Ryan L. Cole: Why the War of 1812 is Our Second War of Independence

Roundup: Talking About History

Ryan L. Cole is a freelance journalist.

Louis Serurier, a French diplomat stationed in Washington in the early 19th century, observed that the War of 1812 lent America “what it so essentially lacked, a national character founded on a common glory to all.” The American war effort was hardly flawless, and the final outcome may have been inconclusive, but battling Great Britain to something resembling a draw gave an adolescent country a sense of national purpose, some international prestige, and a final, definite separation from the Crown.

But the two intervening centuries have been unkind to that legacy. The war’s bicentennial, now upon us, has so far mostly offered commentators a chance to reflect on how little Americans care about their second war of independence, and how the little they do know is stitched together from questionable sources (Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” for example).

Perhaps fittingly, Congress, regarding the occasion as less important than the 200th anniversaries of the Lewis and Clark expedition and Abraham Lincoln’s birth, declined to give this bicentennial the lavish, taxpayer-funded treatment afforded to its predecessors. So with no national commemoration, the relevant states, cities, sites, and museums are organizing various smaller activities to mark the occasion. Whether the results will be a string of reminders about (and hand-wringing over) our indifference to the war remains to be seen....

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