Two hundred years ago today, on June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain, officially launching the “second war of independence.” In doing so, he plunged the still-young United States into its first war since the Revolution, which had ended just 30 years before.
The United States was militarily weak, certainly in comparison to the mighty British Royal Navy, but the English had been interfering with America’s sea trade in order to tip the balance in its ongoing war against Napoleon and France.
Britain had incensed its former colonies by blocking trading with France, and as a great insult to American sovereignty, captured American merchant sailors and forced them into service in the Royal Navy.
New Englanders, who relied on trade with Britain, were skeptical of the severity of the impressment of American sailors. But lawmakers from western states, whose territories had seen skirmishes (and even outright battles) between Native Americans--goaded by Britons in Canada--and settlers, pressed for war.
While the War of 1812 is often the forgotten war of the U.S. conflicts, far less remembered and memorialized than the Revolutionary War, either World War, the Civil War or even Vietnam, it was actually an important early impetus for nationalism and the source of some lasting national symbols:
The White House is one of the most immediately recognizable landmarks in the U.S., but it wasn’t until the executive mansion was torched by the British in the burning of Washington D.C., in August 1814, that it got its distinctive white facade, columns and portico. The Capitol building was burned and its library destroyed, but it got its famous rotunda and first dome upon reconstruction, and the foundation for the Library of Congress was laid when Thomas Jefferson replaced the lost volumes with his own extensive collection.
The Star Spangled Banner was famously composed by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry. He was stuck aboard on a British ship at the time, while taking part in a prisoner exchange, and watched the battle which would keep the English out of Baltimore. He began to compose the poem on a scrap of paper he had in his pocket, inspired by his relief in seeing the American flag still flying over the fort as dawn broke after the battle. That enormous flag still exists on display at the Smithsonian American History museum.
In 1812, Uncle Sam was not yet a white-bearded recruiter, but possibly a supplier named Sam Wilson from New York who packed food for the army. As lore tells it, a soldier was told the “U.S.” stamped on meat barrels stood for “Uncle Sam” Wilson, and it stuck.
Although the U.S. has no formal commemoration of the War of 1812, because the act to convene a commission failed to pass Congress, many states and the military have planned commemorative events.