The War of 1812–Why Should We Care?

"Peace" by John Rubens Smith, from the Library of Congress

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.

Stranger Magic

I’m fascinated by the Arabian Nights. By the stories themselves and the way they fit together into their complicated frame story. By their transformation from Arabic street tales to a established position in the Western canon.* By their echoes in Western culture, from the Romantic poets to Disney.

So I was delighted to get a chance to review historian and critic Marina Warner’s new work on the tales.

Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights is a multi-faceted study of the popular tales of wonder and magic known as the Arabian Nights.

Warner discusses the tales in the Arabian Nights with the interdisciplinary approach that she used to good effect in her earlier study of Western fairy tales, From the Beast to the Blonde. She examines them through the lenses of literary criticism, history, folklore studies, feminist theory and popular culture. She pays particular attention to the history of the Arabian Nights in the west, from the reception of the first translation from the Arabic by Antoine Galland in the eighteenth century through its influence in works as distinct as Mozart’s operas and the Harry Potter books.

Not assuming that readers will have the same familiarity with “The Prince of the Black Islands” as they do with “Sleeping Beauty”, Warner retells fifteen tales before she unravels them into their constituent themes, symbols and assumptions. She moves easily from the Biblical story of King Solomon to magic carpets, from the reputation of Egypt as the home of ancient magic to Sir Isaac Newton’s alchemical experiments, and from the wealth of the Islamic world in the twelve century to post-Reformation anxiety about Catholic religious practices.

Warner succeeds once again in balancing entertainment with erudition. Like her earlier works, Stranger Magic is accessible enough for the general reader and rich enough to keep a specialist scribbling in the margins.

This review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

* For those looking for the short version, here’s my take on the subject: The Hawaki of Paris

History on Display: Byzantium and Islam

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Islamic gallery has been on my to-do list for this  year’s trip to New York ever since it opened last November. It has some amazing pieces.  But the exhibit that blew me away was Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition.

I want to make it clear right from the start: I know next to nothing about the Byzantine Empire.  In my mental chronology, it’s basically a placeholder between the “real” Roman Empire and the rise of Islam. (I realize this is a wrong-headed and mistake positionn.  We all have holes in our mental history of the world.)

The exhibit rammed me right up the sharp edges of my own ignorance.  It gave me a broad-brush introduction to a multicultural empire that covered more territory than I realized.  There were plenty of surprises.  The one that had me scraping my jaw off the Metropolitan’s marble-tiled floor was the Iconoclastic Controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries.

If you’re like me, your mental image of Byzantium looks like this:

With that picture in my head, I find it hard to combine the words “Byzantine ” and “Iconoclasm” in a sentence.  And yet it appears that there was not just one period of Byzantine iconoclasm, but two.  The First Iconoclasm lasted from 726 to 774 CE; the Second Iconoclasm from 813-842 CE.

During these periods, the Orthodox Church was torn by theological battles over the use of icons and images as objects of religious veneration.  Imperial edicts forbade the creation or use of icons.  In some parts of the empire, including Constantinople itself, existing images were plastered over*.  Some iconoclasts took a more labor intensive approaching, carefully removing tiny mosaic tiles and jumbling them into a new, abstract pattern.

No one really knows what triggered the controversy.  Some attribute it to an imperial attempt to seize control over the wealthy Orthodox Church.  Others see it as a response to the rise and spread of Islam during the same period.

Whatever the reason, I was totally gobsmacked by this new insight into Byzantium.  Anyone else had their historical certainties shaken up recently?

Updated:  For those of you who can’t make it to New York in the coming months, here’s a wonderful slideshow of items from the exhibit from History Today.