Alex Massie: The War of 1812 ... The Whitewashed War

Roundup: Talking About History

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator.

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"...

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