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The Most Important War You Probably Know Nothing About

Gather round, children, and let me tell you about the War of 1812.

Can you feel the excitement in the air? June 18 is the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and I'm sure you're thinking: Why no parades down Main Street? Why no historical reenactors costumed as President James Madison, who signed the declaration of war, or Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the Hero of Lake Erie? Because Americans have a short historical memory, that's why. Or perhaps it's because we don't commemorate equivocal wars. But don't be fooled by the absence of huzzahs: The War of 1812 was one of the great liberating events of American history, and I'm here to tell you why.

One of the buried facts of our collective past is that the United States came very close to dissolving long before slavery sundered the union. America was in almost perpetual peril during the quarter century from the French Revolution to the Treaty of Ghent, which concluded the war with Britain in 1814. Throughout this period, the two great world powers of the time, France and England, sought to destroy each other; each tried to bribe, seduce, subvert, or intimidate the neutral states in order to tip the balance in their favor. In this great and cynical game, the United States, which at the time constituted what we would now call "an emerging nation," was one of the most valuable prizes.

American politics consisted of, in effect, an "English" party and a "French" party. This was scarcely unusual at the time: Both republican Holland and autocratic Russia, among others, tilted back and forth between partisans of the two. In America, however, the Founding Fathers recognized that this contest for supremacy posed a mortal threat to the nation. In his brief farewell address, George Washington ardently defended the policy of neutrality to which he had consistently hewed. The president warned his fellow citizens that "excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other."

Alexander Hamilton largely wrote Washington's farewell address; and Hamilton, an Anglophile, was using the president's immense prestige to warn of the susceptibility of Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party to France and the doctrines of the French Revolution. Federalists like Hamilton derisively referred to the Jeffersonians as "Jacobins" -- revolutionary camp-followers. France, for its part, sought to use the U.S. Republicans as an extra-territorial arm of the revolution. In 1792, France sent an ambassador to the United States with the express goal of enlisting Americans in its war with England. The minister, Edmond-Charles Genet, outfitted privateers in the pro-French South with the goal of preventing New England merchants from trading with England and encouraged the creation of "democratic-republican societies" to fight against alleged "aristocratic" tendencies in America -- until an outraged President Washington demanded that he desist.

France was the chief provocateur during this period. Like Russia after 1917, France saw itself as the standard-bearer of a global revolution; a levée en masse produced a standing army of 800,000 prepared to overwhelm the reactionary forces of Europe. A combination of diplomatic insults and attacks on American shipping drove President John Adams to the very edge of declaring war against France in 1798 (as I described here). Later, Napoleon channeled those revolutionary energies into the more traditional French goal of dominating neighbors and bringing England to its knees. Napoleon even dreamed of sending a force from Haiti up the Mississippi in order to seize the western territory of the United States. The plan came to grief when his army was decimated by yellow fever and Haitian guerillas. The emperor reacted to his failure with a magnificent gesture of disgust: He sold Louisiana to President Jefferson in 1803.

Although it was the greatest windfall in the nation's history, the Louisiana Purchase also came very close to dividing America in half. Federalists now feared -- rightly, as it turned out -- that the new citizens of the south and west would identify with the democratic Jeffersonians rather than with a party that looked back nostalgically to a pre-revolutionary European order. In late 1803 and early 1804, most of the leading Federalists plotted to secede from the union and seek an alliance with England. The conspiracy appears to have collapsed when Aaron Burr killed Hamilton in a duel (though Hamilton had not supported the secessionists).

France continued to intrigue against the United States, but even the most ardent American Jacobins lost faith in the revolutionary project once Napoleon placed the imperial crown on his own head. Washington's warning now applied far more to the partisans of England than of France. British ships patrolled the waters of the Atlantic hunting for U.S. merchant vessels carrying goods from the French West Indies and regularly boarded American ships searching for English sailors who had fled the abysmal pay and dreadful conditions of His Majesty's Navy. And while most Americans were outraged by these incursions on national sovereignty, leading Federalists sided with Britain and publicly excused their offenses. The party split between, in effect, a pro-British and pro-American faction, and the extremists, known as the Essex Junto, degenerated into precisely the kind of fifth column they had earlier accused the Republicans of being. At the Hartford Convention of 1810, the Junto once again sought to turn New England into a separate nation.

Both Jefferson and Madison went to great lengths to overlook British provocations, especially the impressment of American sailors into the British navy. Both understood, as Washington had also observed in his farewell address, that owing to America's "detached and distant situation," "the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance"-- so long as the country could steer clear of European broils. They recoiled in horror from the pointless bloodshed of the Napoleonic wars, and worried that the United States would become a Europe of its own, divided into eternally warring states. Both men hoped that diplomacy would make war unnecessary; indeed, the U.S. had cause enough to go to war in 1807, when English depredations against American shipping began in earnest, though it would have been even more woefully unprepared than it proved to be in 1812.

The war itself was basically a draw: American land forces were humiliated in Canada, but sailors like Commodore Perry achieved stunning victories over the greatest navy the world had ever seen. The Treaty of Ghent merely restored the status quo ante. But the war had put a decisive end to the Federalists, who had barely been able to celebrate American victories. Even more important, the world war between France and England had ended with the ruin of the former. England no longer needed to block American shipping or to shanghai U.S. sailors to fill out a wartime navy. For the next century, Europe would basically leave America alone.

For the previous decades, American politics had consisted essentially of foreign policy. Only with the war's end could rival political parties form around differing visions of the country's own future: a strong versus a weak central government; a manufacturing versus an agrarian economy; and, ultimately, a nation of freemen versus one of owners and slaves. America was now free to fulfill its territorial, economic, demographic, and -- for better and worse -- political destiny.

So now you know. You still have two years left to organize the parade for the bicentennial of the Treaty of Ghent.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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