“1812: A Nation Emerges” Opens at the National Portrait Gallery

To commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the museum debuts a curated collection of portraits and artifacts

We Owe Allegiance to No Crown, by John Archibald Woodside. c. 1814
We Owe Allegiance to No Crown, by John Archibald Woodside. c. 1814 Photograph copyright Nicholas S. West. Photography by Erik Arnesen

Two hundred years ago, on June 18, 1812, President James Madison—fed up with Great Britain’s interference with American trade and impressment of sailors, and wanting to expand into British, Spanish and Indian territories—signed an official declaration of war against Britain. The act plunged the United States into the War of 1812. To recognize the bicentennial, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery debuts “1812: A Nation Emerges,” an exhibition about the often overlooked and yet, hugely significant, episode in our nation’s history.

“When I first brought it up, I got a lot of blank stares and questioning looks. What war?” says Sid Hart, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery and curator of the exhibition. “If you gauge it by the soldiers fighting and casualties, it is small. But the consequences are huge for America. If we had not gone to war, or if we had lost the war, the timeline of American history becomes completely different and perhaps we are not the continental power that we came to be.”

The expansive exhibition, comprising 100 artifacts, aims to introduce museum visitors to the key players in the War of 1812: President Madison, Dolley Madison, Gen. Andrew Jackson, the Indian leader Tecumseh, the Canadian war hero Isaac Brock and British admirals and generals George Cockburn and Robert Ross, among other familiar and not-so-familiar faces.

Of course, many of the personalities are conveyed through portraits. Hart and his assistant guest curator Rachael Penman selected portraits based on two criteria. First, they wanted the portraits to be by the best artists of the time. And, secondly, the curators gave a preference to portraits done of the exhibition’s protagonists in the years in and around the conflict. Hart says that if there were a “Night at the Museum,” where all the portraits came to life, he would want all the subjects to recognize each other. Then, scattered throughout this gallery of important players are artifacts, each telling an interesting piece of the story.

“You have to start with something, and whether it is a dazzling portrait or an object, if you can make that initial impact, a sensory impact, you may grab somebody,” says Hart. “You may get ahold of a visitor and spark his or her interest.”

While the portraiture is spectacular, a real who’s who in the war, including 12 paintings by the famed American artist Gilbert Stuart (“Stuart’s great genius was in capturing personality,” says Hart), it was some of the other artifacts that really captivated me at a preview earlier this week. In a section of the exhibition devoted to the Navy, there is a model of the ship Constitution (also known as “Old Ironsides”) aptly positioned between a portrait of its captain Isaac Hull and the painting Escape of the U.S. Frigate Constitution depicting one of the ship’s most deft maneuvers. Constructed at the request of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1920s, the model seems to carry a curse with it. It was in the Oval Office when President Kennedy was shot. It was also in James Brady’s office when he was wounded during John Hinckley, Jr.’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. So it is often called the “assassination model.”

A part of the exhibit covering the 1814 burning of Washington and the war’s resolution features a red velvet dress of Dolley Madison’s and the actual Treaty of Ghent, on loan from the National Archives. Legend has it that the dress may be made from red velvet draperies the First Lady salvaged from the White House before the British raided it. Nearby, on the Treaty of Ghent, one can see the signatures of the three British and five American officers who agreed to its 11 articles on December 24, 1814, outlining status quo ante bellum, or a return to all laws, boundaries and agreements that applied before the war.

Then, as a writer, one of my personal favorites is an 1828 first edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster’s first stab at what we now refer to as Webster’s dictionary. “Webster believed that language was a tool for the development of a national identity and that the standardization of spellings and definitions would help eliminate regionalism,” writes Penman, in the exhibition catalog. He felt that language could be used to unite Americans after the War of 1812. “It was Webster who made the key transitions in spelling from the standard English to the Americanized versions we know today, such as switching re to er in theatre, dropping the u from colour and honour, and dropping the double l in traveller and the k from musick,” she adds.

If anything sums up the message Hart and Penman are striving for in the exhibition, though, it is the final painting, We Owe Allegiance to No Crown, by John Archibald Woodside (above). In it, a strapping young man, with a broken chain and a squashed crown at his feet, valiantly holds an American flag. The image encompasses the feeling Americans had in the wake of the war. “We are going to create our own trade, our own language and our own heroes,” says Penman.

“1812: A Nation Emerges,” opening today, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery through January 27, 2013.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.