Category Archives: war of 1812

A 4th of July reflection no one is going to like

I am probably at least moderately sleep-deprived to want to tackle this topic, but I’m just going to go with it. I have a few things to get off my chest.

I have never been a chest-thumping, America-is-the-greatest-nation-in-the-world sort of patriot. When people say that I have an urge to demand they define “greatest”. We’re not

the greatest, for example, when we have a higher infant mortality rate than Greece or Cuba, nor when our national infrastructure is crumbling and would embarrass a Third-World country.

This tendency makes me unpopular in certain circles.

I do, however, love my country. I love its ideals, I love our instinct for democracy, and I love how Americans, when the elephant dung hits the turbine blades, generally do what is needful and right. Churchill’s remark that “America can be counted on to do the right thing after she’s exhausted all the alternatives” is funny and pretty much spot-on. I love our practicality and our instinct to question ourselves, a trait that, if not unique to Americans, is at least one of our defining qualities.

But….

To be honest and truthful about who you are, you have to start with your own failures and crimes, along with acknowledging the good. Like any other nation we are composed of fallible and failing human beings. Because of that, Americans live, to one degree or another, with a perpetual cloak of hypocrisy about our shoulders. Perhaps it is because our ideals are so high that our hypocrisy stinketh all the more.

Through the 19th and well into the 20th Century Americans regularly slanged the British for their Empire, conveniently ignoring the fact of our own imperialism– just ask the Mexicans, Native-Americans, Canadians and Filipinos about that (quick history question– how many times did the US invade Canada? At least four– once in the Revolution and three times during the War of 1812. They were all miserable failures, to which the Canadians owe their universal health care and the Queen on their coins). We started the Revolution in the name of liberty while holding black men and women in bondage. We proclaim equality for all while giving the rich box-seats and telling the poor and hungry to go around to the back door.

It’s not just our inevitable hypocrisy (who could live these ideals to perfection?) that leaves me in a dour mood, though, despite the (momentary) Seattle sunshine. It goes much deeper than that.

To put it plainly, we’re in deep trouble.

We are a severely divided nation, Red vs. Blue, and probably a dozen factions within those broad categories, to the point that civil discourse has almost come to an end. Our government is so gridlocked that ordinary, even mundane, business falls by the wayside, the victim of political rancor. Large sections of our political landscape have been overrun by know-nothings to whom political compromise– the life-blood of democracy– is akin to mortal sin. Presidents of both parties think it’s just okey-dokey to bend the Constitution, so long as it is in the name of security. And we have a Supreme Court that is down with the idea that a man with a billion dollars should effectively have more say in our political system than a man with one hundred dollars.

All of this, to me, looks like a political system slowly slipping into a tar pit.

I have read too much history; I have probably also read too much science-fiction. I know from history that all nations and governments, at some point, fail, often with terrible consequences. I know, from history and science-fiction both, that a nation is sometimes just one John Brown moment from being shoved into a completely different historical track. We Americans have not purchased immunity from being human nor from the inability to create a perpetually perfect political arrangement. And, at the moment, our divisions look very sharp and deep.

Let’s talk about those possible future-histories, best-case, middle-case, worst-case. Of course, my opinion of best, middle and worst may differ sharply from yours– bear with me.

Best-case– we live up to our own ideals and become a nation of true inclusion and democracy. We reverse the current trend toward plutocracy and find a way to give everyone a equal share of our future. I’m not talking utopia here, but practical, hard-headed measures, such as helping the middle-class, rebuilding our national infrastructure, affirming that free speech belongs to living, breathing human beings, and getting the money out of politics. In some ways, we’re already a long way down this road– we are a far more inclusive country than we were when I was born. But there is no guarantee we’re going to succeed. There are just too many forces working against it.

Middle-case– we cannot overcome our differences and, in some way or another, we end this experiment called the United States, perhaps even peacefully dissolving the Union. The dissolution of empires (and the US is an empire, make no mistake) has been a trend since the end of World War II– the break-up of the Soviet Union was just the grandest example. Regional nationalism in the United States is much, much weaker than it was in the former Soviet Union, however, so a full dissolution may not be in the cards.

Partly because of that, I do not think the middle-case very likely. On the other hand, you’ll note that my middle-case does not consist of us somehow muddling along as we are. I don’t think that is particularly likely, either. Something has got to give.

Worst-case– we cannot overcome our differences, and our political dialogue is so poisoned that we cannot negotiate a peaceful separation– and if you listen to the rancor out there right now, you might think we’re at that point already. In such an environment, perhaps some latter-day John Brown commits a horrific act, which acts as a tipping point, and one faction or another decides to make a grab for all the marbles. Remember how I mentioned that Americans are not immune to being human beings? That includes the impulse to impose your way of believing and doing things on other people.

In plain English, tyranny, or a second Civil War. Perhaps both.

I once had a novella on Amazon about the end of a new American civil war. I eventually removed it because I decided it did not adequately convey the horror of such a future-history– my story-telling skills were not up to the task. The end of democracy in America, whether by a bloodless coup or by a bloody war, would be devastating, not just for us, but for the world. An actual civil war in this country, in modern times, would make Bosnia look like a Sunday School picnic.

Before you say it’s not possible, remember that it already happened once. Yesterday was the 151st anniversary of Pickett’s Charge. The first Civil War has been so long represented as a sectional conflict that we forget that the issues driving it, including slavery, which touched on the meaning of freedom and citizenship, were national in scope– and that the Confederacy had many friends in the North. Those issues of freedom and the role of government keep reappearing in American politics, as they have now, just in different guises.

