History and Historians, Our Glorious National Heritage

Nasty, Brutish, Short — and Not Worth Commemorating

Or, A Modest (But Friendly!) Rebuttal

Joe Adelman raised an interesting point on Twitter today: should we commemorate the War of 1812? And if so, on what grounds? Joe’s ably summarized and commented on the conversation that ensued  in a blog post here. Take a look!

Now, from that you’ll see that I placed myself firmly in the “War of 1812 isn’t worth commemorating” camp. It’s been a solitary experience.

Before I get into why I think that’s a reasonable position to hold, let me clear one thing up first. Savvy scholar that he is, Joe redefined the terms of debate somewhat in his post: the slippage I see is between the word at issue in our earlier discussion – “commemorate” – versus the term he uses in the title of his post: “remember.”

If it’s the latter that is under discussion, I concede the field immediately. I am no partisan of forgetting! Nature’s own efficiency in that realm is more than adequate, with no need for any obstreperous historian to douse spotless minds with excessive sunshine. You know how archive-rats feel about sunshine. <shudder>

But I don’t think that’s the real issue here. The source of my original consternation – commemoration –  is, in truth, the subject of Joe’s post. The abbreviated list of points about of the War of 1812 that he suggests make it worthy of commemoration strike me as short sighted. It’s all fine (American) nationalist historiography, so long as one’s horizons extend … to 1815.

To take the points in order:

1.) It established that Canada would remain British.
Er, not exactly. Or maybe better said, not everyone was convinced. The extent to which Canada was ever really up for grabs is debatable, but in any case, it remained a target for American filibusters well after the war; that these were only slightly less disastrous than the official feints in 1775 and 1812 had been is surely no point against them. (Further: the internet tells me that contingency plans for invading Canada were part of the U.S. Army’s standard prep after WWI , too.)

2.) It established the United States’ right to exist
The U.S.’s right to exist wasn’t quite the object of the British invasion – there was this pesky thing with Napoleon that the U.S.’s bellicosity was making more complicated – but even (let’s say) if it was, the dream of extinguishing the proud republic on the North American continent remained unsettled for decades; what was all that trouble about the British helping to arm the Confederates, again? Aiding and abetting the slaveholders’ rebellion was a far more serious incursion than sacking the Capitol. And as for the impressment of seamen and capturing of U.S. vessels for violating British law – well, that continued apace for decades after 1815. Ask John C. Calhoun or Daniel Webster.

3.) The War of 1812 was an event of important significance in several locales.
Well… sure. And Delaware’s gubernatorial election of 1912 was of important significance in several locales, while we’re at it. (Though its commemoration might be at least a bit dapper, and probably include more interesting cocktails, given the era). More seriously, I would not begrudge, say, Baltimore drumming up some tourist dollars and doing some public educational service by highlighting the city’s connection to 1812’s events – but that’s not what we’re discussing, really, is it?

To Joe’s list one could also add the boost the war gave to Andrew Jackson’s political career, or its impact in the U.S.’s war against native peoples (AJ again, mainly). And while I’m not a huge fan of the national anthem, the Francis Scott Key fanboys presumably have something get excited about, too…

Okay, so far so snarky. I’m not really an adherent of historical nihilism. What I’m trying to point out here is that while every grain of historical sand is unique and special in its own way, they are not equally worthy of state-funded commemoration.

Joe is right on to say that the War of 1812 was an important event, culturally and politically productive in many ways. Should we remember it? Sure. Better to analyze it in context, though, while we’re at it. But commemorate it? By funding bicentennial celebrations? Naw. I say leave the hoopla in storage, or for other things.

What does a commemoration mean? Well, we commemorate accomplishment. We commemorate tragedy, or sacrifice. The blood spilled to end slavery, for example (an anniversary whose coincidence with 1812 is lamented in both the storify narrative and the WSJ article, incidentally). I think the difference between 1812 and these other moments lies in whether the things that serve as the object of commemoration remain contested objects, with political resonance – and, in some cases, debate.

And, indeed, so it is with the War of 1812. The commemorative push is being driven by Canadian politics, more than antiquarianism or interest in historical analysis. From the WSJ:

“The country’s ruling Conservative party is promoting the war as a crucible of Canadian nationhood, uniting English and French Canadians and Native groups. … The left-leaning New Democratic Party has accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of using the bicentennial to promote flag-waving nationalism centered on Canada’s British roots.”

So there are dogs in this fight for parties on one side of the border. But what about this in the U.S.? Why is a frivolous war noted primarily for its egregious political miscalculations and epic leadership failures worthy of formal – codified, stale, state-centered – remembrance?

If you are going to spend money – public money, though in amounts that are laughably small compared to other expenditures, to be sure – there should be some kind of public education, and public use beyond adding a coat of varnish to the nostalgia. And there is certainly fodder in the War of 1812 for that! Alas, from the evidence, that’s not the kind of thing the push for the commemoration of the War of 1812 is about. And therein lies my disagreement with Dr. Adelman.

But never fear: we’re only nine years from the dodransbicentennial of the Mexican-American War! Good times to be had by all.

2 thoughts on “Nasty, Brutish, Short — and Not Worth Commemorating”

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