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.
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.
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.
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
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."
the loss of Detroit hardened opposition to the Madison administration and set
the war effort back a year, American forces (surprisingly) fared better in
crucial naval engagements with the British in the Great Lakes, some of which
remain battles of national legend. But the most storied moments in the War of
1812 -- the Battle of Baltimore and the penning of the National Anthem by Francis
Scott Key, the British invasion of Washington, D.C., and the Battle of New
Orleans -- were almost certainly a product of America's military failures earlier
in the war.