I admit I’m slow. It wasn’t until I read Donna Seger’s excellent blog post on historical anniversaries that I made the connection. It’s the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Duh! *
It’s an easy war to overlook for those of us who aren’t specialists in American history. It’s so small in scale and seems so pointless. British impressment of American sailors. The British burn the capitol. Dolly Madison takes a valiant stand. “They ran through the briars, and they ran through the brambles, and they ran through the bushes where the rabbits couldn’t go.” And then it’s done. In short, one of those little wars that only a specialist can love.
A closer look at 1812 tells a different story.
At the end of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin warned, “The War of Revolution has been won, but the War of Independence is still to be fought.” The Treaty of Paris in 1783 recognized the United States as a new nation, but left many problems between the two countries unresolved.
Britain and its former colony butted heads at every point of contact. Disputes over the fur trade, commercial fishing rights, and the placement of the Canadian border were common. American frontiersmen accused the British of supporting Native American uprisings in the Old Northwest territory. British ship owners complained, not unreasonably within the context of British law at the time, that if the American colonies were no longer colonies then American ships should no longer be allowed to trade directly with British colonies. Americans refused to pay debts owed to British merchants from before the Revolution and continued to seize property from former British loyalists. The British not only refused to relinquish existing forts in what was now American territory, they built a new one. Then there was the problem of impressment–the one thing every American school child learns about the war.
Things got worse when Britain and France went to war in 1793. Britain enacted laws that interfered with America’s shipping rights as a neutral power. The number of sailors impressed to served on British ships rose. Americans saw every British decision as a direct attack on America’s economic freedom. The British made the mistake of assuming Americans would see Britain as the lone defender of liberty against Napoleonic tyranny.
The United States declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. Discussions aimed at ended the war began before the first shot had been fired and continued throughout the war. In the summer of 1814, a five-man delegation from America met a team from Britain to begin formal peace negotiations.
The Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814, restored North America to the condition that had existed before the war. The war brought no major changes in territory and policy. It did result in a change in the relationship between Britain and the United States. Britain had been forced into a grudging respect for its former colonies and a new appreciation of their economic importance for British industry. The war for independence was finally over.
Not such a stupid little war after all.
*And speaking of anniversaries, History in the Margins just had it’s first anniversary. I’m not sure if I should say “Dang! A year already?” or “Dang! Only a year?” Either way, thanks to all of you for reading along.