As we look forward to celebrating the bicentennial of the “Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, I have to admit, with deep shame and embarrassment, that until I left England and went to college in the U.S., I assumed the words referred to the War of Independence. In my defense, I suspect I’m not the only one to make this mistake.
For people like me, who have got their flags and wars mixed up, I think it should be pointed out that there may have been only one War of 1812, but there are four distinct versions of it—the American, the British, the Canadian and the Native American. Moreover, among Americans, the chief actors in the drama, there are multiple variations of the versions, leading to widespread disagreement about the causes, the meaning and even the outcome of the war.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, American commentators painted the battles of 1812-15 as part of a glorious “second war for independence.” As the 19th century progressed, this view changed into a more general story about the “birth of American freedom” and the founding of the Union. But even this note could not be sustained, and by the end of the century, the historian Henry Adams was depicting the war as an aimless exercise in blunder, arrogance and human folly. During the 20th century, historians recast the war in national terms: as a precondition for the entrenchment of Southern slavery, the jumping-off point for the goal of Manifest Destiny and the opening salvos in the race for industrial-capitalist supremacy. The tragic consequences of 1812 for the native nations also began to receive proper attention. Whatever triumphs could be parsed from the war, it was now accepted that none reached the Indian Confederation under Tecumseh. In this postmodern narrative about American selfhood, the “enemy” in the war—Britain—almost disappeared entirely.
Credit : Amanda Foreman for www.smithsonianmag.com | Photo : Thomas Birch