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).