The war also laid the foundation for an enduring peace with Canada, along one of the world’s longest borders. “We take that for granted today, but it’s an enormous boon to both countries that we’re not at odds,” says historian Alan Taylor, author of a new history of the War of 1812.
The conflict set the U.S. on a new economic course as well. The Jeffersonian ideal of a yeoman society, exporting agricultural goods and importing manufactured ones, no longer held. The war forced the nation to become self-reliant and demonstrated the need for factories, internal transport, a national bank and domestic trade.
“We became a world unto ourselves, rather than one turned toward Europe,” says historian Gordon Wood. The economy took off in the years after the war, as canals, roads, cities and industries rapidly expanded.
But the nation’s growth, and its inward turn, deepened the divide between agricultural slave states and the urbanizing, industrializing North. The ultimate result was “that other war,” which has so long shadowed 1812. It looms even at Fort McHenry, where Maryland legislators were sequestered in 1861 so they couldn’t vote for secession.
“We can never win,” sighs Vaise, who volunteered at the fort as a teenager and has been an employee since 1994. “The Civil War is the American Iliad. The War of 1812 is a 19th-century version of Korea.”
But he hopes the war’s 200th anniversary will finally bring a long overdue measure of respect. “The Civil War hit the big time with its centennial,” he says. “Maybe, just maybe, our bicentennial will do the same, and we won’t be that dead, forgotten war anymore.”