1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism

1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism

1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism

1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism

Synopsis

As military campaigns go, the War of 1812 was a disaster. By the time it ended in 1815, Washington, D.C., had been burned to the ground, the national debt had nearly tripled, and territorial gains were negligible. Yet the war gained so much popular support that it ushered in what is known as the "era of good feelings," a period of relative partisan harmony and strengthened national identity. Historian Nicole Eustace's cultural history of the war tells the story of how an expensive, unproductive campaign won over a young nation--largely by appealing to the heart.

1812 looks at the way each major event of the war became an opportunity to capture the American imagination: from the first attempt at invading Canada, intended as the grand opening of the war; to the battle of Lake Erie, where Oliver Perry hoisted the flag famously inscribed with "Don't Give Up the Ship"; to the burning of the Capitol by the British. Presidential speeches and political cartoons, tavern songs and treatises appealed to the emotions, painting war as an adventure that could expand the land and improve opportunities for American families. The general population, mostly shielded from the worst elements of the war, could imagine themselves participants in a great national movement without much sacrifice. Bolstered with compelling images of heroic fighting men and the loyal women who bore children for the nation, war supporters played on romantic notions of familial love to espouse population expansion and territorial aggression while maintaining limitations on citizenship. 1812 demonstrates the significance of this conflict in American history: the war that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" laid the groundwork for a patriotism that still reverberates today.

Excerpt

When John Blake White’s younger brother James announced that he planned to enlist in the U.S. Army in the spring of 1814, the elder White reacted with dismay. To his journal, he confided his “grief and mortifcation” at the news of his brother’s plan. It was not that John opposed the war in progress, the British-American dispute now known as the War of 1812. A successful South Carolina lawyer and small-time slaveholder, John was also a patriotic amateur playwright and painter with a flair for taking on artistic projects with nationalist themes. Back when war had first been declared in June 1812, John had exclaimed that the news of the declaration, “though Melancholy,” had “nevertheless inspired the heart of every American with animation and delight.” Yet, despite the emotional pleasure he claimed to take in the war, when it came to the possibility of seeing his younger brother take on a combat role, he “remonstrated with him” and did “all in [his] power to demonstrate the impropriety of doing so.” The idea of war filled John with agreeable feelings of “delight.” Current events moved him to many creative flights of fancy. But he remained appalled at the thought that his brother wanted to take an active part in the fighting.

A member of his local militia, John Blake White boasted the rank of captain and turned up to parade with his fellow militia members a couple of times a year. But he never performed any service more demanding than that and the war did nothing to interfere with the pleasant rounds of plays and parties that leavened his workaday world. White preferred to make his national contributions with pen and paintbrush rather than with sword or musket. Throughout the war years, he produced theater pieces and history paintings. He recorded . . .

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