Fist Of History

March, 2011Archive for

War of 1812 – Reflections on a Legacy

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

It is March of 2011 – currently making news around the nation is the hundred and fifty year anniversary of the wave of secessions that sparked the outbreak of the American Civil War – you can fully expect over the next few years to have a regular wave of commentary and news stories about reenactments of the US Civil War, the major events and battles of the Civil War being hashed out again, and of course controversy about the meaning of the US Civil War and the conduct of its key leaders on both sides.  All well and fitting, a good dialogue about the US Civil War will be useful and 2012 – 2015 does neatly fall into that one hundred and fifty year mark, I look forward to commemorative currency releases and modified US currency by private mints – perhaps will see a re-release of Confederate paper money, a fun collectible of many years.  However amidst the wave of excitement over the anniversary of the US Civil War the bicentennial of another, just as critical, US war is being drowned out, the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  There are some local commemorative events being planned, the City of Niagara Falls is putting forward a major commemorative tourist initiative for example, but nationally this is a war which the US has semi-forgotten, which is not surprising considering the conduct of the war but also sad because of its incredible importance in shaping our modern nation.

First off the name of the War of 1812 is an odd one – think about it for a moment, most US wars are named after the antagonists in the war or in the case of multi-combatant wars a catchy summary name is given.  World War I (formally the Great War) and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the War with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, names that mark with whom we fought or signifying a major engagement.  The War of 1812 we have a date, you have to dig just to find out with whom we went to war.  A more proper, but less tongue rolling name, would be the Second Anglo-American War, this was a conflict between the United States and the Kingdom of Great Britain over a series of unresolved issues from the First Anglo-American War (also known as the American Revolution.)  Of particular import for the newly fledged United States was the impact of policies by the British government upon US shipping – the British navy regularly searched and boarded US ships and seized sailors for service in the British navy, under the argument that said sailors were escaped British seaman being returned to their legal duty.  (Often, honestly, they were not and the British navy was just filling its voracious appetite for sailors.)  There were issues regarding the presence of British military forces in territory that was supposed to have been fully turned over to the United States after 1783 – forces in the upper portions of the modern Midwest that threatened to undermine US political control of the region.  Great Britain was also channeling weapons to native tribes in the area as well, fomenting resistance to the rule of the United States over its newly acquired territories.

But this war came in the midst of a period of overall major changes for the United States and it helped redefine how our nation handled itself and it represented some incredibly close calls for the United State as a nation – some historians have called it the Second American Revolution and in many ways their catchy label is a valid one.  During this war the United States faced serious internal divisions over the war, politically waging it was a charged issue and many in the United States felt disconnected from the war, especially in the (at the time) populous and economically important New England states.  This discontent led to a threatened secession by many of the New England states in 1815, the news of the signing of the treaty ending the war forestalled what might have lead to a collapse of the United States as a nation in 1815.  From 1812 to 1815 the United States saw serious armed invasions on its shores, including in 1814 a major assault upon the territory of the United States from three directions – through upper New York southwards, along the coast line against Washington D.C. and against Baltimore, MD, and from the south against New Orleans.  In fact the capital itself was burned by the British after their successful routing of US military forces protecting the capital, an event that scattered the national government and put local authority in control of the war effort temporarily.

The War of 1812 also is filled with stirring stories as well – such as the defense of the Great Lakes by a US admiral commanding a fleet of ships built on-location and defeating the British Navy on station on the lakes, a victory critical to the future economic development of the United States.  All the commerce that flows along the Great Lakes today, including through the St. Lawrence canal to the Atlantic Ocean, all of that is because the United States gained control of the Great Lakes.  The War of 1812 also shifted the United States away from the ideal of a decentralized nation with a minimal federal government to one in which the central government had more authority, more resources, and more power.  It even profoundly impacted how the United States addressed issues of national defense and the role of the military.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing a series of posts on this war – both its impact and some of the major interesting events that occurred during the War of 1812 – in the hopes of bringing people’s awareness of it up.

Bad Movie History – Adjustment Bureau

Monday, March 7th, 2011

If you get a chance to see “The Adjustment Bureau” in theaters, at home, or by any other medium, around the middle of the film you will enjoy a brief conversation in which one of the main characters explains a key plot element with history as a justification for that plot element.  In doing so, the main character neatly divides history into periods, good and bad, with order, social development, and lesser periods of warfare and suffering as the apparent sorting criteria between “good” and “bad” periods.  What was fascinating was that this outline of history grouped the “good” periods as between (roughly) 44 BC to 476 AD, then the 1330s through 1910, and finally 1963 to the present (although the last is a “semi-good” period.)  The “bad” periods were the times in-between those chunks, mainly the “Dark Ages” and the World War I to early Cold War periods of history.  What I found particularly amusing was that the presentation was overly simplistic, what I found distressing was that there was a good chance regular people watching this movie might take this value system for historical periods to heart.

First off the “Dark Ages” – arguing that this was a horrible or destructive period in human history, even with a European focused view, is both short-sighted and overly critical of the period, the stretch of time from the decline and end of the Western Roman Empire through to the Italian Renaissance is actually a fairly complicated period of time, one filled with many technological innovations, philosophical developments, and an economic and political re-alignment that opened Western and Eastern Europe to new ideas and developments.  The collapse of centralized Roman authority also meant a re-alignment of market forces, a change to labor patterns, and an explosion of technological innovations to harness animal, water, and wind power in new directions.  Even during the period of Germanic conquest, roughly from 476 AD to 800 AD, Western Europe underwent a massive series of changes socially and politically that changed the distribution of wealth, opened up new opportunities for people, and allowed a flourishing of new sorts of art, music, and culture.  What that period did not produce was a rash of new sources of written literature nor an upswing in social developments that conformed to the ideals of Roman and Greek society, ideals later embraced in Italy as a reaction to the developments of this period.  This was a period of political collapse, a period of conflict, and a period of change – change is a destructive and constructive force – life was difficult at times for those living in this period and kind at other times in the same period.  But the foundations laid during this period, and the later High Middle Ages, helped shape the modern world in profound ways, ways that are actually beneficial even today.  To dismiss the period as a “bad” one in human history is short-sighted.

The same can be said for the period from 1910 to 1962 – the world shifted incredibly during that period, a shift fueled by changing economic and political forces.  In that period is incredible violence and periods of dark oppression but also periods of political liberation and changes in economics that re-wrote the political order of centuries.  It was the end of European imperial dominance of the globe and its replacement with a broader, more open system of political leadership.  It was a period of violence but also a period of new ideals and new cultural ideas – as well as a technological age of wonder arguably unequaled for its pace and scope in any previous age.  The world radically changed during this period – radical changes fueled by competition, violence, and danger.

But what really struck me was the argument made that humanity benefited greatly from the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reason – all powerful periods of change for humanity and periods that laid the foundations for new orders of thought and development in Europe.  Also though this was an age of regular rolling political wars, monarchies, slavery, and massive wealth shifts.  During this period Europe carved an empire for itself across the globe, an empire only ended by violence and that first empire merely lead to a shift to a new empire in other exploitable lands.  As well for all the amazing developments in Europe in cultural, literature, art, and science there were also movements in other directions, including those against personal freedom, liberty, and self-rule, it took violent revolt and unrest to end many European governments established power structures to end power imbalances that had lasted for centuries.

But a summary is in order – if you see “The Adjustment Bureau” take the suggested ranking of history with a grain of salt – it is at best unbalanced and at worst deceptive.  It wasn’t all ponies, rainbows, and kittens during the “good” periods and it wasn’t all doom, gloom, and bad candy during the “bad” periods.