But America's least celebrated war deserves better. The War of 1812, while one of the most bungled in American history and least remembered, may have been one of the most important. Think not? Keep reading.
The War of 1812 is so obscure that many Chicagoans will be surprised to learn that the Fort Dearborn Massacre — a historic and bloody clash here — actually was one of the earliest battles of the war. In it, some 500 Potawatomi and other Native Americans who were allied with the British killed, wounded or took prisoner a column of almost 100 soldiers, civilian men, women and children evacuating the fort under the promise of safe passage.
From the start, the war seemed a bad idea. The fledgling United States, just two decades after the Constitution conceived a nation out of 13 disparate former colonies, declared war on the British Empire, which then was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Napoleon Bonaparte's French Empire. Britain and France spat on America's neutrality in the European war, but the British were more deserving of a slap-down, pulling sailors off American ships, arming Native Americans to repel settlers in the old Northwest Territory and engaging in other threats to America's sovereignty. War hawks in Congress also thought it would be a good idea to invade and annex Canada.
President James Madison reluctantly asked Congress for a declaration of war, which obliged after extended debate. Two hundred years ago on Monday, Madison signed the declaration. America had a half-dozen warships; the British about 500. America's regular army consisted of 5,000 officers and men; British forces totaled about a half-million. The Navy acquitted itself well, but the Army, along with poorly trained and equipped state militias, was led by incompetent, cowardly, prideful or confused generals, mostly old guys left over from the Revolutionary War.
By all rights, the United States should have been pasted, but good. But it survived and provided evidence for the then-revolutionary idea that liberty-minded people could govern themselves. It demonstrated that self-government — call it a democracy or a republic — is more than a theoretical idea, but a workable one, even in wartime.
Consider the times. Monarchs and assorted autocrats ruled Europe. Citizen self-rule at best was considered experimental or the ramblings of a few political philosophers. At worst, it was folly and a breach of natural law.
That view didn't need to look far for supporting evidence: the French Revolution. What started as a struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity ended badly in the betrayals and fatal excesses of the Jacobins and Napoleon. That the republican form of government would disintegrate into mob rule was believed to be self-evident. Especially so in wartime. You can't fight a war when every man jack soldier and sailor considers himself to be the equal of all.
If America had been defeated, the North American continent and possibly the world would have been a much different place. The New England states perhaps would have made a separate peace, rending the nation in half. The Southern states, as a separate nation, would have preserved slavery for … how long? Mexico might have retained California and the Southwest.
There could have been two or more un-United States of America. America as we know it wouldn't have been around during two world wars to help save the world's democracies from the despots of the right and the left.
Somehow Americans gathered themselves together to win crushing victories at the war's close over the invaders at Baltimore, Plattsburgh and New Orleans. A sense of national identity was born. America had gained the grudging respect of the international community.
Canadians, who repulsed the badly executed American invasion, consider the war a watershed, forging their own national identity. Commentators and scholars consider the war a draw, as conditions that existed before the war were restored.
But Americans won in an undeniably important way: The nascent democracy demonstrated to the world that the nature of self-government was not to inevitably unravel. America proved that free people could unite to preserve their liberties against huge odds. For America and the democracies to follow, this should be cause for celebration.