Stirring as these American victories were, they proved little more than symbolic. Although American privateers enjoyed some success against British merchantmen, Sir John Borlase Warren, the new commander of the North American station, was given additional ships with which to blockade much of the American seaboard, and soon re-established its grip on the high seas. A temporary spike in Bermuda-based insurance rates was just that: temporary. The British convoy system -- which would be used again in another global conflict 130 years after the War of 1812 -- provided enough protection that losses became first tolerable and then negligible.
By 1813, the
Royal Navy, already blockading most of Europe, was charged with squeezing the
American economy, too. It did so to such great effect that coastal interstate
trade all but disappeared. New England insurance rates for shipping and cargo rose by 75 percent. Meanwhile, U.S.
exports declined precipitously, from $45 million in 1811 to just $7 million in
1814. The economic crisis was so severe that some Federalists in New England
began to whisper about secession from the United States.
It was increasingly clear that American naval victories could not do more than prick the Royal Navy. Ships in harbor are useless things -- and most American frigates spent most of the war bottled up in port. As the great British naval historian N.A.M. Rodger notes, "After the summer of 1813 the U.S. Navy's opportunities were nearly gone. Only small warships still managed to get to sea, with fewer and fewer successes. Decatur's frigates were laid up at New London. The Essex cruised successfully against British whalers in the remote Pacific until early 1814, but she was the last American warship of any size at sea. In June 1814 Isaac Hull, now commanding Portsmouth Navy Yard, was told by the Secretary of the Navy that it was not worth defending as the ships were now valueless. The President escaped from New York in January 1815 but was captured within a few hours."
That amounts to a strategic defeat, by virtually any measure. Britain ruled the waves, and British ships sailed the Chesapeake, unmolested by any American counter-measures.
Nor were American operations on land notably more successful, though here the war was characterized by considerable incompetence on both sides. Nevertheless, American desires on Canada proved fruitless and -- far from expelling the British from North America -- the war ended by confirming their presence. Thomas Jefferson had predicted that the "acquisition of Canada this year ... will be a mere matter of marching." He was quite wrong. The war secured Canada and would in fact guarantee its separate, freeexistence. (It seems charmingly typical that Canadians worried this year about celebrating this victory too loudly.)
If Canada was the winner in the War of 1812, there was no doubt who the losers were. The Federalist Party, sensibly skeptical about the war from the beginning, was nevertheless a victim of its prosecution. If their fate was irrelevance, though, much worse befell the Native American population. In the years after 1815, the United States turned its eyes westward. Even tribes such as the Cherokee who had fought with the Americans against the British discovered this service afforded them precisely no protection at all as the Indians endured their long, appalling trauma.
By 1815 and Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, the original reasons for the war had been
rendered moot by events. The Royal Navy now had too many sailors, not too few;
there was no need to impress anyone from American ships. Restrictions on American
trade had been lifted before news of Madison's declaration of war had even
reached London, making the war an even more dubious misadventure.
Be that as it may, the British conceded nothing, and the Treaty of Ghent made no mention of either of the matters for which the United States had ostensibly gone to war. Treasury bonds soared by 13 percent as soon as news of the peace reached Washington. Elsewhere there was much relief that Madison's reckless folly had ended at last.
Despite disgruntlement in trade-reliant New England, Albert Gallatin, leader of the American delegation sent to Europe to plead for peace, declared the war had "renewed and reinstated the national feelings and characters which the Revolution had given." War was nation-building too: "The people ... are more American; they feel and act more as a nation," Gallatin said.
Though supplanted in the popular memory by other wars since, this was 1812's chief importance: It renewed the young republic's fighting purpose and sense of identity. Following the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy turned its attention to the Barbary States again. Having defeated them, Commodore Decatur offered a now famous toast: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!" Nationalism was ascendant again.
The war's other legacy was the emergence of Andrew Jackson -- the hero of New Orleans and hammer of the Indians -- as a national figure whose eminence was soon beyond dispute. Jacksonian politics would make marks on American government that can still be seen today. His expansionist, individualistic, pugilistic, ethics-free brand of politics sowed seeds that still sprout and flower. Jackson's genes are part of the modern Republican Party's DNA, while the turn west would inspire Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis," making good American claims of manifest destiny.
This nationalist revival helped disguise that the War of 1812 had been a futile enterprise from the start -- one in which the United States achieved none of its stated aims and which, far from uniting the country at the time, came closer to destroying it than any other American war, save the Civil War. Some 15,000 Americans perished (many of them from disease), and the navy, despite the manner in which its officers were feted as heroes, suffered an overwhelming (if also inevitable) strategic defeat.
Yet none of this could prevent the writing of another American myth: that the War of 1812 was a battle for liberty in which the United States bloodied Britannia's imperial nose. The truth is that the war, almost wholly forgotten in Britain today, was an act of needless aggression from which Madison and his party were fortunate to escape relatively unscathed. Madison was fortunate; not every president has had the good fortune of seeing his acts of greatest folly end so comparatively well. Nevertheless, a folly it was. That Washington was rebuilt and the war subject to instant revisionism does not change all that. Perhaps this too is worth a thought when the Star-Spangled Banner is played this week and celebratory fireworks take the place of rockets and bombs bursting in mid-air.