June 18 marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which was the second and last time the United States of America went to war with Great Britain.
Though the War of 1812 was fought to safeguard our seaborne commerce and to end the impressment of our seamen by Great Britain, this war is forgotten, some historians say, because we also had less noble motives such as annexing Canada, because the war ended as a stalemate, and because we showed amateurishness early on. For example, since Washington, D.C., contained no commercial or military goods few expected an attack, no meaningful defense was prepared, and the city was largely burned to the ground.
However, there are important reasons to remember and celebrate this conflict.
The connections of the war to Princeton are evident. First, the president of the United States, who signed the war bill on June 18, 1812, was James Madison, who in 1771 graduated from the College of New Jersey (renamed Princeton University in 1896).
Second, U.S. Navy Commodore William Bainbridge was born in Princeton. Bainbridge, commander of the USS Constitution, one of the fledgling U.S. Navy’s most durable frigates, captured the HMS Java off the coast of Brazil. Naval victories such as this one helped accelerate the end of the war. Ironically, and contrary to expectations, the United States, though faring poorly on land, humbled the British on the high seas (where it was mistress. William Bainbridge was born May 7, 1774 in the house that now bears his name at 158 Nassau Street. This house is now one of the two homes of the Historical Society of Princeton, the other being the Updike Farmstead at 354 Quaker Road.
Despite the war’s shortcomings in terms of national pride and honor, there are a number of results to celebrate and remember today. Our victories at sea and on the great lakes proved the United States could defend itself on the seas and laid the foundation for the modern U.S. Navy. The saying “Don’t give up the Ship,” used by Oliver H. Perry’s flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie, became the motto of the U.S. Navy and has influenced U.S. naval cadets ever since. The Battle of Baltimore inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner, which by 1931 had become our national anthem. The victory at the Battle of New Orleans inspired confidence in our regular army and helped catapult Andrew Jackson into the presidency.
Perhaps the most important result was the emergence from the war of the fledgling United States of America with a new sense of self confidence, having shown we could defend our recently won freedom. As June 18 arrives we should celebrate this bicentennial as an important milestone of the incredible journey of the United States of America.
The author, a retired technology manager for Merrill Lynch, is a volunteer with the Historical Society of Princeton and conducts historic walking tours in Princeton.