Sept. 10, 2013
Back in the days before President Obama subcontracted our foreign policy to the Russians and before the Saudis lined up as paymaster for our troops, we prized our Independence so highly we were willing to go to war with the greatest sea power in the world to defend our sovereignty.
The origins of the War of 1812 seem misty and vague to us now. But they were anything but unclear to Americans in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Great Britain was then at war with the French under the Emperor Napoleon. The young republic, the United States, had wisely declared its neutrality, avoiding “entanglement” in Europe’s interminable struggles.
We were prepared, however, to defend our rights as neutrals. Britain’s Royal Navy made it a practice to seize seamen from American merchant ships, and even naval vessels, if they could claim the sailors were deserters from their naval service. The standard way for “recruiting” sailors for the Royal Navy in those days was to send out a press gang to grab healthy young men who were unfortunate enough to be caught drunk, or drugged, or were otherwise unable to escape the gang leaders. Ireland was under England’s heavy boot then and thousands of Irishmen did emigrate to America. Some of them, having been virtually kidnaped by the King’s press gangs, did jump ship at the first opportunity to make their way to America, the land of the free.
Impressment of American seamen was thus a long-festering irritant. The British refused to recognize naturalization as citizens of Americans who had left England, Ireland or Scotland for the U.S.
To us, this was a gross insult. It denied our “separate but equal” standing as a nation among the nations. The British also refused to evacuate the forts they had built along the Western frontier of America. This was one of the key provisions of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that Britain had signed, ending the War of Independence. The British claimed that we had failed to honor those provisions for restoring the seized property of Loyalists (Tories). One of the best Hollywood treatments of this episode in our history can be seen in the film, “Billy Budd,” a fairly faithful rendering of the classic Herman Melville novel.
The British presence on the frontier was a constant threat to American settlers. Congressmen from Western New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee denounced the British for inciting Indian raids against frontier communities. These Congressmen, especially those elected in 1810, became known as “War Hawks” because they wanted America to fight the British in Canada and to eliminate the royal presence from this continent.
Today is the Bicentennial of one of the most significant battles of the War of 1812. American naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry had assembled a fleet to fight the British on the Great Lakes.
We had had numerous defeats in our efforts to conquer British Canada. And we were now in danger of invasion from the North. But Oliver Hazard Perry met the British threat on Lake Erie and turned it back on this day in 1813. His message to General William Henry Harrison announcing his victory was a most welcome break in the drumbeat of defeat and depressing news that had accompanied American failures on land:
“We have met the enemy and they are ours — two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”
Perry also carried aloft another famous phrase. The dying words of his good friend, Captain James Lawrence of the U.S.S. Chesapeake were “Don’t Give Up the Ship” Perry had had those words stitched in white onto a plain blue banner and flew it from the foremast. It became the inspiration for his little fleet.
Today, there is a huge mural of Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory in the Capitol Dome in Washington. It commemorates the scene where Perry had to leave his sinking vessel, the U.S.S. Lawrence and transfer to the U.S.S. Niagara. Despite the destruction, he had fought his way through to a successful conclusion, and had defended his country from a serious threat.
The British were not finished with the Yankees in what was called our “Second War of Independence.” They would try again — twice — to conquer the Americans. In 1814, they invaded the Chesapeake and successfully seized and burned Washington, D.C. Only with their defeat at Fort McHenry, guarding the approaches to Baltimore, did the British withdraw. And in early 1815, they invaded America again. This time, at New Orleans. An American general, Andrew Jackson, awaited them there.
But today deserves to be remembered as a time when, two hundred years ago, we were ready to fight for our independence — and to avoid foreign entanglements. President Obama recently quoted Ronald Reagan, favorably: “Trust but verify.” That much was welcome. Perhaps we should also remember President Reagan’s warning in his Farewell Address: “If we forget what we did, we will forget who we are.”
Today is a day to remember who we are.