The Whitewashed War

Why the War of 1812 was a disaster intentionally misremembered, and how it changed American foreign policy forever.


Foreign visitors to the United States are quickly struck by the American enthusiasm for ostentatious declarations of patriotism: the national fondness for hanging the Stars and Stripes on front porches, or the fact that no sporting event takes place unless the national anthem has first been performed (along with, increasingly, a fighter-jet flyover). Heck, millions of school kids are asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, a ritual that would be considered creepy if witnessed in other countries. Of course, all this reaches a peak in early July each year. Fourth of July celebrates an uncomplicated, comfortable nationalism of a kind that is much harder to find in other countries less favored by history in general and the 20th century in particular.

But as Americans prepare for their annual festival of patriotism, the circumstances that gave birth to their star-spangled banner merit reappraisal. Francis Scott Key’s poem commemorates the gallant defenders of Fort McHenry (near Baltimore), who repulsed a British raiding party in the latter stages of the War of 1812. The victory in Maryland compensated, at least in part, for the humiliation suffered when British troops strolled into Washington and burned down the presidential mansion. (It was only after the mansion was repaired and painted that it became known as the White House.)

If the capital’s most famous building was whitewashed, the American version of the war was given a makeover too. The War of 1812 was not the costliest of America’s wars, nor even the most foolish. But it was a humiliating experience, and it necessitated a swift rewriting of history to reinterpret the war as a triumph for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Despite its defiant bluster, it is hard not to hear some sound of relief in Key’s poem — and no wonder. The Americans had made a terrible blunder, and for President James Madison, the final six months of the war were, in the judgment of historian Daniel Walker Howe, "probably the most harrowing that any president has been called upon to endure".

The war, notionally fought for "free trade and sailors rights" — that is, in protest against British restrictions on American shipping during the Napoleonic wars and against the Royal Navy’s habit of impressing into service British-born sailors found working on American ships — was a foolish, even futile, enterprise from the start. By the time it ended, not a single one of the fledgling nation’s ambitions had been achieved. Indeed, the new British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, a replacement for the assassinated Spencer Perceval, quickly rescinded the Orders in Council that had previously subjected American shipping to inspection. News of this only reached Washington after Congress and Madison had declared war.

The best that could be said of the American war effort was that the United States fought the British to a draw. The British, who had been keen to avoid war in the first place, could accept a kind of draw since their attention lay elsewhere. The War of 1812, so crucial to the young American republic, was a grave inconvenience to the British but rarely a matter of grave importance. Their beef was with Napoleon Bonaparte, not Madison. (The Americans, by definition, found themselves allied with Napoleon, gambling that his Russian adventure would succeed. It didn’t.)

With Britain and the rest of Europe convulsed by the twin dramas of the Peninsular War in Spain and Napoleon’s epic (and doomed) invasion of Russia, the War of 1812 was reduced to sideshow status. The British were, by and large, happy just to retain their existing North American possessions. At war’s end they were content to relinquish the parts of Maine they now occupied and that many inhabitants had assumed would shortly be swallowed by Canada.

For Madison and the war party in Washington, the stakes were high and the risks terrible. No wonder the war had to be re-imagined as a great American triumph in which daring Yankee sailors bearded and bested the mighty Royal Navy and Andrew Jackson’s volunteer army spanked the British on land at the Battle of New Orleans (nevermind that this encounter actually took place after the peace was signed but before news of it had reached the Americas).

It was 200 years ago next week that the first American ships sailed to pillage the trade on which Britain depended. The Duke of Wellington’s army, battling up the Iberian Peninsula, depended on North American wheat, and trade was Britain’s lifeblood. The myth of the War of 1812 has it that the tiny American Navy — just six frigates strong — pioneered "asymmetric" warfare on the high seas and humbled the all-powerful Royal Navy.

Up to a point, but the truth is more complicated. It is true that the American frigates, skippered by resourceful captains and crewed by experienced sailors, scored notable successes in single ship action. The Constitution (soon to be nicknamed "Old Ironsides") defeated the British frigates Guerrier and, later, Java while the USS United States, captained by Stephen Decatur, captured HMS Macedonian. The British public was appalled by these losses, and confidence in the Royal Navy’s invincibility was shaken.

The British fared poorly in a number of smaller actions too. After the brig-sloop Peacock had been bested by the American ship-sloop Hornet in February 1813, the Royal Navy’s court-martial complained about the "want of skill in directing the fire, owing to an omission of the practice of exercising the crew in the use of the guns for the last three years." But the chief reason for American success was that their frigates were larger than their British rivals and capable of delivering a heavier broadside. The American heavy frigates were armed with 24-pound guns, while the standard British frigate had to make do with 18 pounders.

Stirring as these American victories were, they proved little more than symbolic. Although American privateers enjoyed some success against British merchantmen, Sir John Borlase Warren, the new commander of the North American station, was given additional ships with which to blockade much of the American seaboard, and soon re-established its grip on the high seas. A temporary spike in Bermuda-based insurance rates was just that: temporary. The British convoy system — which would be used again in another global conflict 130 years after the War of 1812 — provided enough protection that losses became first tolerable and then negligible.

