Friday, June 15, 2012

America's First War

The Revolutionary War began before there was a United States of America, so the first war declared by the USA began 200 years ago this month. On June 18, 1812, the day after its approval by the U.S. Congress, a declaration of war against the British Empire was signed by President Madison. That was the beginning of the War of 1812, America’s first war.
The subtitle of historian David R. Hickey’s definitive book The War of 1812 (1989) is “A Forgotten Conflict.” It is perhaps the least understood of all American wars. It was also probably the most controversial: some of the northeastern states even considered seceding from the Union because of it.
The primary slogan of the “War Hawks,” as the most vocal pro-war advocates were called, was “Free Trade & Sailors’ Rights.” British ships in the years prior to the war often interfered with U.S. merchant ships, hindering their “free trade” with European countries (mainly France).
A bigger problem was “impressment,” the British practice of capturing seamen on American ships and forcing them into service on British vessels. Hickey points out that perhaps as many as 6,000 American citizens suffered impressment by the British between 1803 and 1812 (p. 11).
There were other matters that lurked in the minds of at least some War Hawks, propelling them toward war. One was the desire to conquer Canada and, thus, to eradicate British land-holding on the North American continent. Similarly, there were others who wanted to fight in order to end British influence over and cooperation with Native Americans, with whom the young nation was constantly fighting.
And so the U. S. declared war on the British Empire. That led to the first, and only, invasion of the U.S. by a foreign country (unless you count the invasion of the Union by the Confederate States in 1863). The primary British invasions were into Maryland and Washington, D.C., in August 1814. That was a terrible time for the nation, for the British burned the Capitol, the President’s home (officially known only since 1901 as the White House), and other government buildings.
The following month, after a night of “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” in a decisive battle fought at Fort McHenry and in the harbor southeast of Baltimore, Francis Scott Key penned the words to “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Although a peace treaty to end the war was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, the final and one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought the following month. That was the Battle of New Orleans, led by General Andrew (“Old Hickory”) Jackson, a war hero who was later (in 1828) elected President. Finally, the War of 1812 was officially declared over in February 1815.
Perhaps the greatest losers in the War of 1812 were the Native Americans. In 1813-14, General Jackson led major battles against the Creek Indians in the southeast states. Later, President Jackson called for an Indian Removal Act in a 1829 speech. That Act was signed into law the following year, and it led to the removal of Indian tribes to federal territory west of the Mississippi River. The Native Americans’ sad trek west is known as “the trail of tears.”
While we rejoice that the War of 1812 preserved this nation and greatly increased its status among the nations of the world, we also painfully recognize how unjust was the treatment of the Native Americans after that war. Learning from mistakes of the past, let’s resolve to work now toward the removal, in ourselves and in society, of all harmful attitudes and actions toward people of other ethnic, racial, national, or religious groups.


  1. War of 1812 is a war in which the USA lost every battle (sort of) and won the war (sort of). The only important battle won was New Orleans which doesn't count because it was after the treaty. USA can claim to have won the war because they survived as a nation. Britain even paid damages to Washington to reimburse for slaves who had escaped to freedom under their jurisdiction (a detail not included in the text of the Star Spangled Banner song).

  2. I suppose getting rid of the "Indians" was loudly justified with appeals to "national security" - which hasn't lost its appeal for many nefarious acts since...

    Actually, the first nefarious act that popped into mind upon reading the retrospective was the genocide of about 50,000 Armenian Christians by Turkey (Still the Ottoman Empire?) under cover of WWI.

    When power, generally coupled with $$ interests (hence my term P$W$R), is the primary issue - the weak, and/or innocent, are the dominant victims; all under cover of a plethora of high sounding words used to whip up popular sentiment...

    All the loud ranting does sell very well in the marketplace - and deafens all too many of those who claim Christ as their own, to His Still Small Voice...

  3. Thanks much, Clif and Larry, for posting your comments this morning. The first comments received were in an e-mail from a Thinking Friend. He wrote,

    "Hear, hear!

    "The deeds of Andrew Jackson on the Indians, especially the 'civilized' tribes, hit far too close to home for my family history, and is the key reason he is on my list of the 10 worst presidents."

  4. Here's a LINK to an article about the War of 1812 from the Canadian viewpoint. The article is about Canadian Mennonites trying to make their nation aware of the story of those who opposed war and to be an alternative voice to Canada's war commemorations.

    1. Clif, thanks for posting this link. A Thinking Friend who is a Canadian sent me an e-mail written from the Canadian viewpoint--and I am waiting for his permission to post his comments, which were quite interesting. Thanks for posting this link telling about the position of Canadian Mennonites.