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The War of 1812

The War of 1812 took place between 1812 and 1815.  It was between the United States and Great Britain/Canada.  The US wanted to end the British blockade on trade with France, and also to conquer Canadian territory. The British, consequently, wanted to defend their Canadian land and continue the blockade, as well as the practice of boarding neutral US trade ships and seizing the goods and crew as their own in times of war.  This is the war that helped the United States actually become unified in its national identity, yet this is often forgotten until its centennial anniversaries. With that said, last year marked the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and re-sparked enthusiasm for the war that normally gets shoved in the preverbal corner.  So, why does the first constitutionally sanctioned war usually receive so little attention?  In the “Interchange: The War of 1812” article the war is described as “sordid” due to the manipulation President Madison used in convincing Congress to sign off on the declaration of war (Cleves, Eustace, & Gilje, 2012, p. 522).  One of the shady ways he went about this was to present to Congress fraudulent spy letters from British spy John Henry (Wertheimer, 2012, p. 28). Once the war was declared and fought, no dominant winner emerged. Both Canada and the United States claimed victory, resulting in stronger national identities, and Great Britain lost very little.

Great Britain’s war with France led to blockading of trade with France and commandeering of American trade ships (and the supplies and seamen on board) to fight against the nation they wished to trade with. This, in turn, led America to start the war with Britain again. America also wanted to expand its boarders to include British-ruled Canada. The Canadian people wished to remain loyal to the mother country, and England wanted to keep their territory in the new part of the world.  The attempt to conquer Canada did not turn out to be successful for the US because of the “skillful defense of the Canadian boarder” (Black, 2012, p. 11) that “combined [the] efforts of [all] Canadians […] to repel the American invasion” (Cleves et al., 2012, p. 522). These factors led to a stronger sense of national identity for Canada, and also made them the winners of the war in their minds, because they did not associate the American victory in Louisiana as part of the same fight (Cleves et al., 2012, p. 522). The British are also considered winners in this war because they obtained their objective of keeping Canada as their own, and they never formally agreed to discontinue the act of claiming American ships and their occupants in time of war. The Royal Navy lost its Mistress of the Sea battleship in the battle of Fort McHenry (Graves, 2013), where the Americans outnumbered the British and blocked access to the Baltimore Harbor (Black, 2012, p. 11), but this was a minor accomplishment, considering the fact England was spreading itself thin by fighting multiple wars in several different areas at the time, and the British wound up staking out a spot in Mobile to further conduct attacks against Georgia (Black, 2012, p. 11). When the war with France ended, the blockade ended as well, rather than the battle of Fort McHenry in Louisiana being the determining factor (Graves, 2013).         

Trade with the French was essential to America’s growing economy, and the blockade was hindering that growth. Also, with the British forcing them to fight against the France by commandeering their vessels, they were essentially fighting themselves, since they were forced to fight a nation that was a buyer of American goods. They also felt that the physical nation should continue to expand, moving into Canadian territory. The objectives of conquering Canada and ending the maritime problems with Great Britain were not actually met, however. The battle in Louisiana was viewed as a major accomplishment when being reported of to Congress and the public because Andrew Jackson led a ragtag group of men to victory against the world’s strongest Navy at the time (Black, 2012, p. 11-12). President Madison spun the fact that “France had fallen [to the Royal Navy], but not America” to reinforce the incorrect notion that the United States had won the war he fought so hard to get approved. They managed to overlook the fact that the British were just ready to have peace after the battle with France (Black, 2012, p. 12). When their main war was over, so was their minor war with America. There was no significant gain of new land for the US, and if another war had erupted before the United States could form a stronger militia, America’s maritime rights would have probably been violated again, but this “ultimate victory” did help evolve America’s national identity by actually uniting the states.  They went from referencing themselves as “these” United states prior to 1812 to “the” United States after the war ended in 1815 (Graves, 2013), and it “ushered in an ‘era of good feelings’ in the US” by having their one “major” victory (Cleves et al., 2012, p.525).

Eventually Canada, the United States, and Great Britain became allies during the World and Cold Wars, and the War of 1812 was viewed “as an unfortunate family quarrel best forgotten” because the men from all three countries had to fight together, rather than against each other, as in the then relatively recent past.  Each side could still interpret the War of 1812 in its own way, making everybody happy (Graves, 2013), and it did help two very young nations gain their national identities.  For these reasons this war has a tendency to get shoved under the rug a majority of the time, also because it began from Madison’s somewhat shady campaign to twist public interest into thinking war was the answer for its first constitutionally sanctioned attack.         

This is how the War of 1812 is often overlooked until a centennial anniversary comes around, renewing a sense of pride in both Americans and Canadians for entirely different reasons. England neither lost nor gained anything substantial in this war.  With each side feeling they were the victors, the war could technically be viewed as a stalemate and not worthy of as much attention as wars where major revolutions were achieved or denied.  There was no independence gained, no significant amount of land lost, there was no change to undesirable policies.  Aside from the new national mentalities and a first in America’s constitutional history, it was a pointless war.

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