Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812

Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812

Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812

Warring for America: Cultural Contests in the Era of 1812


The War of 1812 was one of a cluster of events that left unsettled what is often referred to as the Revolutionary settlement. At once postcolonial and neoimperial, the America of 1812 was still in need of definition. As the imminence of war intensified the political, economic, and social tensions endemic to the new nation, Americans of all kinds fought for country on the battleground of culture. The War of 1812 increased interest in the American democratic project and elicited calls for national unity, yet the essays collected in this volume suggest that the United States did not emerge from war in 1815 having resolved the Revolution's fundamental challenges or achieved a stable national identity. The cultural rifts of the early republican period remained vast and unbridged.


When the British marched into Washington, D.C., on August 24, 1814, and torched the city, reducing the Capitol and other federal buildings to rubble, they struck not just a physical but also a symbolic blow to the center of the new nation. the invasion revived fears about the danger of internal insurrection by blacks, the dissolution of the Union, and, if it survived, the abandonment of Washington as its capital. These anxieties, brought to the fore by wartime, had deeper roots in the upheavals of the Revolution, which had let loose competing claims on America but left them unreconciled. the War of 1812 for many inhabitants only magnified the issues at stake in the country; it did not resolve them.

Rather than focusing on the war itself, then, this volume offers a wider lens on the decades before and after 1812 to bring into view a range of clashing objectives that made the early Republic such an unsettled and unsettling period. the essays grew out of the 2011 conference “Warring for America, 1803–1818,” held in the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress. the idea for this conference originated with a question posed by Mendy C. Gladden, former associate editor of publications at the Institute: Why is there not more published about the period around the War of 1812? a working group of Nicole Eustace, Robert G. Parkinson, Mendy, and myself formulated the intellectual rationale for the conference; after Mendy’s departure, the remaining three of us implemented the proposal and constituted the program committee. the proceedings of the conference appear at the back of the volume in gratitude to all the participants. in their presentations and comments, they fulfilled the intent of the conference call to explore the conflicting visions of liberty, territorial reach, cultural affiliation, and power structures in the early national period. the productive discussions during the meeting were the first step toward conceptualizing a publication.

Given the centrality of the Federal City to the events of the era, Washington was the obvious place to convene the meeting. But this was not such a simple thing to effect. a number of people and institutions were instrumental in making it possible, and we acknowledge our gratitude to their contributions.

Ronald Hoffman, then director of the Omohundro Institute, convener of conferences nonpareil, put a great deal of effort into bringing together . . .

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