Two hundred years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the boys to play …

… “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the American declaration of war upon Great Britain, marking the outbreak of the War of 1812.

For such a small, obscure war, it sure has a potential to start online flamewars. Woe betide anyone who asks, in a forum frequented by both Britons and Americans, who it was that won the War of 1812. (The truly remarkable thing to me about Britons getting so exercised over that question is that it proves there really are Britons who have heard of the war.) And the comments on the Facebook link to my last post spawned a pretty lively argument about the war’s proper context in relation to the Napoleonic Wars.

As an alternate historian, it took me a while to realise the wealth of possibilities in the War of 1812, but they’re there. A few of the most high-profile ones:

The Indians. 1812 represents probably the last solid chance for the American Indians to hang onto any sovereignty east of the Mississippi. There was Tecumseh’s Confederacy, a coalition of tribes forged by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet. The Confederacy had already suffered a serious blow with defeat to an American army under William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, but Tecumseh and his brother remained charismatic and iconic leaders in Indian eyes. His Confederacy’s death knell came when Tecumseh himself died fighting on the side of the British in 1813.

Tecumseh’s Confederacy was north of the Ohio; the major Indian power south of the Ohio were the Creek, who also allied with Britain. But the War of 1812 marked the end of their power, as well, after Andrew Jackson defeated them at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

And lastly there was Lacunia, the Land of Lakes. When the two sides sat down at Ghent (at the time in France, soon to be incorporated into the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands, and now in Belgium) to negotiate a peace treaty, the initial British demands included the creation of an Indian state in the Great Lakes region, to serve as a buffer between the United States and British Canada. It was only when news was received of the American victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh that the British became willing to drop demands for concessions and accept a white peace.

The Hartford Convention. Somewhere along the line, a lot of American students got told that the Hartford Convention was a gathering of leaders of the (anti-war) Federalist Party, which dominated New England the way the Republican Party dominates the American South today, to discuss the New England states seceding from the Union and concluding a separate peace with Great Britain.

This is an exaggeration, but in trying to debunk it, many historians exaggerate too far in the opposite direction, insisting that any talk of secession by the convention delegates was meant only as a rhetorical debating tactic. The truth is (as is usually true) somewhere in between the two. There certainly was a radical faction that was pro-secession (the Governor of Massachusetts had already opened negotiations with Britain for a separate peace), but the majority of delegates held a more moderate, pro-compromise position. We can say the same thing about the First Continental Congress–when it convened in Philadelphia in 1774, just a year before Lexington and Concorde and two years before the Declaration of Independence, few people would have thought that breaking away from the British Crown and establishing a republic through six years of war were what the colonial leadership were going to do.

So why didn’t the Hartford Convention mark the beginning of a series of events like the First Continental Congress did? Because in 1774, the situation kept getting worse for the colonists, radicalising many of them and making independence from Britain seem an attractive option. Whereas in 1814, the end of the war removed the stresses that had led to calls for secession in the first place, and the news of Andrew Jackson’s defeat of a superior British force at New Orleans destroyed the political influence of those who had been advocating it (and also effectively ended the Federalist party).

But what if things hadn’t taken such a sudden turn? What if, say, a British victory at Plattsburgh had opened the way for a British occupation of New York, splitting New England off from the rest of the Union? What if Britain and Russia weren’t quarrelling at the Congress of Vienna, thereby freeing the Duke of Wellington up to lead a massive British army across the Atlantic to North America (meaning, incidentally, that the British would no longer have an army handy to face Napoleon at Waterloo)? Secessionism would have suddenly seemed much more politically credible in New England.

New Orleans. It’s a myth that the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the end of the War of 1812; it was fought after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, but unusually for a treaty of that time, the war did not end until after the treaty’s ratification by both parties. But since Congress ratified the treaty without any changes, it is true that New Orleans had no effect on the war’s outcome. A British victory there wouldn’t have changed the final settlement.

Or would it? I’ve heard it argued that Britain didn’t recognise the Louisiana Purchase, because they didn’t recognise France’s right to dispose of Louisiana in the first place. Britain was allied to Spain in a war against France, after all, and Spain’s original cession of Louisiana to France prior to the Purchase had been about as “voluntary” as Czechoslovakia’s cession of the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938. So if Edward Pakenham’s redcoats had defeated Andrew Jackson and taken New Orleans, this argument goes, then once it turned out that peace had been established, the British would most likely have turned New Orleans over, not to the Americans, but to the government that we considered its rightful owner–Spain.

I should state that I’ve only heard this brought up in casual conversation. I’ve looked for citations on it and haven’t found any, but I haven’t found any to disprove it, either. So it might be complete bunkum, but it’s still an intriguing possibility.


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