The exhibit "1812: A Nation Emerges", which opened at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery days before the June 18 bicentennial of "America's forgotten war", emblazons the history in our memory.
O say you must see this free exhibit that honors the war's stars.
It makes history come alive through the lives of War of 1812 top players, including President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison; General Andrew Jackson; the great Native American warrior Tecumseh; Congressional War Hawk John C. Calhoun, who described the main reason for the conflict as “a second struggle for our liberty”; and yes, British officers.
America's "Second War of Independence" springs to life first through portraits, predictably, at this National Portrait Gallery (NPG) exhibit. It has a dozen by Gilbert Stuart, America's most famous portraitist, plus several by Charles Willson Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale.
Second, those portraits are paired with items of the major figures -- including Dolley Madison's red velvet gown purportedly tailored from curtains rescued from the White House along with Washington's portrait, just before British troops burned the "President's House", the Capitol, and much else in the official capital.
One of the most fascinating of all these items is President James Madison's own copy of a government book stolen by British Admiral George Cockburn -- "the driving force behind the operation" to capture and burn official Washington.
The green-leather-bound government book shows Cockburn's personal inscription, “Taken in President’s room in the Capitol, at the destruction of that building by the British, on the Capture of Washington 24th. August 1814.”
The purloined book was not returned until 1940 -- possibly as an incentive for the United States to join Britain as an ally in World War II, surmised exhibition curator Sidney Hart, the National Portrait Gallery's senior historian, at a press preview.
One of two resplendent officers' uniforms belonged to British Major General Isaac Brock, who "almost singlehandedly inspired ambivalent Canadians to defend their territory against American invasion." Respected on both sides of the war, Brock's death in an 1812 battle triggered “a long-continued roar of American and British cannon in honor of a fallen hero,” wrote British Brigadier General Winfield Scott in his memoirs.
Conquering Canada was one of the many reasons why America, "a very fragile, very weak republic" declared war on Great Britain, the world's most powerful nation. "It's remarkable that we didn't lose the war," Hart added.
Other major reasons for declaring war were Britain’s interference with America's trade, and taking thousands of seamen off American ships and pressing them into the British navy. "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights" was the rallying cry, which decorates an earthenware pitcher on display.
A major strength of this exhibit is its focus on people instead of battles. Having said that, several glorious artworks of battles are included, of course. One is "A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry" by John Bower, a hand-colored acquatint, c. 1814. That 25-hour bombardment September 13-14, 1814, the Battle of Baltimore, gave us both Star-Spangled Banners. The Fort is where our flag was still there, which Francis Scott Key observed and wrote about.
Key is the one star who does not fully emerge in this otherwise excellent 1812 exhibit:
- James Madison portrait by Gilbert Stuart. Madison, as we know, was our fourth President, the architect of the Constitution, and drafted the first ten constitutional amendments, a.k.a. the Bill of Rights. The War of 1812 was derisively termed "Maddy's Folly", and Congress declared it by the smallest margin ever for declaring war, Don Ritchie, historian in the Senate Historical Office, confirmed.
- Dolley Madison portrait by Gilbert Stuart. She was called “Queen Dolley” and the “Presidentess.” Speaker of the House and War Hawk Henry Clay (portrait by Charles Willson Peale) once said, “Everybody loves Mrs. Madison,” and Dolley replied, “that’s because Mrs. Madison loves everybody.” Her friend, writer Margaret Bayard Smith (portrait by Charles Bird King), 'fessed up about her Dolley biography, “All I say is true—but I have not of course told the whole truth.” And author Washington Irving, after attending the First Lady's popular receptions, described her as "a fine, portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody."
- Paul Jennings, copy of original photograph by E. C. Perry Photograph Co.Jennings, a 15-year-old slave owned by the Madisons, stayed behind at the White House after the President and First Lady fled. Jennings published his account in an 1865 memoir, "A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison". After Madison died, Dolley went against her husband's wishes and sold the slave because of financial difficulties, according to the catalogue "1812: A National Emerges" (Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press) by Hart and assistant curator Rachael L. Penman. When Dolley was near death and impoverished, Jennings gave her money, "though I had years before bought my freedom of her," he wrote. Eventually a freedman, Jennings worked at the pension office and owned land. In 2009, "his descendants gathered at the White House for the first time to view the (George Washington) portrait their ancestor had labored beneath," Penman wrote.
- Andrew Jackson portrait by Charles Willson Peale. Jackson earned the nickname “Old Hickory” for being as strong as a hickory stick early in the War of 1812. His victory in the Battle of New Orleans was "the first time in a major land battle—including the American Revolution—that an unaided American army beat Britain’s best troops," the exhibit notes. The battle was fought after the peace treaty was signed at Ghent on December 24, 1814, but before the news reached America. "No e-mail back then," Hart quipped.
- Model of the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides", which defeated four British frigates during the War of 1812. This replica has been termed the "Assassination model" because it was in the Oval Office when President Kennedy was assassinated, and in James Brady's office when the press secretary was wounded during the attempted assassination of President Reagan, Hart noted. Launched in 1797, Old Ironsides is the oldest ship still commissioned by the Navy.
- Treaty of Ghent. Yes, original, lent by the National Archives. The peace treaty established status quo ante bellum -- a return to all laws, boundaries, and agreements that existed before the war. The impressment of American sailors was not addressed. Win? Lose? Draw? Hart will participate in a debate about which side, if either, actually won the war. The debate will be held at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in October. The outpouring of art, political cartoons, and other items celebrate, if not codify, America's victory.
- "We Owe Allegiance to No Crown" by John Archibald Woodside. This painting is one of the many artworks, cartoons, and other objects hailing America's victory. It shows an American sailor crushing the British crown underfoot, holding the Star-Spangled Banner waving in air, being crowned with a hero's garland, above a banner saying "We Owe Allegiance to No Crown". Hart commented, "If we had to write the symbolism of the war, we couldn't have done it better." Associate curator Penman said the painting exemplified that "At the end of the war, the United States of American was for the first time truly a nation."