The Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles has re-acquired the domain name written on 798,000 Maryland license plates meant to commemorate the War of 1812 but was recently in the hands of a Filipino online casino showing a scantily-clad lady advertising attractive betting rates. The DMV paid $1,000 for the URL starspangled200.org, according to a spokesperson.
The URL, which still appears on hundreds of thousands of Maryland license plates, now redirects to the DMV home page instead of its original purpose as an informational website on the War of 1812. The War of 1812 was dubbed “the strangest war in American history” by eminent historian Gordon Wood. When the U.S. declared war on the British, ostensibly because the British navy was violating maritime shipping laws and kidnapping U.S. sailors to serve in its fleets, the U.S. army had about 7,000 men and the U.S. Navy consisted of a whole 16 ships. Meanwhile, the British were, at the time, engaged in a massive war with Napoleonic France, had a standing army of some 250,000 and the world’s largest navy of 7,000 warships. The British didn’t want to fight the war or particularly care about doing so.The real motivation for war, historians have concluded, had little to do with maritime rights or “impressment,” as the kidnapping of U.S. sailors was known, a fact you may well have intuited yourself in high school history class when you struggled to remember what the hell impressment even is. President James Madison and members of his Republican party were thirsty for war, for the most American reason: To prove to the rest of the world the U.S. was a big boy country.At the time, the U.S.’s status as a fledgling of a country was best encapsulated by the fact that people didn’t even know what to call it. The United States of America is a mouthful. “America” referred to the entire western hemisphere. No longer colonies but a nation in desperate need of a brand management strategy, suggestions such as “the United States of Columbia” or just Columbia—after Christopher Columbus—were popular suggestions because “Columbia” could easily be substituted for “Britannia” in popular songs and anthems. Senator Samuel Mitchill suggested Fredon or Fredonia. Clearly lacking in better alternatives, they stuck with the United States of America and referred to the country as the Union, and us as Americans, even though the term “Americans” had already become a pejorative back in Europe for oafish, brash and crass colonists across the ocean.
As the country struggled to come up with a real name, it also struggled to agree on anything important. “All men are created equal” sounded good on a hot July day when the king is trying to push you around, but when literally all men, even ones without property, started to take that literally it ended up being a pretty divisive idea, especially when a bunch of Frenchmen adopted that idea, went too far, cut each other’s heads off and ushered in a reign of terror all in the name of liberty and equality. It had a lot of “Americans” wondering what, exactly, bound the country together.It was this existential precondition—Who are we? What unites us? What do we share in common? What are our collective values?—that led a young U.S. to war. Quite literally, President Madison and the Congressmen who voted for war—back then the U.S. House of Representatives would actually vote on whether to hold a war—did so because they figured nothing cures what ails you quite like winning a war. In a typical justification, an influential Baltimore journalist wrote, “War will purify the political atmosphere…All the public virtues will be refined and hallowed; and we shall again behold at the head of affairs citizens who may rival the immortal men of 1776.” So, for two and a half years, Americans and the British fought on various fronts. The Americans burned down York, which is now Toronto. The British then burned down Washington in retaliation. Thousands of troops on both sides died in battle, tens of thousands more from disease. The Federalist party, mostly northern states opposed to the war because of its impact on trade with their greatest partner, the British, held a convention in Hartford, Connecticut and almost voted to secede and form a separate peace. Almost. In late 1814 the U.S. and British signed the Treaty of Ghent, which, in the most literal possible way, put things back to the way they were. The War of 1812 concluded in 1814 but fighting didn’t stop until 1815 and the result was everyone agreeing to go back to the way things were in 1811. If it sounds like everybody lost, you’d be wrong. The U.S. declared victory, because it didn’t get conquered, and for a country teetering on the brink of dissolution, that was good enough.Along the way, a lawyer and mediocre writer wrote an unintelligible poem that was later set to music, ensuring his countrymen and women would make utter asses out of themselves performing it off-key for generations to come. Some 210 years later, a state government authority would use $1,000 in taxpayer dollars to purchase an internet domain name from a Filipino online casino it had printed on license plates to commemorate a war fought to preserve a nation ostensibly dedicated to small government and limited taxation.