Dear Ballroom Guests, Shhhh…..
If you’re wondering why I’m whispering this afternoon, it’s because our fair hostess, Lady B., has dozed off in the shade, decorous snores arising from under the brim of her fetching straw bonnet, chilled lemonade nearby, painted fan in hand, and one of the authoresses’ romantic novels sprawled across her chest. I hope it wasn’t mine that put her to sleep, but the heat these days could undo any lady of her delicate constitution.
Ah, Constitutions… that brings to mind my topic of today.
While our aristocratic English lady dozes to prepare herself for the night’s festivities, I have a rebellious message to give you from the erstwhile Colonies.
As you may know, the summer of 2012 marks the 200 Year Anniversary of the War of 1812 – the “second war of independence,” right in the heart of our dear Regency period – a moment in history when America nearly lost her freedom.
This fact was driven home to me when I went up to Lake Erie to tour the beautiful brig, Niagara, a surviving American battle ship from the War of 1812. That ship bears the scars of that war. The docent (and current captain) of this historical sailing vessel tells of how her decks ran ankle deep with blood. The whole story of how a small American fleet was hastily built on the shores of Lake Erie – at the time, a raw frontier – was awe-inspiring to me. Northwestern Pennsylvania had always had lots of good timber, but in 1812, there was no one for miles around who knew how to build a ship.
But the country was under attack. An invasion force was on its way, hitting the East Coast, with another battalion coming down into the Heartland by way of Canada. It was a national emergency, and experienced shipbuilders had to be rushed into all the way over from the coast of New England (especially Rhode Island). If not for their ingenuity and skill, we may well have lost our country.
Indeed, when I visited the Niagara with my dearest “E” (Eric) that day, I was struck by the thought that if things had gone differently in 1812, this little known and supposedly minor war could have changed the entire course of human events on planet earth.
Because there would have been no America. The grand experiment of the Founding Fathers would have died about the same time that Napoleon’s empire did on the other side of the ocean, at British hands. (One wonders, if the War of 1812 had dragged on a few more years, might the Crown have sicced the Iron Duke on us once he finished off Napoleon? Shudder!)
By 1812, the Founding Fathers who still survived were old men, and the birthright of freedom they had procured at such a dear cost had been passed on to their now grown children and the first crop of grandkids, who would have been in their late teens and early 20’s. It was “Liberty: The Next Generation” and the Empire was about to Strike Back.
Things had been quiet for a good twenty-three years. The fresh trouble started when the British Navy instated a policy of impressing American sailors into service. You see, America was technically neutral in the war between England and Napoleon, that staple of Regency romance and endless supply of tortured romance heroes. But the British did not entirely buy America’s neutrality. Nor did they like the fact that American merchants continued to do with Napoleon’s France despite England trying to outlaw this. Therefore, the British instated a policy of stopping and searching American ships they came across. Unfortunately, they did not stop there.
Suspicious that their former colonists were possibly colluding with Boney, they treated American sailors more like rebel Englishmen or criminals, and pressed them into service on British ships. Presumably the Brits were desperate for more hands on deck, given that they were in the fight of their lives against the quasi-Hitler of the 19th century, Napoleon. It didn’t matter.
Making a slave of an American is just about the worst thing you can do to us. President James Madison left off fighting the bankers who wanted to establish the Fed, and convened his Cabinet. After a huddle, the U.S. government declared that these seizures of American men by British Navy captains was an act of war.
And so, the fight was on. Would the new generation of Americans have what it takes to remain independent, or would they buckle and fold under pressure like a cheap suit?
Because freedom, as we say each year on the 4th of July, isn’t free.
(I can’t do justice in this blog post to the complexities of the War of 1812 or the heroism of the generation of Americans who won it, but if you want to learn more, check out http://www.visit1812.com/history/ or http://starspangled200.org/Pages/Home.aspx or read Chapter 5 of A Patriot’s History of the United States by Professors Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, entitled “Small Republic, Big Shoulders, 1789-1815” for an overview.)
The threat from England was very real. If anything, the Brits were more motivated than ever to get America back under their control. With a twenty-year war underway in Europe, they needed the money, man-power, and natural resources that America is blessed with. The War of 1812 is a fascinating subject, but since July is America’s birthday month, I thought it might be interesting to look at what might have happened and how our lives might be different if things had gone the other way—if England had indeed won the War of 1812 and regained control of the United States.
I am not a history expert, and I don’t play one on TV, but extrapolating fictional ideas out of historical facts is the job I do every day and have done for 15 years. I thought while Lady B. is napping, it might be very interesting to talk a stroll down Alternative History lane. So here we go.
