The successful defense set the stage for Canada’s future independence and nationhood. Among the calamities Canadians believe they thus avoided, named by 6 percent in the Ipsos Reid poll: Sharing American citizenship with Snooki and the cast of “Jersey Shore.”
The British preserved their position in North America, but the war was hardly an unqualified success. Waging the war proved enormously expensive, the Royal Navy suffered shocking defeats at the hands of the fledgling U.S. Navy, and the British army met with disaster at New Orleans.
As for Americans, they endured humiliating defeats on the Canadian frontier, the disgraceful loss of Washington and a government that was bankrupt by the war’s end (having refused to raise taxes to pay for it — another precedent!). Yet a string of victories at the end of the war — including at Baltimore and Plattsburgh — allowed the United States to emerge from peace negotiations in Ghent with decent terms. The Americans may have lost militarily, Hickey has observed, but they won the peace.
The only point virtually all scholars agree on— as required by guild regulations governing the assessment of American wars — is that Native Americans were the big losers. British efforts to establish an Indian buffer state in the Old Northwest were abandoned at Ghent, and America’s westward expansion continued inexorably.
Some argue that Americans want to remember only victories, and that therefore they have forgotten the War of 1812, which ended in failure. Or as a draw. Or with no clear-cut victory. But it was certainly more of a success than Vietnam, and no one has a problem remembering that war.
A bigger factor may be the name. The War of 1812 is a singularly poor name for a war that lasted nearly three years. The Spanish-American war, everybody knows the contestants. The Barbary Wars are nothing if not atmospheric.
But the War of 1812? It has a clerical feel, something to be filed after the Enabling Act of 1802 but before the Panic of 1819.
Despite such challenges, there are signs of hope for the War of 1812 in the Ipsos Reid poll: 77 percent of Americans believe it had a significant impact on the nation’s identity. Certainly, Americans of the day believed that.
“The war has renewed and reinstated the national feelings and character which the Revolution had given, and which were daily lessening,” said Albert Gallatin, the former treasury secretary who helped negotiate the treaty. The people, Gallatin added, “are more American; they feel and act more as a nation; and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured.”
The war left America with its national anthem, and its most enduring icon, the Star-Spangled Banner. It firmly established the sovereignty of the United States and cleared the path for Canada’s eventual independence.
For those reasons and many others not involving Snooki, the War of 1812 deserves to be better remembered and better respected.
Steve Vogel is the author of “Through The Perilous Fight,” an account of the British invasion of the Chesapeake in 1814, to be published next spring by Random House.