1812 and All That (30 cents)

I must admit I have never really know that much about the War of 1812. I knew that Washington was burned, that the Star Spangled Banner was written, and that Andrew Jackson took New Orleans after the war was over. But I had no real context and, for this reason, I decided to read Walter Borneman’s book, “1812”.

It turns out that things were pretty complicated. Yes, there was a United States, but it still was pretty much an agglomeration of sovereign states, with the national identity still in formation. And the boundaries were shifting – Louisiana had just been purchased, but not fully controlled, and the borders with Canada weren’t that firm, either. What’s more, it wasn’t even clear who was a citizen of what country. If you were a British colonial living in, say, Massachusetts at the time of independence, did you automatically lose your British citizenship?

In the meantime, the young nation was trying to get its economic house somewhat in order, but found its trade abroad limited by continual attacks of various types (to collect “taxes”, to impress sailors into the British navy, to steal cargo) on the high seas. Most of the ships were English.

So, the nation needed to establish its equality on the seas (you can imagine the differing opinions here, from those whose livelihood depended on ocean trade and those who did not, for example). And to set its northern borders; and for some, that meant incorporating Canada, or parts of Canada into the United States (why would the French want to stay under Britain?). Etc. etc.

So, the military got into action – fighting the British in the north, and fighting British on the oceans. And, there were other actions against Indian tribes and confederations, which were themselves involved in Anglo-American politics, and the influence of the French and Spanish had to be removed from the Louisiana Territory, and why shouldn’t Florida be American after all?

So Detroit was American, and then Canadian, and again American. Mackinac Island stayed British a long time. Aaron Burr was involved with grandiose expansion schemes and, if those weren’t going to work, maybe dissolution schemes, because who says that the Northwest Territories and the Louisiana Territory have to remain part of America, and the residents of New England might have been, on the whole, just as happy to wind up with England or with Canada than to stay with the new United States, and the British did attack Washington and burn the government buildings to the ground (and were they surprised at the lack of resistance) but were stymied when they tried the same trick on Baltimore (the star spangled banner kept flying). And, after five years or so, the war was ended by treaty in Europe, but the news of the treaty took a long time to travel back to the New World, so how was Andy Jackson to know when he was determined to keep the British from conquering New Orleans (and likewise how would the British commander know, or would he care because, after all, it’s only a treaty)?

Very interesting. All of it.

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