Putting on my historical writer’s hat, here is what I propose might have happened if the British had won the War of 1812 – good and bad:
1. In an age of “honor” and saving face, the first order of business might well have been payback time. The elderly Founding Fathers who still survived would’ve been hunted down, arrested, and hanged as traitors to the Crown.
2. Slavery never would’ve taken hold in the United States the way it did, because England had already outlawed slavery in 1806. There would have been no need for a Civil War.
3. The Native Americans would also have been treated very differently. King George was fascinated by the American Indians and had decreed that the Colonists were not to set foot over the Alleghenies. Lands beyond these mountains were to have remained Indian territory. In the War of 1812, the Shawnee chief Tecumsah forged a confederation of tribes to fight on the side of the British. Who knows how long the Crown’s good intentions toward the Indians would have lasted? But at least there was initially a kindness there, despite the Founding Fathers regarding King George strictly as a tyrant.
4. If England had won the War of 1812, America probably would’ve been consolidated and combined with Canada, and with these massive natural resources–on top of England’s dominance of the sea AND being the leader in technology at the time (early Industrial Revolution)–I cannot help but think England would’ve become a Mega-Superpower even decades before the height of the British Empire under Queen Victoria. However, if that had happened in 1812, that would’ve set off the 19th century diplomats’ sense of the all-important “Balance of Power,” and therefore…
5. It would have changed the whole fate of Europe, as well. The other nations in Europe would have seen a Mega-Superpower England as a dire threat and might well have rallied around Napoleon whether they liked him or not, to provide a suitable counterbalance. My bet would be on the flip-flopper Czar Alexander of Russia changing sides again, to stand with Napoleon against this gigantic rival.
So there’s my “World-Building” (as we say in fiction craft) – whew! – the big picture of how world history might have been different, but what about life in these United States? How would it be different today if England had won the War of 1812?
1. Americans would have better manners *grin* (just kidding!!) and would probably prefer tea instead of coffee.
2. Hilltops throughout the United States would likely be dominated by lavish stately homes, where aristocrats with their own special set of laws would look down on the rest of us. (In Regency times, you went to jail if you were a common man who punched an aristocrat.) Since they were the landowners—and note that English aristocrats had already purchased or been granted extensive American land holdings, especially in the South–it is likely that most of us today would rent rather than own our homes. Just make your rent check out to the Duke of Devonshire, or whomever.
3. They’re great in fiction, but in real life, the presence of aristocrats among us would have resulted in a class-based society. In America we have different socioeconomic levels, but these are fluid. A person can change from one socioeconomic level from another depending on how much money they happen to be making in any particular time. Class is permanent.
Even today, here’s an example that drives me nuts. Every time some snooty British magazine writer interviews one of my favorite actors, Sean Bean, the writer makes sure to snidely point out that the actor’s father was a welder. What does that have to do with his movie roles or his training as an actor? Absolutely nothing.
But they make sure to bring up this fairly irrelevant detail just so you’ll know exactly where on the social totem pole this man should be viewed, no matter how many blockbuster movies he’s in or how much money he makes from them. No matter how accomplished an actor he might be, he will always be viewed a certain way in the eyes of those who see everything through class.
Needless to say, to Americans, that attitude is demeaning. We judge people based on what they themselves say and do, not on who their parents were, and for everyone, no matter their birth, the sky’s the limit.
4. If England had won the War of 1812, there would’ve been no Elvis, no Willie Nelson, no Lynard Skynard, no Aerosmith, and probably no Louis Armstrong, no Ella Fitzgerald, no Mo-Town, and no jazz. These forms are unique utterances of the American spirit. JMO.
ROCKIN’ LIKE IT’S 1976…
5. There would have been no “melting pot of the world” for all of those immigrants who came to America for freedom of religion. England was certainly tolerant of other religions in Prinny’s day, but those believers did not have the same rights as members in good standing of the official Church of England.
In closing, if England had won the War of 1812, I believe the biggest difference would have been in the American character. Being born into 19th century England meant being told your place and accepting it. This is anathema to the American spirit.
Freedom of the sort our Founding Fathers envisioned and passed down to us meant at its core (at least to me) that YOU decide for yourself what you’re going to be.
With the Constitution, the Founders set up conditions originally intended to get government out of the people way’s, freeing them to create whatever they wanted to create and to become whatever they wanted to become.
Lady B (stirring from her slumber): Gracious I can’t believe I nodded off. What is going on here? What are you whispering about?
Gaelen: Why, good afternoon, my lady. I was just making conversation with our friends here. Today I’m asking – What is your favorite period in American history? What bygone age in America’s past captures your imagination? Pioneers, Victorian Boston bluebloods, Jazz Age flappers, Greatest Generation, hippies…?