The War of 1812, despite not even having a decent name, is, like, the best war ever. Not a ton of people died, an important principle (American sovereignty) was at stake, and the outcome was good for all concerned. ~Jonathan Rauch
This is a strange understanding of the War of 1812. American neutral shipping rights were theoretically at stake, but a major impetus for the war was the hope of territorial expansion into Canada. The original slogan of the war was “free trade and sailors’ rights,” but the war was actually a disaster for the mercantile and shipping centers of the Northeast, which is one of the reasons why there was such staunch opposition to the war in the north and even agitation for New England secession. The U.S. failed in acquiring any of its objectives, and the peace settlement restored things to the way they had been before the war. We had the good fortune that the British were otherwise occupied fighting France for most of the conflict, and we still suffered some of the worst humiliations in our history. Unlike the Russians, we didn’t even have the consolation that the invasion of our country and burning of our capital helped weaken and defeat the invader later on. While some hawks described it as the second war of independence, American independence was fortunately never in danger. It was a war that the U.S. sought and declared first, and it was one that we managed to survive thanks to the geographical advantages of being a large country that was across an ocean. The outcome was “good” for us only in the sense that the U.S. didn’t lose any of the territory we had before the war. It was the very definition of a pointless, unsuccessful war.
P.S. American casualties were approximately 15–20,000 dead. Most of those deaths were not in combat, but that shouldn’t make them count any less. It was the second-most costly American war against a European power between the War for Independence and WWI.
Update: Alex Massie sums things up pretty well:
The War of 1812, upon which many American myths now seem to depend, was a foolish and futile enterprise from the start, rested on a policy of ignorance and needless aggression, and was founded on the erroneous assumption that Napoleon Bonaparte would prevail in the epic, global struggle of which the War of 1812 was but a minor sideshow. By its end even President Madison had recognised its folly: dispatching a mission to europe in 1814 to sue for peace.
Massie’s assessment of the war is very good. However, I’m not sure that very many American myths depend on the history of this war, which many Americans probably don’t know very well. Even in my AP U.S. History class in high school, our teacher skipped past it on the assumption that it wasn’t terribly important. (It was lucky that I had read From Sea to Shining Sea before I took an AP exam that included a major essay question on the war.) There was a time when the war was important to myth-making and the formation of national identity, but the wars of 1861-65 and 1941-45 have long since surpassed it in terms of creating modern American myths.