Yet, this is unfair not only to the men and women who waged the war, but it’s also dangerous if one wants to understand the history of the republic and, specifically, the republicanism that had upheld the country. Certainly, all kinds of oddities linger around it. For example, the war began days before the British issued an apology for its wrongs toward us, and the war, at least at the diplomatic level, ended before the final and decisive Battle of New Orleans. Even defining the war’s causes proves difficult. At some level, it was about trade. At another, it was about violence on the frontier. And, at a third level, it was about pride.
Whatever one thinks or understands about the war itself, there can be no doubt that it radically and fundamentally altered the American republic in both blatant and subtle ways. Here are five consequences of the war.
First, America witnessed its first popular expression of nationalism. There had been nationalists within the American Republic from 1780 on, but they had remained a minority of statesmen and politicians, and the idea of a republic had carried far more weight than the idea of nation in the minds of the overall population. As soon as the war ended, there were calls for a second National bank, a large and permanent standing army, and new tariffs and public works, all directed from Washington, D.C. The United States also began building a whole series of harbor defenses and fortresses along the Atlantic. One of these, Fort Sumter, would still not be finished in 1860, but it would help light the fuse that almost destroyed the republic.
Second, while political parties as we understand them today did not exist until roughly 1832 and 1836, those who had kept the title Federalist dwindled to almost nothing by 1815. Once proudly defending the passage of the U.S. Constitution and backing the presidencies of Washington and Adams, the Federalists had become an embarrassment by 1815. Why? Because they had openly opposed America’s fighting the War of 1812, seeing it as a reckless and dangerous adventure for a small republic. They had called the war, “Mr. Madison’s War.” Had the war actually ended in 1814 rather than after the Battle of New Orleans, the Federalists might have saved face. As it was, the victory at New Orleans proved so powerful as to make all Federalists and all who had opposed the war seem “un-American” and traitorous. The American population was very willing to forget that it had also questioned the war.
Not every Federalist went underground or changed his stripes, but most did. Daniel Webster kept much of his Federalism during his life, and no one maintained a consistent Federalism better than did the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835, John Marshall. In his most important decisions, Marshall upheld Federalist principles in Marbury v. Madison, Fletcher v. Peck, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, and Ogden v. Maryland. He upheld the Federalist vision in his two rulings on the Cherokee Indians in 1831 and 1832—Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia—but the popular tide was against him, and his decisions did little to protect the native peoples from forcible and unjust removal.
Third, America witnessed the rise of powerful technologies, but none more so than the employment of the steam engine. Americans also developed more powerful artillery and even a somewhat-functional submarine. Much of this technological progress centered around the successes of Robert Fulton, the Steve Jobs of his era.
Fourth and most ironically, Great Britain came to respect the United States. Ever since the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the British had—as a whole—thought very little of us. We were upstart rebels entertaining the fantasy that we could maintain a republic in the modern world. To most civilized Europeans, a“republic” was synonymous with fairyland or utopia, an impossibility in a rational world governed by interest and passion. The British saw the years following the American Revolution as a waiting period, they simply waiting for the republic to collapse, as collapse it must. When the ragtag and motley crew of 2,000-plus men in Andrew Jackson’s militia prevented 8,000 battle-hardened veterans of the Napoleonic Wars from claiming New Orleans, not only did Jackson become a living legend in America, but he also became the symbol of republican power, might, and majesty throughout Europe. No one better respected the Americans for their profound stomping on the British than the British. Indeed, that special Anglo-American relationship that has yet to falter began shortly after the Battle of New Orleans. Brian Kilmeade has made the best case for America’s changed status in his beautiful and engaging Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans (2017), which I am only now reading. Soon after the war, the American and British settled—for the most part—the boundary between the United States and Canada, and poor English nobility began to look to wealthy American families into which they could marry. A mutual fascination between the U.S. and Britain arose as well, especially in the publication of books describing in detail the land, the homes, and the culture of each.
Finally, for the second time in its history, America projected its power in North Africa. Though President Jefferson had waged war against the pirates of the area at the beginning of the century, the North Africans had continued to harass American ships in the Mediterranean. Having built up the naval fleet during the War of 1812 and having gained much knowledge of naval warfare, the United States Navy under the command of Stephen Decatur warred against the pirates in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, effectively ending the harassment for nearly 150 years. Only after the creation of Israel would the Islamic countries of North Africa and the Near East seriously threaten American interests in the region.
Though it is easily overlooked in our study of American history as we impatiently move on to the Civil War, then, the War of 1812 radically altered the American body politic and its culture. We ignore it and its lessons at our own peril.
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The featured image, provided by the Library of Congress, is a 1910 painting, “The Battle of New Orleans,” by Edward Percy Moran. It is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.