By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Most Americans don’t know we had a dust-up in 1812 with our not-so- distant British colonial masters. Well, we did and from June 30-July 6, 2012 we’ll be celebrating it in high style in Boston, Massachusetts, then in 11 other East Coast American cities that had a role in the war. The festivities will run from 2012-2015, with millions expected to come see.
No doubt the most popular and easily the most photogenic part of this commemoration will be the parade of the world’s tall ships, with more of these graceful relicts of days gone by assembled in one place than ever before. How many tall-ships will there be? William Armstrong, a spokesman for Operation Sail, the sponsor of this event along with the U.S. Navy, could not say exactly. But he did say that 120 nations have been invited to participate, and no doubt most of them will. As such it will draw visitors from around the globe to this living reminder of maritime majesty.
Two extra special features make a trip to Boston de rigueur when the tall-ships come. First, this is the home port of the USS Constitution, launched in 1797. It is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world. Dubbed “Old Ironsides” in sea battle where enemy cannonballs were seen to bounce harmlessly off her timbers, she defeated 4 superior British vessels, uniquely earning each of her captains a Congressional gold medal, perhaps in part because the Constitution’s victories were one of the very few aspects of the war in general to go well.
The second reason why Boston was selected to lead off the festivities has absolutely nothing to do with commemorating the war and absolutely everything to do with creating a truly whiz-bang of a program. While the tall-ships grace the harbor and capture every eye, the city of Boston (and all true believers in America’s national past-time) will be celebrating the centennial of Fenway Park, a theme which will inspire every sportswriter to wax poetic, nostalgic, with nary a dry eye in the (uncomfortable, over-priced) bleachers.
Not worth remembering.
Sadly all this hard work and the unbeatable thrill of seeing a large percentage of the most graceful and interesting sailing vessels still extant celebrates an entirely forgettable war that should never have occurred and which showed that Yankee rhetoric (always soaring and bombastic) far outpaced Yankee management, efficiency, and organization. In short, the Yanks, having pulled off the biggest victory of the 18th century, eviscerating British North American power and gaining independence, took the wrong moral from the tale and assumed their old nemesis was a paper tiger, always and forever to be defeated by the vainglorious sons of America. It was an arrogant point of view that was soon shown to be wistful thinking, and nothing more.
Family quarrels are always the most pernicious and hurtful.
From the very moment the British accepted the loss of her American possessions every patriotic Briton ached for a rematch with her now liberated and bumptious former colonies. Because this was a family quarrel, each side (and particularly the British) took the greatest possible pleasure in irritating Americans, outraging Americans, belittling Americans and humiliating Americans. The colonies might be lost, well then, let the regime of insult, condescension, and mutual irritants commence. And because both sides were Britons, who knew each other as well as the back of their own hand, they knew exactly what to do to cause maximum pain and umbrage… and they did it with relish and unbridled joy, “Take this, serves you right!”
For such antagonists another conflict was, and everyone knew it, inevitable. It was simply a matter of when… thus both nations bided their time; Britain bit by inexorable bit undoing Napoleon and his evanescent imperium, anxious to face again the unlikely winners who had humbled them with the gall and wormwood of 1776 and all that. It was a truly memorable antagonism, entirely personal, no holds barred, each and every encounter seen as an insult by the other. As I said, it was a very nasty family matter, casus belli unnecessary.
Historians will tell you the War of 1812 had many causes and no doubt they are right. But all those who have fought for victory in their homes and offices will know the messy battles in operation “Top Dog” in which the opponents battle for ultimate supremacy. In such a situation, with the need for overall power and control paternal, primal, with mutual good will and correct relations impossible until the fundamental matter is well and truly settled. They fought because each existed and that each found affronting and profoundly irksome.
The British goal in the War of 1812, a war which commenced as Napoleon then retreating from Russia after his fate-tipping disaster, thereby liberating British power, money and focus to upend the Yanks, was to continue her near absolute command of the world’s seaways. “Rule Britannia” was not a song; it was profound national policy.
By contrast, the Yanks, now controlling the most valuable real estate on earth, were anxious to get the rest… and this meant seizing Canada, every Yank believing that Canadians were anxious to be liberated. They weren’t, but that made absolutely no difference. Liberated and Americanized they would be, like it (and they surely would), or not.
The War of 1812 shaped up accordingly.
The British, the world’s greatest sea power, aimed to cripple the new American navy while making it quite clear that it would continue to impress seamen (particularly American seamen) into her vessels, whatever howls of outrage that might engender. Ships might be built… but able seamen were, as always, in short supply and thus England, whose very existence was predicated on maximum sea power, seized Americans wherever they could be had… without a shred of remorse.
The goal of the Americans was to justify their (to them) hefty allocations of limited national resources in a navy. Thomas Jefferson and friends (one of whom, James Madison, was president in 1812), profoundly provincial, regarded a navy as an expensive luxury, hoped to hobble it. The navy needed victories to prove how essential it was. And, of course, there was the great prize, Canada. Voltaire may have regarded the Canadas as a patch of snow… but the War Hawks in Washington, D.C. did not. They craved Canada in the worst way, and the way they went about wooing her showed just how bad that could be.
The ins and out of this struggle go beyond the confines of this article and may be found in “The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict” by Donald R. Hickey. Suffice it to say the Yanks made a dog’s dinner of their Canadian incursions and not a single Canadian was sorry. Thus, they kept their snow to themselves. The British burnt Washington, D.C. including the White House, to avenge a similar barbarity by the Yanks when they invaded Canada. And the greatest victory of the war by either side was the Battle of New Orleans, which in due course made General Andrew Jackson, president of the United States. Ironically that great victory took place after the peace treaty between the belligerents had been signed in Ghent.
No doubt some of this history will be told next summer, but the futile inconsequence of the war will be mentioned, if at all, sotto voce.
You, however, now know and will astonish all who pontificate in front of you. For you have heard the story here… so do book your reservations now with Operation Sail the better to see the key places in this forgettable conflict about to be commemorated more grandly than the war itself ever was.
About the Author
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is . at http://homeprofitcoach.com/associates , providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.