1812: The war without a name

The flag of 1812 and a gathering of tall ships and other vessels in the Norfolk, Va., harbor marked the bicentennial of the War of 1812 last week. STEVE HELBER / Associated Press
The flag of 1812 and a gathering of tall ships and other vessels in the Norfolk, Va., harbor marked the bicentennial of the War of 1812 last week. STEVE HELBER / Associated Press
Posted: June 18, 2012

We don't refer to the Civil War as the "War of 1861" or the Revolutionary War as the "War of 1776." So what's with the War of 1812?

The name is not even a very thorough description of the war's timing. If you count the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought after the peace treaty was signed, the war lasted until early 1815.

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 — which began 200 years ago today — happens to coincide roughly with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The latter was known by several names before general usage shifted decisively in favor of "Civil War." Southerners favored "War Between the States"; Northerners, "War of the Rebellion." "Civil War" may seem bland in comparison, but at least it makes a clear statement about the nature of the conflict.

The same cannot be said for "War of 1812." It's a lousy label, and we should grasp the opportunity offered by the 200th anniversary of the conflict to adopt a better one.

British challenges to American sovereignty at sea and on the frontier led Congress to declare war on England in June 1812. The United States was completely unprepared, however, and as things went from bad to worse, the label "Mr. Madison's War" became popular, especially in the New England newspapers. The president's humiliation peaked in August 1814, when the British marched into Washington, chased the locals (including Madison and his wife, Dolley) into the countryside, and burned the Capitol and the White House.

Philadelphians were in a panic, afraid that their city would be next. Thousands of volunteers began building a huge defensive earthwork along the Schuylkill. Fortunately, that attack never came.

Naming the war after the president would be an improvement, but it probably won't get much support from the current chief executive, who might be loath to set such a precedent.

My students came up with some good alternatives, including the "Revolutionary War, Take Two," "British-American Imbroglio," and "Anglo-American War for Sovereignty." In the end, they settled on a name that has been suggested before: the "Second War of Independence."

Adopting this name would suggest that the war that began in 1776 was the "First War of Independence." Since Americans like abbreviations, and given the analogy of World Wars I and II, we would then have a WI1 and a WI2, appropriately emphasizing their connectedness.

As a high school student, I remember hearing my teacher use the term "War of Independence" instead of "Revolutionary War," and it made sense to me right away. Americans issued a Declaration of Independence in 1776. They weren't interested in toppling the British monarchy; they just wanted to separate themselves from it.

The Second War of Independence, beginning in 1812, was certainly no revolution, but it did seem to settle the issue of American sovereignty as far as the English were concerned. And the persistence of anti-British feeling in parts of the United States did not prevent the steady improvement of relations between the two nations after WI2. In fact, a number of agreements beneficial to the United States followed during the next decade.

Congress should declare this "Second War of Independence Month" and officially rename the conflict. In this contentious election year, perhaps both sides of the aisle could agree on a war — or at least a better name for one.

Grant Calder teaches history at Friends' Central School. He can be reached at gcalder@friendscentral.org.

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