Saturday, October 27, 2012

The What of 1812?

I was just watching a video on YouTube and off to the side I noticed a little ad, one of those ones they tailor to your ISP location. This one was from the Royal Canadian Mint, advertising the first of a series of coins they're releasing commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (the two $2500 gold coins, each actually priced at $69,000, are kind of impressive... wouldn't want to accidentally drop those in your piggy bank). I thought, "Hmm, gee, that's neat," but then I started wondering if it's having any kind of impact at all in the States.

The War of 1812 is a sort-of-kinda big deal in Canada. English Canada, anyway. Right or wrong, it's been spun into the defining moment of our nationality, which predates our actual country by more than half a century. Early English Canada was, by and large, populated by folks who left the States between the American Revolution and, well, the War of 1812. It was largely administered by guys in feathered hats who arrived on boats from Portsmouth and London, but the people themselves who made up the place came first because they were loyal to the British Empire (hence "Loyalists") or people who wanted the land grants (hence "late Loyalists"; cynical sneer issued with the latter word). Whatever. They essentially established what and who we are. This all happened within a generation of the place being New France, so there really weren't all that many English speakers living here prior to that to speak of (in any language).

So in Canada, even in parts of it that had nothing to do with it, the War of 1812 has come to be the point where these people finally had to take a stand. It's arguable that English Canada might have drifted into joining the United States in another generation or two without the war, but having people show up, make a lot of declarations, and burn and loot things kind of set their jaws firm against it. Given how Canada emerged by evolution rather than revolution, the War of 1812 doesn't really have the punch for us that the American Revolution has in the US. There's no 4th of July moment. But it's been portrayed as the time when a lot of people from the States who didn't really care too much who actually ran the place began to conceive of themselves firmly as something different and apart from their former home; something they created for and transmitted to generations not yet born and, eventually, people whose ancestors came from places that had nothing to do with the Empire.

Meanwhile, in the United States, I think the war boils down to just two things... Francis Scott Key penning The Star-Spangled Banner as the British fail to take Fort McHenry (the fact that they'd previously taken Washington doesn't tend to get a lot of airplay)... which would subsequently be set to a faintly baudy British wine-drinkers' club anthem (To Anacreon In Heaven) with a tonal range broad to the point of virtual unsingability to any anatomically modern human being; and the Battle of New Orleans, which technically took place after the war was over and largely praises the defenders for using tactics that are now condemned as "insurgency" and "terrorism" when used in Afghanistan and Iraq against Allied troops. It's all about spin, I guess. :) Nevertheless I don't anticipate the Franklin Mint falling all over itself striking quarters with Zebulon Pike and Winfield Scott on the reverse. Correct me if I'm wrong. :)

P.S. Incidentally, this is the very best version of The Star-Spangled Banner ever performed. WNED (PBS, Buffalo) used to sign off with this (begins about 44s in):

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