The War of 1812 is something of a historical anomaly. The very fact that it is named after the year of its commencement is probably a tacit acknowledgement of the lack of enduring traction that it has had in the historical consciousness of its combatants, the British and the Americans. Of these two nations, the War of 1812 has (arguably) had a greater impact and legacy in the United States of America. For Britain, the War of 1812 was, for the most part, an inconvenient sideshow to the primary conflict of the early nineteenth century, the tussle with Napoleonic France. Prior to the convincing British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the spectre of a potential naval invasion and subsequent conquest by France loomed large in the British national psyche. By the outbreak of the War of 1812 with America, Britain was acutely aware that Napoleon’s ground forces posed a grave threat to the balance of power in continental Europe, even though the prospect of a naval invasion of Britain itself had receded. Therefore, in terms of the British strategic paradigm in 1812, the war with America had to play second fiddle to that with France. It should be remembered that it was ultimately America that declared war on Britain, not the other way around, which is probably revealing in terms of which nation viewed the War of 1812 as most significant at the time.
From the perspective of the newly formed United States of America, Britain’s attempts to regulate its global trade and impress its sailors amounted to an attack on its recently acquired sovereignty and nationhood. HMS Leopard firing on, boarding and subsequently impressing 4 sailors from USS Chesapeake in 1807 could be considered a direct and unabashed attack on America’s small navy and sovereignty. The mantra ‘Free Trade and Sailors Rights’ both fuelled and reflected the sense of grievance felt by some in America towards British actions. In 1812, President Madison authorised the first ever American declaration of war and an invasion of Upper Canada, which had been a British colonial possession since the conclusion of the French and Indian / Seven Years' War in 1763. This invasion marked the first offensive and official action of the War of 1812.
While not intending to be an exhaustive account, here are three key learning points about the War of 1812, which may serve you well the next time you undertake a game of Trivial Pursuit!
1) Many will know and be familiar with the American national anthem, which since 1931 has been entitled the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, written by Francis Scott Key. Some might be surprised to learn that the lyrics of the anthem itself were actually inspired by the intense British naval bombardment of the American Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland in 1814, which took place during the War of 1812. Therefore, the American anthem is actually the story of this British attack on America. Thus, the ‘bombs bursting in air’ were actually fired by the Royal Navy and the fact that in the morning ‘the flag was still there’ is a tribute to American resistance against the overnight shelling of Fort McHenry by the British. Perhaps ironically, a British composer, John Stafford Smith, wrote the melody of the American anthem. Moreover, it was part of a popular British drinking song at the time, with which many a contemporary Londoner would have been familiar in the numerous pubs and taverns of the English capital city.
2) The last time that the American Senate declared war was in 1942, against Romania. However, the War of 1812 is significant because it was the very first time that this had happened in the new nation’s history. Since the War of 1812, the Senate has passed a ‘Declaration of War’ on only ten further occasions in over 206 years. At the start of the War of 1812, the American army numbered only around 5000, relying heavily on the contribution of the state militia to bolster its ranks. Moreover, their Officer Corps lacked vital experience, with many of the revolutionary-era officers having retired. Today, American military personnel are stationed in over 150 countries around the world, highlighting the scope of U.S international involvement. In addition, by 2017 U.S military services boasted nearly 1.3 million trained personnel, with a substantial reserve component in addition to this. Much has changed in the 206 years since the War of 1812!
3) The War of 1812 was the first time that the American homeland was invaded. The White House in Washington D.C was burnt by British troops on 24 August 1814 as a punitive response to American forces burning the British Governor’s residence in York, Ontario. The next major attack to punctuate the consciousness of American’s was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, some 46,357 days later. To conclude the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent was signed on 24 December 1814 by British and American representatives. However, whilst the War of 1812 was inconclusive and ended in a draw, there were some significant outcomes. Canada was never to join the United States of America and embrace republicanism; Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of Canada as well as the Queen of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, rather than expanding north following the War of 1812, American expansionism adopted a westward trajectory. By 1840, well over a third of Americans lived to the west of the Appalachian Mountains. Considering that King George III had prohibited settlers in the former Thirteen Colonies from such expansionism in 1763, this represents an important development for the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’
If you have enjoyed this blog post, you might also fancy checking out the Versus History Podcast on the topic, which can be found here. Thank you very much indeed for reading. If you have any queries, comments, questions or corrections, please do get in touch!
Patrick O'Shaughnessy (@historychappy)
Co-Editor of Versus History