1812: Winning the war meant making babies
The “War of 1812″, the first constitutionally declared war in the history of the United States and the first war to be fought in a modern democracy, was also a conflict fuelled by family-oriented appeals.
A peripheral war
The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions brought about by Britain’s ongoing war with France, British support of American Indian tribes against American expansion and what is argued as an American desire to annex Canada. As the British where concerned first with the main Napoleonic theatre of war in Europe until 1814, they at first used defensive strategy, repelling multiple American invasions into Canada. However, the Americans gained control over Lake Erie in 1813, seized parts of western Ontario, and ended the prospect of an Indian confederacy and an independent Indian state in the Midwest.
In the Southwest, General Andrew Jackson destroyed the military strength of the Creek nation at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, but, with the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the British were able to pursue a more aggressive strategy, sending in three large invasion armies. The British victory at the Battle of Bladensburg in August 1814 allowed them to capture and burn Washington, D.C. but American victories in September 1814 and January 1815 repulsed all three British invasions and the war came to a negotiated end in 1815.
An Era of Good Feeling
In everything from formal political speeches to popular novels and songs, war boosters played up the idea that the war could be enjoyed as a romantic romp …Pleasurable emotions shaped public opinions
From a military and geopolitical standpoint, the United States accomplished little in the War of 1812 and it could be argued that it was a stalemate. The British burned the nation’s capital, the national debt nearly tripled, and no new territory was acquired. The peace treaty signed with Britain returned all issues to the status quo antebellum. Yet, the war did give rise to what newspapers of the day called an “era of good feelings.”
“In everything from formal political speeches to popular novels and songs, war boosters played up the idea that the war could be enjoyed as a romantic romp,” says Eustace. “Pleasurable emotions shaped public opinions.”
In 1812, proportionally few members of the U.S. population experienced fighting first-hand, Eustace observes. Instead, they read about the war in the newspapers and pamphlets that described it—yet Americans were told they had a vital role in the conflict.
“Pro-war polemicists promised that the most important way for most people to support the nation was to contribute to the population,” she explains. “If there was strength in numbers, then falling in love and raising a family was the most patriotic thing anyone could do.
“The war’s supporters insisted that love, marriage, and propagation were key forms of public participation in the nation and crucial human rights that could be enjoyed by all Americans, even by women and African Americans who were without formal political rights.”
Eustace adds that an expanding population could help the U.S. to seize and settle new lands, while a successful war could secure lands on which to establish new family farms.
“The only ones left outside this patriotic circle were the continent’s original inhabitants, American Indians,” she notes. “Though the war earned the country no territory from the British, it did ensure that the British Empire would no longer be able to help enforce the land claims of American Indians.
“In the end, equating liberty with the right to produce progeny helped to justify the political exclusion of African Americans and white women, while furthering efforts to push Indians towards what people of the day freely called ‘extinction.’
“Pro-war patriots in 1812 claimed that love of family and love of country were one and the same. Left unspoken was that these ‘family values’ came at a moral and political cost to the country.”
Source: New York University
- 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism
- War of 1812
- The War of 1812 (Ontario Collection)
- PBS Documentary The War of 1812
- Mississinewa 1812 is the largest War of 1812 living history event in the United States. Sponsored by the Mississinewa Battlefield Society, it is a historical commemoration of the Battle of Mississinewa fought on December 17-18, 1812.