History Buff

The Presidential Hopeful Obsessed With the War of 1812

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has battle memorabilia in his statehouse office, a penchant for participating in reenactments, and high hopes for the 200th anniversary of a pivotal battle Friday.

09.09.14 4:01 AM ET

Nothing inspires Martin O’Malley like the story of a scrappy upstart that picked a fight with an all-powerful behemoth and won. But the two-term Maryland governor isn’t referring to his potential presidential bid for the 2016 Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton. He’s talking about the War of 1812, of all things, and the successful American defense of Baltimore against a marauding British fleet that had already burned Washington. After watching the American victory at the Battle of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star-Spangled Banner.” But while every American knows the song, the battle and the war it describes have been neglected by history. O’Malley is hoping that will change.

With the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Fort McHenry on Friday, O’Malley has a rare opportunity to mix his official duties with one of his private hobbies: all things War of 1812. In his Maryland State House office, festooned with historical memorabilia, including depictions of the Battle of Fort McHenry and a portrait of an American officer from the battle, O’Malley talked to The Daily Beast about one of the more obscure conflicts in American history, the coming commemorations, and why he thinks the war should be seen as more relevant today.

The governor, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., recalled visiting Fort McHenry as a boy and his mother always pointing it out on road trips up I-95, saying, “right over there...there’s the flag. Do you see it, boys? That’s Fort McHenry.” But he didn’t develop his deep attachment to the site and its history until after he had moved to Baltimore and entered municipal politics. It was then Fort McHenry became “very special” to O’Malley, he said: “I always derived a great deal of inspiration and sometimes solace, just from every now and again on the rough days, I’d go out there and just kind of walk” around the fort. The connection was solidified further when O’Malley served as Baltimore’s mayor and he used the fort’s defense as a symbol of the city’s resilience, likening “the foreign invasions of the British army and British navy” to the “foreign invasions of cocaine and heroin.”

Since then, O’Malley has become increasingly interested in the War of 1812 and has even dressed up for reenactments. The Maryland governor reminisced at length about speaking at a recent commemoration of the Battle of Bladensburg, perhaps the most embarrassing defeat in American history. There, on the outskirts of Washington, thousands of American militiamen fled at the approach of the invading army. A motley crew of former sailors led by Commodore Joshua Barney mounted the only real resistance to the British. They fought alone, while the American Army, which was accompanied by President James Madison and much of his Cabinet, ran for the hills. Hours after winning at Bladensburg, the British invaders entered Washington and burned the city to the ground.

For O’Malley to speak of an event commemorating such an ignoble moment in American history was clearly a big deal. He rhapsodized at length about a new monument at the battlefield, which featured a relief of Barney falling wounded into the arms of an African-American aide de camp. The governor, who joked that he had spent “15 years” preparing his remarks at the battlefield, said he thought the bronze was “a pretty cool image” and was excited that it was one of few depictions of a black American fighting for the United States in what he referred to as “either of our two wars of revolution.”

For O’Malley, studying the war also has been a learning experience. The United States “was unprepared” for the conflict, he said, and in the run-up to the war, “we didn’t have a navy, we fiddled, piddled but never resolved to build a navy to protect ourselves.” In that failure, he said he saw homeland security lessons for the 21st century, noting the parallels between the burning of Washington and 9/11. Both attacks saw “our buildings under attack” and “Americans dying on American soil.”

O’Malley noted that the War of 1812 is “not necessarily a golden moment” in American history. After all, the conflict didn’t just involve the burning of Washington but also the failure of the United States to achieve one of its main goals: conquering Canada. (That is an ambition the Maryland governor doesn’t share: “I think that ship has sailed,” he said.) Yet he still sees the war as a win for United States and said he is skeptical of the modern conventional wisdom that “likes to call it as tie.” 

“I think we established our independence [as a result of the war],” he said. “I think we secured the freedom of the seas to a much greater degree than they were being enjoyed by American shipping interests and sailors prior to that war, and I think we also, in a way, secured our manifest destiny of extending our borders from sea to shining sea or certainly set the table for that in a way that would not have been possible if the war had had another outcome.”

Win, lose, or draw, O’Malley said he is enthusiastic about the bicentennial and has read up on past commemorations to prepare. He recalled for The Daily Beast a 100-year-old Baltimore Sun editorial about the centennial in 1914 and searched excitedly through his iPad for it. PBS will broadcast the event nationwide on Saturday night, and it will feature what is planned to be the largest ever mass singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and an outdoor concert in Baltimore that will include a rock opera about the War of 1812, and O’Malley’s own band, which he referred to simply as “a small little warm-up band of Irish extraction.”

For O’Malley, the event is also an opportunity to share aspects of this forgotten history that excite him. While the war is often written about as a “white powdered-wig event fought by white people,” he said, one in five of the defenders of Baltimore was African-American and half were “immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants.” He seemed almost a tad jealous that while that detail has been lost in the story of the Battle of Baltimore, it has been preserved in the legacy of the other great American victory in the War of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans.

But the Maryland governor also has higher ambitions for the commemoration. The nation is still plagued by a “period of polarization and division,” he said, but he hopes that somehow “remembering this story perhaps giving meaning to the repetition of the words of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ will, in some way, engender more fertile ground in the public at large for a better way forward.”

O’Malley didn’t go into much detail about what he thought that better way forward might be, but it likely isn’t a coincidence that his political action committee, which is putting staffers on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, is called the O’Say Can You See PAC.