? And I know for a fact that Washington State is on the Pacific, because I have a cousin there. You oughtn’t to have such confusing names.’

‘You black pot!’ I replied. ‘Aren’t there forty Montague streets in London?’

‘I don’t know. Are there?’

‘That’s what I heard. I haven’t ever got more than four or five of them confused with one another.’

IV

I made one more effort. I had the opportunity of speaking before a club of charming Englishwomen about the relationship between my two countries. In the genial discussion that followed, one gorgeously beautiful young matron said plaintively, ‘I never can understand what other people have against England! We never did anything to them.’

That was a fine chance. I asked any woman who had ever heard of the burning of Washington to hold up her hand. The audience was, as they say here, taken aback. Not a hand was raised. Not a face but was incredulous. However, after a little, one wise woman rose and said that their ignorance more than ever convinced her that all school histories should be written by foreigners. ‘Let Americans write our school histories, and Germans write them for France, and Sweden for Germany, and France for Russia, and Italy for America —’

We could n’t let her go on. It was too shocking, her idea. Rut she said such a scheme would naturally drive children later to consult the work of their own countrymen and get a balance of truth.

But, since this is n’t really practicable, I consider England’s way. She does n’t let her glories be forgotten. The Battle of Trafalgar has a great important square all to itself; and as for the Battle of Waterloo, Londoners leave and provincials arrive by its railway station. What a waste of hatred and national glory it is to have foreigners going west from New York by a depot called after an adjoining state not in the least likely to be forgotten! Why not change the name of the Pennsylvania to ‘Old Ironsides’? That would give people something to think about. And why not substitute for a flat and ignominious name like Central Park something like ‘Perry-onLake-Erie’? The real trouble is that these victories were not great and smashing enough to commemorate. However, we ought to use what we have.

I am in favor of having New York City called simply ‘The War of 1812.’ And then, when the British imagine the name refers to their struggles with Napoleon, we shall have a good opportunity to enlighten them. This suggestion may not be received favorably everywhere. But what are we to do? A hundred years have already passed, and are the English never to hear about the War of 1812?