Not always. In the years following the war, books, plays and paintings celebrated the conflict, seen by Americans as both an honorable stand against British harassment and a consolidation of the Revolutionary War’s gains.
American naval captains — the successful ones, anyway — even became household names.
“If you were a boy in the 1820s, this is what you grew up with,” Mr. Budiansky said. “There were ceramic plates of naval heroes like Stephen Decatur and Isaac Hull.”
Mr. Budiansky laughed.
“Many of those plates were made in England. They were never one to shy away from cashing in on a potential market.”
Battlefield glories — real and imagined — also influenced politics. According to Mr. Stagg, the war helped propel both Mr. Jackson and William Henry Harrison to the presidency, the latter man running on a slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” that referred to an 1811 battle in the Indiana territory that presaged the War of 1812.
In Kentucky alone, Mr. Stagg said, the war produced three governors, three lieutenant governors and four United States senators — not to mention future Vice President Richard Johnson.
“It was common to use your war record as part of your claim to office,” Mr. Stagg said. “Johnson supposedly killed Shawnee leader Tecumseh in 1813. He never claimed that himself, but someone did, and he never denied it. He dined out politically on that for the rest of his career.”
The trauma and scale of the subsequent Civil War changed attitudes, transforming the War of 1812 into a historical afterthought. However, an ongoing bicentennial has dragged the conflict at least partially back into public consciousness.
New York lawmakers have appropriated money for commemorative events. The Canadian government is spending an estimated $30 million on the same. As part of a larger, $12 million-plus public relations push, the U.S. Navy is parading the USS Constitution and other ships through Boston, New York, Baltimore, New Orleans and Norfolk.
In Maryland — where cars have War of 1812 license plates and Gov. Martin O’Malley has participated in re-enactments — the state is holding a three-year celebration, which kicked off with a June ceremony at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry that featured recorded messages from President Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“I must admit, when I visited the White House earlier this year, I was a bit embarrassed that my ancestors had managed to burn the place down 200 years ago,” Mr. Cameron joked during his message.
Beyond “The Star-Spangled Banner” — composed by Francis Scott Key during the Battle of Baltimore — the War of 1812 ultimately resulted in Jacksonian democracy, a long-term Anglo-American peace, the birth of Canadian national identity, America’s eventual emergence as a naval power and a crushing defeat of Native Americans that paved the way for Manifest Destiny.
It’s time, Mr. Stagg believes, the much-maligned conflict got a little more respect.