In some ways, it is 1859 all over again. It is yet to be seen if we can avoid another Harper’s Ferry.

These are my thoughts, sincerely un-cheerful for a sunny Fourth of July afternoon, and probably why I don’t get invited to a lot of barbecues. All to the good, most likely– I’m supposed to be watching my weight, anyway.

How likely is the worst-case? I don’t know. I hope it’s not very, and that I have, in fact, read too much science-fiction. In which, by the way, some of our best authors have discussed the possibility of tyranny in America, starting with Robert Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” and continuing through Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Both books are scary, but neither of them have yet come true. Perhaps, therefore, I’m just spinning out improbable future-histories that will never come to be.

Perhaps.

But at the moment, it is certain that things are in a serious state. And that is why I can’t really get all chest-thumping patriotic and party like it’s 1776 or 1945 or whatever high-point of our national life you want to commemorate for the day.

But I did manage to put out the flag.

Later.

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And now for something different– the bicentennial everyone is ignoring….

At least, that’s how it seems in the US– I can’t speak for Canada or Britain. Here in the States we’ve hardly heard a peep about a critical event in our history, which shaped us almost as much as the Revolution.

I am referring, of course, to the War of 1812.

Being the history fanatic that I am, I find this omission frustrating. The war, which lasted until December, 1814, is almost forgotten nowadays, although it has been referred to as the Second War for American Independence. Had we lost it, the United States as we know it probably would not exist. But there has hardly been any public mention of the bicentennial, and only a few, small remembrances of individual battles and events (in Canada it may be a different story– the war was an important factor in the development of a Canadian national identity).

I do, however, understand why we Americans are reluctant to remember the war. It’s embarrassing.

Basically, the war, launched on a mixture of genuine grievances against Great Britain and an imperialist lust to conquer Canada, was plagued with failure and disaster. Our attempts to invade Canada (at least four separate efforts) all failed in welters of mismanagement and stupidity. We enjoyed some successes against the Royal Navy in individual actions at sea, but eventually the British locked a blockade on the American coast and largely bottled up our navy. Toward the end of the war we finally began to field effective armies, but they weren’t there to stop the British from burning Washington DC in August 1814. The war ended in a stalemate and a peace treaty that addressed none of the original American grievances.

Reading this history as an American, my basic instinct is to cringe and cover my eyes. Not only were our forefathers infected with naked imperial ambition– even Thomas Jefferson thought taking Canada was a great idea– they were incompetently nakedly imperially ambitious (yes, I need three adverbs– it’s that bad). The American grievances were about British interference in neutral trade and their impressment of American citizens into the Royal Navy and were real enough, but they were used as an excuse for the United States to go conquering other people, most of whom refused to be conquered.

Ironically, despite the final stalemate, the disasters and the failure to take Canada, the war produced a surge of nationalistic feeling in the US. In a classic example of selective memory, Americans focused on their successes (especially the much ballyhooed Battle of New Orleans, which happened after the peace treaty was signed), and the fact that we had, for the second time in our history, stood off the greatest empire on Earth. In time, though, the war faded from our consciousness, except when we wanted to remember our early naval victories or Andrew Jackson.

Personally, I think some remembrance would be appropriate, if nothing else to remind ourselves of the costs of greed and arrogance, and to admit our past wrongs. More than likely there will be a remembrance of the burning of Washington and the bombardment of Fort McHenry, to which we owe “The Star Spangled Banner”, easily the most musically difficult national anthem in the world. But, aside from that, it looks as if the whole business is going to be passed over in silence. Sigh.

As a writer, though, I find this another period loaded with riches– overlapping the Napoleonic Wars, the Regency, and the start of the Industrial Revolution (at the war’s end the Americans were close to launching Demologos, the world’s first steam-powered warship. There’s an alternate history story for you). Jane Austen lived and wrote in this period, although, oddly enough, she barely mentions the war against Napoleon in her novels, and the American war, not at all. There are all sorts of fascinating details and events. For example, the British had a fortress in Dartmoor which served as a prisoner of war camp for both American and French POWs. The history of the place reads rather like ‘Jane Austen meets Stalag 17‘. There was the American guerrilla war against British commerce at sea, the tragedy of Tecumseh and the loss of the last chance for a Native American confederacy in the Midwest, the American victories on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain (which forestalled British counter-invasions from Canada), and the resurgence of piracy in the Caribbean (a consequence of the extended war between Britain and France). It is a marvel to me that no one has made a movie of the cruise of the USS Essex in the Pacific under David Porter, one of the epics of American naval history.

Other authors, such as C. S. Forester, Bernard Cornwell and Patrick O’Brian, have mined this period well for material. I have at least a few story ideas, starting with the Demologos, a tale about the Dartmoor prison, and a novel about a pressed American seaman in the Royal Navy. This last idea could be really interesting, as Americans are known to have been involved as seamen in many battles against Napoleon prior to 1812– for example, there were at least twenty-two Americans aboard the HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. This created some problems, obviously, when the United States declared war on Britain, which could be a great source of tension.

But these ideas, at this point in time, are part of that mass of story concepts I have in the back of my head which I may or may not ever have an opportunity to write. I’ve got a solid set of projects already in progress, so it’s an open question if any of these historical stories will see the light of day. If anyone else feels inspired to tackle the ideas I mentioned, have at it.

As far as the bicentennial is concerned, I suppose we’ll each have to remember the war in our own ways. For me, there’s always Johnny Horton.**

(**To be fair, Johnny’s history is wildly inaccurate– but I love marching Legos. And, no, I’m not terribly consistent….)