By 1813, the Royal Navy, already blockading most of Europe, was charged with squeezing the American economy, too. It did so to such great effect that coastal interstate trade all but disappeared. New England insurance rates for shipping and cargo rose by 75 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. exports declined precipitously, from $45 million in 1811 to just $7 million in 1814. The economic crisis was so severe that some Federalists in New England began to whisper about secession from the United States.

It was increasingly clear that American naval victories could not do more than prick the Royal Navy. Ships in harbor are useless things — and most American frigates spent most of the war bottled up in port. As the great British naval historian N.A.M. Rodger notes, "After the summer of 1813 the U.S. Navy’s opportunities were nearly gone. Only small warships still managed to get to sea, with fewer and fewer successes. Decatur’s frigates were laid up at New London. The Essex cruised successfully against British whalers in the remote Pacific until early 1814, but she was the last American warship of any size at sea. In June 1814 Isaac Hull, now commanding Portsmouth Navy Yard, was told by the Secretary of the Navy that it was not worth defending as the ships were now valueless. The President escaped from New York in January 1815 but was captured within a few hours."

That amounts to a strategic defeat, by virtually any measure. Britain ruled the waves, and British ships sailed the Chesapeake, unmolested by any American counter-measures.

Nor were American operations on land notably more successful, though here the war was characterized by considerable incompetence on both sides. Nevertheless, American desires on Canada proved fruitless and — far from expelling the British from North America — the war ended by confirming their presence. Thomas Jefferson had predicted that the "acquisition of Canada this year … will be a mere matter of marching." He was quite wrong. The war secured Canada and would in fact guarantee its separate, freeexistence. (It seems charmingly typical that Canadians worried this year about celebrating this victory too loudly.)

If Canada was the winner in the War of 1812, there was no doubt who the losers were. The Federalist Party, sensibly skeptical about the war from the beginning, was nevertheless a victim of its prosecution. If their fate was irrelevance, though, much worse befell the Native American population. In the years after 1815, the United States turned its eyes westward. Even tribes such as the Cherokee who had fought with the Americans against the British discovered this service afforded them precisely no protection at all as the Indians endured their long, appalling trauma.

By 1815 and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, the original reasons for the war had been rendered moot by events. The Royal Navy now had too many sailors, not too few; there was no need to impress anyone from American ships. Restrictions on American trade had been lifted before news of Madison’s declaration of war had even reached London, making the war an even more dubious misadventure.

Be that as it may, the British conceded nothing, and the Treaty of Ghent made no mention of either of the matters for which the United States had ostensibly gone to war. Treasury bonds soared by 13 percent as soon as news of the peace reached Washington. Elsewhere there was much relief that Madison’s reckless folly had ended at last.

Despite disgruntlement in trade-reliant New England, Albert Gallatin, leader of the American delegation sent to Europe to plead for peace, declared the war had "renewed and reinstated the national feelings and characters which the Revolution had given." War was nation-building too:  "The people … are more American; they feel and act more as a nation," Gallatin said.

Though supplanted in the popular memory by other wars since, this was 1812’s chief importance: It renewed the young republic’s fighting purpose and sense of identity. Following the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy turned its attention to the Barbary States again. Having defeated them, Commodore Decatur offered a now famous toast: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!" Nationalism was ascendant again.

The war’s other legacy was the emergence of Andrew Jackson — the hero of New Orleans and hammer of the Indians — as a national figure whose eminence was soon beyond dispute. Jacksonian politics would make marks on American government that can still be seen today. His expansionist, individualistic, pugilistic, ethics-free brand of politics sowed seeds that still sprout and flower. Jackson’s genes are part of the modern Republican Party’s DNA, while the turn west would inspire Frederick Jackson Turner’s "Frontier Thesis," making good American claims of manifest destiny.

This nationalist revival helped disguise that the War of 1812 had been a futile enterprise from the start — one in which the United States achieved none of its stated aims and which, far from uniting the country at the time, came closer to destroying it than any other American war, save the Civil War. Some 15,000 Americans perished (many of them from disease), and the navy, despite the manner in which its officers were feted as heroes, suffered an overwhelming (if also inevitable) strategic defeat.

Yet none of this could prevent the writing of another American myth: that the War of 1812 was a battle for liberty in which the United States bloodied Britannia’s imperial nose. The truth is that the war, almost wholly forgotten in Britain today, was an act of needless aggression from which Madison and his party were fortunate to escape relatively unscathed. Madison was fortunate; not every president has had the good fortune of seeing his acts of greatest folly end so comparatively well. Nevertheless, a folly it was. That Washington was rebuilt and the war subject to instant revisionism does not change all that. Perhaps this too is worth a thought when the Star-Spangled Banner is played this week and celebratory fireworks take the place of rockets and bombs bursting in mid-air.

A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola