Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #49: 1812, The War That Forged a Nation
We all remember adolescence. Awkwardly trying to fit in and stand out all at once, some days just desperate to survive in a world of chilling realpolitik, eager to demonstrate to our folks that we're independent and we don't need them any more. Sulky, hormonal, unsure of our true strengths, too concerned with what other people think of us. Yeah, that's the War of 1812 for America. The childhood of our revolutionary generation was giving way to our regrettable teenage years - Adams and Jefferson fading before the Jacksons and Clays and Websters who would borrow the parents' car and do all kinds of things with it. Some good, some bad, some truly evil.
Mt. Madison's War was the pivot point between founding a new nation and trying to actually be one, the point at which we grew a little faster than was good for us. There are a lot of fascinating stories from that conflict, which Borneman relates in breezy, pop-tart prose, heavy on this-troop-went-there and light on the historical analysis. But he does share this little nugget - before 1812, "these" United States were usually referred to in the plural, whereas after the war we began to use "the" United States. If nothing else, a loose confederation had become a somewhat united nation, at least in the public consciousness.
This is an era I love, probably for the same reason I enjoy teaching and coaching middle school kids. Adolescence is when we begin to lay the indelible groundwork for who we'll be as adults. For America, the signal pillars of our junior high years were the Commercial Revolution, the Second Great Awakening, and the War of 1812. It's when we became relentlessly capitalist, overwhelmingly evangelical, and militarily overconfident. It's when we doubled down on being a bully - to indigenous peoples, to black slaves, to anyone who wasn't in the winner's circle. It's the Age of Jackson, when we beat up weaker kids for their lunch money and got away with it because we were good at football. But it's also the Age of Webster and Clay and Quincy Adams, when some of our leaders tried to make the argument that America can and should be more than that. It took a long time for us to grow up - and we're still working on it, just like everybody. There's no finish line for countries or people. We just keep trying to get better. I hope.