You may vaguely remember the War of 1812 from a history test or textbook back in junior high school. To refresh your memory, that's the conflict where the US declared war on Britain and Britain's colonies in Canada in 1812. The US did so in response to intolerable provocations and slights to American sovereignty by London, including the kidnapping of American sailors.
By the time the war had concluded in 1815, while the US had not conquered Canada, America's soldiers and sailors had many impressive victories to their credit. They demonstrated repeatedly that the young Republic would not be easily pushed around by European empires.
Two hundred years later, elected officials and unelected bureaucrats in both Canada and the US are wrestling with the question of how to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, when it rolls around in 2012.
Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister, has struck the first blow in this fight to define what the 1812 bicentennial means. He gave a speech recently where he presented the war as central to the establishment of a distinct Canadian identity and boasted about the British defeat of American forces at the 1814 Battle of Lundy's Lane, near Niagara Falls.
Harper's speech is merely the first event in an elaborate Canadian plan to commemorate the war. It goes without saying that the War of 1812 is a much bigger deal in Canada than the US, in large part because Canada sees itself as having won the war.
President Obama hasn't said much about the War of 1812 to date (although he did reference it briefly in a 2009 speech). One idea could be for Obama to claim that the conflict's resolution helped lead to a lasting peace between the US, Canada and Britain. This peace, in turn, helped lay the foundation for the three countries to think of themselves as part of a global community of English-speaking nations. Today, that community of nations has come to share broadly similar ideas about human rights, the role of government, etc.
That's a typical conciliatory-sounding Obama-esque theme for a speech. But if Canada's Prime Minister Harper isn't afraid to use the War of 1812 as an excuse for some patriotic chest-beating, President Obama shouldn't be, either.
President Obama could instead decide to present the War of 1812 to the public just as many American patriots of the 19th century saw it - a Second War of American Independence against the ever-grasping British Empire.
He could start the commemorative effort by delivering a speech or two at sites tied to the 1812 war, to remind the American people of some of the lessons of that conflict.
One such lesson has to do with the shortages of arms and supplies experienced by American forces during the war. These shortages helped increase interest in building up America's strength as a center of manufacturing, so that the country would not be caught flat-footed again. That's a lesson with some resonance today, as American manufacturing prowess remains key to US national security.
Another lesson to take away from the war concerns statesmanship. President James Madison could have ignored those British insults to American sovereignty that precipitated the war, like the kidnapping of US sailors, but instead he chose to defend the American Republic's honor. Madison wasn't the kind to walk around apologizing to America's enemies.
Announcing new federal monuments to some of the heroes of the war should also be high on the President's agenda when it comes to 1812-related initiatives. One deserving candidate is James Lawrence, who uttered that immortal phrase "Don't give up the ship!" after suffering a fatal wound during an 1813 naval battle.
Another is James Miller, who responded "I'll try, sir" to a command that he lead a direct assault on British artillery at the Battle of Lundy's Lane - the confrontation referenced by Prime Minister Harper. Miller and his men did more than try - they captured the British guns. "I'll try, sir" is still the motto of the US 5th Infantry Regiment.
Even if they took place 200 years ago, these stories (and there are many others) represent the kind of courage and bravery that, when they are retold, help to renew one's patriotism and love of country. So don't dilute the patriotic lore of the Second War of Independence, Mr. President - instead, embrace that lore, amplify it and repeat it again and again.