Series: Legacies: The War of 1812 in American Memory

New nationalism in an "Era of Good Feelings"

By Matthew Dennis, University of Oregon

“Victory” in the War of 1812 unleashed a wave of American patriotism after 1815, ironically emphasizing the triumph of the American Revolution more than the split decision of the “Late War.” The glories of the latter struggle—such as they were—were rendered indistinct as the war was subsumed by Revolutionary memory. The years 1812–1815 seemed to ratify the popular memory of 1776 and 1783, igniting new nationalism, expressed in politics, festive commemorations, architecture, arts, and literature.

The War of 1812 fared best when annexed to remembrances of the Revolutionary War.

 Battle of Baltimore monument with street scene around
Memorials, like this one commemorating the Battle of Baltimore, were popular and ubiquitous tributes

Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library

Infamously, the British had sacked Washington, DC, in August 1814 and destroyed nearly all its public buildings, including the Capitol and president’s mansion. Famously, Dolley Madison had managed to save Gilbert Stuart’s full-length portrait of George Washington, which seems fitting, as Washington would remain the nation’s greatest hero. Though the ruined interior would require major renovation, the smoked-stained exterior of the president’s house soon received a bright coat of paint. The Capitol too was restored, and plans laid for a new Rotunda. In 1817, the renowned history painter John Trumbull won a commission for four life-size pictures to adorn it, all focusing on achievements of the Revolution. These paintings, completed between 1817 and 1824 and reproduced as engravings, won a broad, appreciative audience; they were ultimately installed in the Capitol in 1826, the nation’s jubilee.

The War of 1812 fared best when annexed to remembrances of the Revolutionary War. Given its unimpressive history and divisiveness, it made sense to wrap the late war in the sacred, unifying public memory of the Revolution, as President James Monroe did at a massive commemoration at Bunker Hill on July 4, 1817. There he appealed to shared patriotic recollections in the region most estranged during the War of 1812. In Charlestown, the Bunker Hill martyr Joseph Warren proved to be a more plausible and useful hero than, say, the local non-hero General Henry Dearborn, who had ineffectively commanded American forces on the Canadian frontier from 1812 to 1813.

American public memory was transformed in these years in two significant ways—it was diversified and democratized to include common soldiers and sailors and to emphasize heroic maritime achievements largely absent during the Revolution. Necessity was the mother of invention, as naval heroes were abundant in the 1812–1815 conflict—Isaac Hull, Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, James Lawrence, Thomas Macdonough, Oliver Hazard Perry—while military champions (Jackson excepted) were not. The army’s limited successes were attributed to the heroic endurance of regular soldiers and volunteers, occurring despite—not because of—their military leaders.