The War of 1812 is prominent among the United States’ less-than-glorious wars. (Think Mexican War, Spanish-American War, the various wars with Indian tribes.)
We picked a fight with Britain while it was in mortal combat with France. We made a grab for Canada that failed through military incompetence and also lost Detroit (which Britain made us take back in the peace treaty). We saw the militia break and flee before the British regulars at Bladensburg, which opened the way to Washington and the burning of the Capitol and the White House. And even that we brought on ourselves because our undisciplined troops had burned the provincial parliament buildings in York (now Toronto), giving the British a motive for revenge. The only substantial U.S. victory of the war, Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British at New Orleans, occurred after a peace treaty had been agreed on.
But there was one splendid moment, commemorated in Baltimore on September 12, Defenders’ Day, when American militiamen confounded the British troops by killing their commander, General Ross, and Fort McHenry successfully blocked the Royal Navy’s entrance into Baltimore harbor. The occasion survives in our national anthem, written by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the deck of a British warship.
Many national anthems are triumphalist in tone. But ours, at least in the first verse, the only one generally sung, ends with a question: “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
It is a sentiment that echoes the remark Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have made on leaving the Constitutional Convention on its last day in 1787. Asked what kind of government the assembly had given the country, a republic or a monarchy, he answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The Founders, well-versed in classical literature and history, knew that republics tend to degenerate into oligarchies or dictatorships, especially when the citizens allow themselves to be divided into factions scrabbling for power, willing to sacrifice the common good for gain.
So Defenders’ Day is an excellent occasion on which to ask ourselves those questions. Are we still the land of the free? They gave us a republic. Can we keep it?