Sunday, June 17, 2012

June 18, 1812

Two hundreds years ago today, the War of 1812 -- one of the silliest and most unnecessary wars in the history of the universe -- began.

The war was the culmination of more than a decade of deteriorating relations between the fledgling United States and its former oppressor, those obnoxious Imperial Brits. England had been waging war with Napoleon since the French Revolution and tried to prevent Americans from trading with France on the open seas. Americans were also pissed that their soldiers were being impressed against their will to fight in the British war effort.

Canadians also love to talk smack that the real cause of the War of 1812 was the American "invasion" and attempted annexation of Canada, but I call bullshit on that claim. Sure, in the early days of the nation the U.S. had designs on Canada, and once the war started and there were some early American victories President Madison threw up his hands and said, "Why the fuck not? We're at war. Let's march to Toronto." But that's like saying that the Battle of Gettysburg was an attempt by the Confederate States of America to annex Pennsylvania. The reality is that, thanks to the Indian wars, the U.S. government in June 1812 didn't even have de facto control of the Northwest Territory (what is now Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin), so why would we try at that time to annex Ontario or Nova Scotia. Seriously, who writes the textbooks in Canada? Texans?

(Besides, the United States doesn't need to conquer Canada. We've owned the Stanley Cup for 18 years.)

The irony of The War of 1812 is that it never should've happened. The declaration of war was signed into law by Madison on June 18. But a month earlier Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister largely responsible on the British side for the deteriorating relations, was assassinated. His successor repealed most of the anti-American policies and openly expressed a desire to normalize relations with the U.S. Alas, 200 years ago it took weeks for news like this to cross the Atlantic, so the Americans were unaware of this policy shift until it was too late.

The war went back and forth for a couple of years, until Napoleon finally went down for good and the Brits had an opportunity to focus on this side of the Atlantic. Then the English started to deliver an ass-whoopin' to the States, burning Washington, D.C., blockading the New England coast and conquering much of Maine (funny how you never hear Canadians talk about the root cause of the War of 1812 was Canada's invasion and attempted annexation of Maine). The blockade crippled the economy in New England, which as a region had patched things up pretty nicely after the American Revolution and now claimed Britain as its biggest trading partner. Morale got so bad that there was a movement afoot in New England to secede from the United States and negotiate a separate peace with Great Britain(though other New Englanders floated less radical proposals).

The U.S. regained its footing in the Battle of Baltimore, which led to Francis Scott Key's writing of the national anthem. By the fall of 1814, Britain and the United States, two nations weary of a war in which neither side could gain the upper hand, began to talk peace. That ultimately led to the Treaty of Ghent, signed on Christmas Eve 1814, in which both sides agreed to returned to status quo ante bellum, with no gain or loss of territory on either side. But once again, 19th-century communications technology hindered the end of the war. Because it took weeks to relay the signing of the treaty, the U.S. routed the British in the Battle of New Orleans the month after the treaty was signed, and gave Americans a sense of final victory, a "Second War of U.S. Independence."

It's interesting to see how war has changed over a couple of centuries. What would happen today if we fought a war and New Englanders were so opposed to it that they talked of secession? And yet, despite this era of instant communication, any nation can conveniently withhold facts through propaganda or lies of omission and still create a redux of the War of 1812. As the War on Terror seemingly (hopefully) winds its way to a conclusion, let's hope we don't have to think about it much in the future. War changes over the centuries, but it still stays the same. The end result is that people die needlessly.

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