Tuesday, June 19, 2007

June 18, 1812:

Mr. Madison's War

If the War of 1812 were commonly called something else, few people would have a clue as to when it was. Though also called the Second War of Independence, it hardly rises to the level of the make-or-break conflict for the nation that the first one was. It didn't involve taking territory from anyone else, as the wars with Mexico and Spain ultimately did; and it wasn't brother-against-brother over the fundamental issues of union and slavery and all the rest that the Civil War became. The War of 1812 just doesn't have much of a hook, to borrow a term from journalism.

But it too had its drama: naval battles still in the days when ships were made of wood, with some of that fighting on the Great Lakes; the fact that many Americans, especially New Englanders, objected loudly to the war; and the burning of Washington, DC, and the climatic Battle of New Orleans, fought because the telegraph hadn't been invented yet.

It is also "Mr. Madison's War." Reportedly, he hadn't really wanted it, but his more hawkish colleagues in Congress persuaded him to ask for it, which he did in the early summer of 1812. Congress obliged by declaring war on June 18 that year. As 19th-century war presidents go, Madison was hardly of the calibre of Polk or Lincoln or McKinley, but at least he didn't lose it. The conflict is generally considered a draw.

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