Foreign visitors to the United States are quickly struck by the American enthusiasm for ostentatious declarations of patriotism: the national fondness for hanging the Stars and Stripes on front porches, or the fact that no sporting event takes place unless the national anthem has first been performed (along with, increasingly, a fighter-jet flyover). Heck, millions of school kids are asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, a ritual that would be considered creepy if witnessed in other countries. Of course, all this reaches a peak in early July each year. Fourth of July celebrates an uncomplicated, comfortable nationalism of a kind that is much harder to find in other countries less favored by history in general and the 20th century in particular.
But as Americans prepare for their annual festival of patriotism, the circumstances that gave birth to their star-spangled banner merit reappraisal. Francis Scott Key's poem commemorates the gallant defenders of Fort McHenry (near Baltimore), who repulsed a British raiding party in the latter stages of the War of 1812. The victory in Maryland compensated, at least in part, for the humiliation suffered when British troops strolled into Washington and burned down the presidential mansion. (It was only after the mansion was repaired and painted that it became known as the White House.)
If the capital's most famous building was whitewashed, the American version of the war was given a makeover too. The War of 1812 was not the costliest of America's wars, nor even the most foolish. But it was a humiliating experience, and it necessitated a swift rewriting of history to reinterpret the war as a triumph for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Despite its defiant bluster, it is hard not to hear some sound of relief in Key's poem -- and no wonder. The Americans had made a terrible blunder, and for President James Madison, the final six months of the war were, in the judgment of historian Daniel Walker Howe, "probably the most harrowing that any president has been called upon to endure".
The war, notionally fought for "free trade and sailors rights" -- that is, in protest against British restrictions on American shipping during the Napoleonic wars and against the Royal Navy's habit of impressing into service British-born sailors found working on American ships -- was a foolish, even futile, enterprise from the start. By the time it ended, not a single one of the fledgling nation's ambitions had been achieved. Indeed, the new British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, a replacement for the assassinated Spencer Perceval, quickly rescinded the Orders in Council that had previously subjected American shipping to inspection. News of this only reached Washington after Congress and Madison had declared war.
The best that could be said of the American war effort was that the United States fought the British to a draw. The British, who had been keen to avoid war in the first place, could accept a kind of draw since their attention lay elsewhere. The War of 1812, so crucial to the young American republic, was a grave inconvenience to the British but rarely a matter of grave importance. Their beef was with Napoleon Bonaparte, not Madison. (The Americans, by definition, found themselves allied with Napoleon, gambling that his Russian adventure would succeed. It didn't.)
With Britain and the rest of Europe convulsed by the twin dramas of the Peninsular War in Spain and Napoleon's epic (and doomed) invasion of Russia, the War of 1812 was reduced to sideshow status. The British were, by and large, happy just to retain their existing North American possessions. At war's end they were content to relinquish the parts of Maine they now occupied and that many inhabitants had assumed would shortly be swallowed by Canada.
For Madison and the war party in Washington, the stakes were high and the risks terrible. No wonder the war had to be re-imagined as a great American triumph in which daring Yankee sailors bearded and bested the mighty Royal Navy and Andrew Jackson's volunteer army spanked the British on land at the Battle of New Orleans (nevermind that this encounter actually took place after the peace was signed but before news of it had reached the Americas).
It was 200 years ago next week that the first American ships sailed to pillage the trade on which Britain depended. The Duke of Wellington's army, battling up the Iberian Peninsula, depended on North American wheat, and trade was Britain's lifeblood. The myth of the War of 1812 has it that the tiny American Navy -- just six frigates strong -- pioneered "asymmetric" warfare on the high seas and humbled the all-powerful Royal Navy.
Up to a point, but the truth is more complicated. It is true that the American frigates,
skippered by resourceful captains and crewed by experienced sailors, scored
notable successes in single ship action. The Constitution (soon to be nicknamed "Old Ironsides") defeated the
British frigates Guerrier and, later, Java while the USS United States,
captained by Stephen Decatur, captured HMS
Macedonian. The British public was appalled by these losses, and
confidence in the Royal Navy's invincibility was shaken.
The British fared poorly in a number of smaller actions too. After the brig-sloop Peacock had been bested by the American ship-sloop Hornet in February 1813, the Royal Navy's court-martial complained about the "want of skill in directing the fire, owing to an omission of the practice of exercising the crew in the use of the guns for the last three years." But the chief reason for American success was that their frigates were larger than their British rivals and capable of delivering a heavier broadside. The American heavy frigates were armed with 24-pound guns, while the standard British frigate had to make do with 18 pounders.