Sunday, June 17, 2012

Another Bicentennial

We’re on the eve of another bicentennial, that of the War of 1812. On June 18 of that year President Monroe signed a declaration of war against England that Congress had passed on June 1, 1812. Such events enable us to get a feel of time’s relentless flow. One way is by looking back at the personal level, which I did the other day by recalling Theodosia Burr Alston (link). The war of 1812 suggests just how rapidly time passes on the collective scale. Little Napoleon? That hand stuck into his vest? Ancient history? No. Just the other day. It is very difficult today to imagine France actually invading Russia, but that happened in 1812. Britain then was already embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, and it was England’s greatly expanded activity at sea that also caused the conflict between England and the United States. Britain restricted U.S. trade activities and seized American sailors to serve aboard British ships, known as impressment. America was pressing to the west, and Britain supported American Indian tribes—hoping, indeed, to establish an extensive Indian buffer state between the states and Canada. The big losers in this war? They were the Indian tribes.

The United States excelled at sea—so much so that the USS Constitution, better known as Old Ironsides, has become the enduring symbol of this war. She is paraded every fourth of July, to this day, in Boston harbor. The image I am showing, courtesy of NAVY.mil (link), shows such a parade. A curious fact about Old Ironsides: her sides were made entirely of wood, the only iron being nails. But she was well-commanded, larger than all British frigates, and enemy shot bounced off her sides…

Back when the national bicentennial took place in 1976, we celebrated it on a (lucky for us) quite elevated point of a freeway pointing at Washington, DC. Cars, cars, cars everywhere. You couldn’t move an inch—yet the mood was calm and festive. We were up there for many hours until the sun set and then, in due time, the fireworks began. It is shocking to realize that thirty-six years have passed since then...

Learned and eloquent historians on C-Span—rarely seen except on such occasions—reinforced my view that life two hundred years ago was, in general feel, much as it is today. The nation was politically split; the Federalists all voted against the conflict as a block. The other party then was the Democratic-Republican; some of their members also opposed the war. The war’s financing was by piling on national debt. Thousands of newspapers informed the public. Broadsides—posters—served the role of twits and Facebook entries. The physical side of life was much much harder. And to think that the United States was having a small war on the side: it was not the big Behemoth yet leading the charge against little Napoleon.

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