Jane Austen lived at a time when England seemed to be at war constantly. From her birth during the American Revolution through the many years of the Napoleonic wars, England endured many conflicts. Keeping them all straight can get confusing. So what was the War of 1812?
Who was involved?
Britain and America, primarily, although Britain had other allies to support their cause. Some of those allies included Indigenous tribes that they had supplied with weapons as well as some enslaved people who had escaped to Canada.
What was it about?
Britain had been blockading European ports as a way to pressure France as a part of their ongoing conflict. Americans wanted to remain neutral, but the blockades interfered with their ability to trade. At the same time, an American faction called “the War Hawks” (where we get the term “hawk” today to describe someone favoring war, even in times of peace) wanted to conquer Canada and kill any Indigenous tribes that stood in their way. These factors led America to declare war against the most powerful navy in the world.
When was it?
1812, as the name implies. But it officially lasted from June 1812 until February 1815.
Where did it take place?
The majority of the battles took place across the American territories as well as parts of Canada. In their first major victory of the war, American troops conquered York (Toronto of today). The British later raided Washington, D.C., burning several important buildings, including the White House (then called the Executive Mansion), to the ground -- but not before first lady Dolley Madison rescued valuable documents such as the Declaration of Independence. The back-and-forth of wins and losses eventually led to a stalemate.
Why did it matter?
British historians largely view the War of 1812 as a bit of theater, but amid the bloody battles, Americans saw the rise of new cultural markers. Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that would later become the national anthem about the literal red glare from the rockets at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The concept of Uncle Sam is also said to have begun to take form during this war.
Americans might also like to claim Tchaikovsky’s “Overture of 1812” as their own, however, the famous musical piece was written to commemorate Russian victories against Napoleon happening at the same time.
How did it end?
The war of 1812 was officially ended by the Treaty of Ghent, in which the governments of Britain and America agreed to return to pre-war territories. However, it took a while for the news to travel, and the final battle in New Orleans was fought two weeks after the treaty had been signed. The war hawks, who had advocated for the expansion of America, may not have claimed Canada to their map, but they did lay the groundwork for the expansion west as well as the genocide of many Indigenous tribes in the process.
To learn more about the War of 1812, check out:
- Robert Morrison’s book, “The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern.” Morrison is a guest speaker at this year's Jane Austen Summer Program.
- Deirdre Le Faye’s “Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels.”
- For a look at the American point of view, Kathleen Ernst’s “American Girl” book series about Caroline (“Caroline’s Battle,” “Caroline’s Secret Message”).
- For 10 fast facts about the war of 1812, check out this Smithsonian Magazine piece.
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