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War of 1812 resonates in 'First Invasion'

September 11, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Consider a fair and balanced account of the War of 1812.

The U.S. declared preemptive war against an enemy that had not yet attacked it. The Americans had grievances but they were murky, shifting and factually debatable.

The war was the idea of so-called "war hawks" who had gained power in Washington. There was strenuous opposition to the war, particularly among the elite of New England. Certain business interests made huge profits.

The president's hopes for quick victory were soon dashed. Casualties mounted. There was continual controversy over the president's motives, his leadership and his handling of the war. His looks and personality were ridiculed. The war was blamed for a sagging economy.

In all its confounding complexity and high-stakes drama, the war between the upstart Americans and the swaggering British is recalled in a riveting, superbly done two-hour History Channel documentary, "First Invasion: The War of 1812."

"The War of 1812 was a strange and, at times, an illogical affair," narrator Edward Herrmann says. "Its reasoning was often muddled, its execution mismanaged.... Its main cause was no longer a factor before the first shot was fired."

The war has largely been forgotten, wedged in the history books between the American Revolution, four decades earlier, and the Civil War, five decades later. Yet its impact on the fledgling nation and its political system was profound.

At the top of his reasons for declaring war, President Madison put the forced recruitment of Americans by the British Navy. The British agreed to stop the practice but war plans persisted.

The fight began with a declaration of war by Congress on June 18, 1812, with 62 of 160 members opposed. And it ended with a peace treaty on Christmas Eve 1814 that seemed to favor neither side.

Returning to a burned hulk of a White House, the president condemned the British as "damned rascals." Political rhetoric was different then. But what wasn't different was the difficulty in a democratic, pluralistic nation of gaining a consensus to wage war.

"The war is as much a story about a nation in conflict with itself as it is a clash of countries," Herrmann says.


'First Invasion: The War of 1812'

Where: The History Channel

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Edward Herrmann...Narrator

Executive Producer, Gary L. Foreman. Director, Foreman. Producer, Carolyn H. Raine.

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