America’s First ‘War of Choice’

As far as I know, there isn’t a book entitled “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the War of 1812.” There should be. This week marked the 200th anniversary of the beginning of that conflict, yet there has been barely a mention in the news media about it.

A cursory look at the background and history of the War of 1812 gives you a clue why. Despite being later billed as America’s Second War for Independence, it was no such thing. The War of 1812 was America’s first “war of choice,” notes Jefferson Morley. Richard Hofstadter, one of America’s most notable historians, called it a “a ludicrous and unnecessary war.”

It was instigated by the rabble-rousing of politicians and Congressman, who historians labeled “war hawks,” who wanted to conquer Canada and subjugate the Native American nations on the western border of the United States.

The alleged casus belli for war was the impressment of U.S. sailors by the British. Yet the British ended that policy five days after war the United States declared on June 18. And the first major American military action wasn’t at sea, but on land, an attempt to conquer Canada.

All three attempts on Canada were utter and complete failures, primarily due to the ineptness and incompetence of the American commanders, but also because many of the state militias, to their credit, refused to invade another country.

If someone were to write a politically incorrect guide to the War of 1812, it would include some of these points as well:

Impressment was a common practice of the Royal Navy, especially during wartime, and most men impressed were taken off British merchant ships. But the practice was also used by the Continental Navy during the American Revolution.

The Battle of New Orleans, the most famous battle of the war which made Andrew Jackson a national hero, was fought after the peace treaty had been signed.

Both the French and the British harassed American shipping during the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, in the early 1800s, other war hawks were clamoring for war with France.

By European standards of war, the United States lost because the British burnt our capital.

The first attempt by a group of states to secede from the Union occurred during the war – in New England.

The treaty of peace did not mention impressment, the alleged cause of the war, or involve any territorial changes. It was basically a status quo ante bellum (return to the state of things before the war.)

The Guilford County Courthouse flag, popularly thought of as having flown at that Revolutionary War battle in North Carolina, actually was probably a state militia flag used during the War of 1812.

 

Further reading:

America’s First Neocon War
Happy Birthday, War of 1812
War of 1812 on History.com