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When experiences are transformative

Published on 09 November 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

I’ve often maintained that any experience – even one we do not consider important – may become transformative.

I’ve just come across a good historical instance, which I’d like to share. It has to do with the long term consequences of the US-British War of 1812, which ended with the Treaty of Ghent. The Treaty confirmed the status quo ante. It was a draw. Two books have just been issued on the occasion of the Treaty’s bicentennial. They have been reviewed in Foreign Affairs https://fam.ag/RoLjSu. For those unable to access the text, here its main conclusions:

“The Americans learned a number of lessons, including the importance of military preparedness and the need to develop the financial and transportation infrastructure to support war. (..)

No less significant was the way that the war transformed the American cultural landscape and political imagination. The war fostered a heady national self-confidence and patriotism that gave momentum to manifest destiny. And it gave Americans a set of patriotic symbols and slogans that helped define the emerging republic as a unified nation: “Old Ironsides,” Uncle Sam, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The war also promoted the careers of a number of men who went on to dominate the American political and military establishments. No fewer than four wartime leaders were later elected president: James Monroe, who served as secretary of state and secretary of war; John Quincy Adams, who served on the peace delegation at Ghent; William Henry Harrison, who engineered the U.S. victory over the Native Americans at Tippecanoe before the war and then the triumph over British and Native American forces at the Battle of the Thames, in present-day Ontario, during the war; and Andrew Jackson, whose success commanding American forces catapulted him into the national limelight and made him a symbol for the entire postwar era. The Battle of New Orleans, Jackson’s greatest triumph, was the biggest and bloodiest engagement of the entire war. Since the battle was fought two weeks after the peace treaty had been negotiated (but before it had been ratified), it had no impact on the war’s conclusion. But Americans quickly convinced themselves that the battlefield victory had produced the favorable settlement, an act of mythologizing and romanticizing war that would become a fixture of American political culture.

As Americans celebrated their victory at New Orleans, they lost sight of the causes of the war and forgot how very close the nation had come to military defeat and financial collapse. (…) without losing a beat, Americans managed to fit the war into a developing national narrative of exceptionalism.

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