Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2016

Document Type

Thesis

Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors

Department

History

First Advisor

Fred Anderson

Second Advisor

Mithi Mukherjee

Third Advisor

John Griffin

Abstract

As Americans emerged from the War of 1812, they referred to the conflict as the “Second War of Independence,” a Revolutionary reprise against the British military and navy that the American public would come to remember as brave and honorable. Both the war itself and the creation of its public memory were developmental steps for a young nation—but they are both steps relatively unappreciated by today’s public and historians. Many of the events of the war itself have fallen into obscurity, and only a few of its most glamorous battles persevere.

This thesis contends that our contemporary understanding of these moments—as well as the inability to establish a complete narrative of the War of 1812 and its ambiguous conclusions—is a direct result of the public memory that those in the wake of war forged. Through an examination of four of the war’s battles, it demonstrates that this public memory was a deliberate creation by the contemporary political elite and is laden with personal and political motivations. The first two battles are victories, and in the aftermath of both we witness a demonstrable pattern of the events’ dormancy until political motivations require them to be summoned a decade or more later. The next two are defeats, and we witness in contrast the rapidity with which their memory is solidified. While there are observable patterns, each public memory is also different in that it is manipulated in a way that serves the most salient political interests of the moment.

In remembering America’s “forgotten war,” there is much to be learned about the process of memorialization. In the post-War of 1812’s increasingly democratic society, public memory, a deliberate political creation, was afforded legitimacy through the judgments of the emergent public. The public memory formed has shaped the historical understanding of the war and its most prominent events today. Rather than attempting to “suppress and destroy” memory, the critical endeavor of history elucidated by the French historian Pierre Nora, we can learn to understand the generations that have emerged from formative events through the ways in which they shaped public memory.

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