When President James Madison asked for and received, by a narrow margin, a declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812, there was one man in the new republic who knew exactly what to do: John “Jackie” Carroll, Archbishop of Baltimore, an aging shepherd of a small and widely diverse flock, in a fledgling democracy about to enter into war against the greatest sea power on earth, got on his knees and dedicated America to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
This year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore. For the last few generations, American academics have dismissed the War of 1812 as a hiccup in our history books. They labeled it the “unnecessary war.” Sure, Francis Scott Key penned some immortal lines that eventually became our anthem because he saw the stars and stripes still flying over the ramparts of Fort McHenry when nobody expected our standard to still wave after the brutal assault by the awesome might of His Majesty’s armada. But besides that nothing was gained from the war. It ended in a tie.
John Carroll knew differently. Many men of his faithful flock were impressed into the British Navy. This destroyed families who depended on seafaring fathers for their daily bread. Pastors up and down coastal towns of America knew this, too. It was one of the primary reasons Madison petitioned the congress for war.
But, once war was declared the stakes became so high that an American defeat would have jeopardized western expansion. Everything realized in Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase was fair game at the peace negotiating table in Ghent in the fall and winter of 1814. The promise of Manifest Destiny, only a generation away, may never have been realized if America could not pull off a Hail Mary pass in the waning summer days of that most decisive yet forgotten year.
And so John Carroll got down on his knees.
This was no small thing. The former English colonies of America, now united under an untested national constitution and stretched to the breaking point with partisan, party politics, were as distrustful of their federal government as they were of the Catholic Church. Actually, they feared the pope more than the president. Both were a perceived threat to individual freedoms and the precious, hard-fought rights of colonies turned into states, including religious freedom. Once let loose of the tyrannical yolk of European kings and princes, Americans wanted no parts of ordained sovereigns – in Washington, Windsor, or the Vatican.
But, John Carroll was a quintessential American as well as a prelate. When he spoke he did so gently, reasonably, with no intention to proselytize, because America would have none of it from a Roman-Catholic pulpit. No, John Carroll knew Americans needed time to learn to trust Catholics. He knew a quiet, generations-long witness was needed. That only through shared sacrifice would America come to tolerate and then trust Catholic Christians.
The Carroll’s were a family dedicated to American independence from the very start. In 1776, John travelled with his cousin, Charles Carroll, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Chase to Canada to persuade French-Catholic Canadians to accept and join the American colonies in their revolution. Charles was the last surviving member of the founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence. His brother, Daniel, signed the new, federal Constitution. The family was unequivocal in its devotion to American Independence and everybody knew it.
But now a crucial test descended upon a nation unprepared for war, and, in many cases, unwilling to fight one. America had botched the war effort from the very beginning. Its invasion of Canada failed miserably. Detroit had fallen. The Royal Navy had bottled up Chesapeake Bay. International sea commerce was strangled. The British and her European allies had, supposedly, vanquished Napoleon. Now, crack British regulars, veterans of Wellington’s campaigns in Spain, were poised to strike a fatal blow against America. There appeared to be nothing that could stop the British juggernaut.
Except, perhaps, the first American Catholic bishop, who pleaded with his beloved Baltimoreans to join with him in fervently reciting the Angelus – beseeching the Queen of Heaven to embrace a Protestant nation and defend it from a Protestant prince. What audacity!
And colonial America before and after the Revolution was certainly a Protestant country; it would remain so until millions of Catholic immigrants came to our shores decades later.
Yet, in the fall of 1814, everything hung in the balance. Because America had no naval fleet to defend her shores, the British cruised along her coastlines and blockaded her ports with impunity. The British Admiralty hatched a plan that would squash their former colonies like the gnats they had become. While the British, in Canada, secretly propositioned New England states to secure a separate peace, an invasion was launched into New York. The plan was a repeat of General Burgoyne’s campaign during the Revolution that sought to divide America by taking Lake Champlain then sail down the Hudson River, thereby cutting New England off from the rest of the states. Taking the inland waterways of America was, and is, the only way to defeat this country by conventional warfare.
A strategic feint was then initiated in the Chesapeake. British forces, army and navy, would threaten a number of cities while terrorizing the populace with hit and run tactics. The idea was to draw scant American forces to the defense of Washington and give the British a freer hand in their attack on New York.
In the same week, 200 years ago, the United States, barely united, fought back, both in New York and in Baltimore. Yes, Washington was left in ashes and the White House charred black. But, the heroic and often missed miracles in American history books were the surprising defenses of Baltimore, Maryland, and Plattsburg, New York. This saved our nation unbelievable concessions during the peace conference already underway, secured vast stretches of land that held natural resources no nation on earth could possibly imagine, and made possible the dream of “sea to shining sea.”
We should proudly celebrate the determined defense of our liberty on this historic bicentennial. The academics got it wrong to dismiss the War of 1812 as an historical anecdote. It truly was the Second War for American Independence.
On record, it was a tie after all. It was a return to status quo antebellum. But it shouldn’t have been. It should have been an overwhelming British victory. It should have been King George III’s revenge upon his former upstart subjects.
It may very well have led to an American civil war, north against south, well before providence forced the issue. In other words, history would have completely and undeniably changed the map of our nation save for the decisive outcomes we celebrate this year.
Was it John Carroll’s dedication of our country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary that preserved our national experiment in 1814?
If you believe in pure luck – in the unbelievable culmination of coincidence against all odds, then the answer is definitely no.
If you believe that there is no such thing as the proper alignment of stars that invariably decide and influence the destiny of man, and you believe in the power of man to invoke the heavens with a heart-to-heart plea for personal and collective assistance in the hour of need, then you know “Jackie” Carroll’s prayers were not only heard, but given a divine exclamation point.
Perhaps, in our nation’s hour of need today, we should ask our bishops to rededicate our fledgling republic to the protection of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Because for each generation of Americans, our country will always and forever be newly reborn – in our hearts, in our commitment to remain free, and in our determination as a people to proudly fly our national standard “through the perilous fight” we should know by now will always be before us.
John Carroll would take a knee and agree.