Two hundred years ago, the United States was mobilizing for conflict. The country had formally declared war for the first time in its history, against Great Britain. Hostilities would last for three years and claim around 20,000 lives on both sides.
Today, the War of 1812 is not well-remembered. Most people can’t explain its origins (a trade war that was an outgrowth of the ongoing conflict between the British Empire and Napoleonic France), its objectives (the United States sought to conquer Canada and failed) or its conclusion (a stalemate in which both sides gave up). The war’s most noted battle, which took place near New Orleans, occurred in January 1815, after the peace treaty had been signed. It was a significant U.S. victory, commanded by future president Gen. Andrew Jackson, and in that war, the wins were too few to be forgotten.
The public was closely divided on the conflict. Many New Englanders thought America should go to war with France instead. Daniel Webster spoke out against the war on July 4, 1812, at a speech in Portsmouth, N.H. Reflecting on the 36th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he said, “It is in the power of every generation to make themselves, in some degree, partakers in the deeds, and in the fame of their ancestors, by adopting their principles, and studying their examples.” He noted that when studying the life and works of the greats of the past, “the heart, as well as the understanding, feels the connection.” In so doing, people discover they are “part of the great chain of existence … binding the present to the past, and even to the future.”
Webster evoked the spirit of the founders when he envisioned future conflicts in which free people were again called on to defend their liberty against long odds. “They cannot perish better,” he said, “than standing between their country and the embraces of a ferocious Tyranny, hated of man, and accursed of God.”
The most durable product of the War of 1812 commemorated the type of desperate stand to which Webster alluded. Washington, D.C., lawyer Francis Scott Key jotted down the draft of what became the national anthem while watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814. Three weeks earlier, British forces had burned Washington, and it appeared the invasion fleet could not be stopped - but the force of the assault broke on Fort McHenry. By the “rocket’s red glare,” Key saw “proof through the night” that the “Star-Spangled Banner” still waved and that the fort had held. Their commander having been killed and their position tenuous, the British naval and land forces withdrew, to next make landfall at New Orleans.
America’s defenders, as Webster had presaged two years earlier, couldn’t have perished better than in that hard-fought battle. But they lived, and America again won its freedom.
The Washington Times
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