The Canadian historian C. P. Stacey once remarked that the War of 1812 is ‘an episode in history that makes everybody happy, because everybody interprets it differently’. Americans believe they gave their former mother country a good drumming, Canadians pride themselves in turning back ‘the massed might of the United States,’ and ‘the English are happiest of all, because they don’t even know it happened’.(1) These competing accounts are the result of the different functions the Anglo-American conflict served in their respective nations’ historical master narratives.
In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, Americans celebrated the War of 1812 as America’s ‘Second War of Independence’, in which Americans allegedly repelled the former mother country’s attempts to subdue its lost colonies in North America back into the British imperial system. Hailed as a victorious campaign, the War of 1812 came to boost American nationalism, and nationalist historians and artists used wartime anecdotes, icons, and heroes to provide Americans with a national identity. Two generals active in the War of 1812 – Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison – used their wartime victories to successfully run for the Presidency. With the sectional controversy intensifying and the outbreak of the Civil War, however, memories of the unifying War of 1812 faded. Today, only three per cent of Americans believe that the War of 1812 was the most important war for the emergence of an American nationalism. Taking place between the epic War of Independence and the Civil War, which Americans hold to be the most important wars in the formation of American national identity (50 per cent and 25 per cent respectively), the War of 1812 occupies a middle ground and hence it has become one of the most neglected of America’s wars.(2) Donald R. Hickey called it ‘the forgotten conflict’.(3) In some states which saw military encounters, such as Arkansas and New York, memorials to the conflict were erected but the capital does not have a national site for commemorating the fallen soldiers in the conflict.
Canadian nationalist narratives – by contrast – appeared only after 1867, since there was no independent Canadian nation to celebrate before that date. After the founding of the Confederation, Canadians tended to downplay the importance of the British regulars and the Royal Navy and instead congratulated themselves for having defended the embryo of their nation from an American invasion in the War of 1812. By successfully resisting Americans they had laid the foundation for the Canadian nation, the narrative went. While the Canadian ‘militia myth’ – that British North America’s inhabitants unified to repel the southern aggressor largely without the help of British soldiers – has been laid to rest, the claim that a Canadian national identity was born in the War of 1812 has endured.(4) The current Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, therefore, decided to spend more than $28 million on celebrations for the bicentennial, i.e. for exhibits, historic sites, historical re-enactments, and a new national monument, to make Canadians aware that the ‘end of the war laid the foundation for Confederation and the emergence of Canada as a free and independent nation’.(5)
Unlike the Canadians, the British have never been particularly interested in this conflict. The English-born Canadian historian William Kingsford commented in 1895 that ‘the events of the War of 1812 have not been forgotten in England for they have never been known there’.(6) While his witticism certainly carries the point too far, it is clear that the Napoleonic Wars have played a much larger role in British memory than the war with the former colonies on the outskirts of the European world. When it comes to the year 1812, Britons think of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The Anglo-American conflict of the same year was merely an unwelcome distraction. British identity was not formed in the conflict with America but in the titanic struggle with Napoleonic France. While Americans celebrated the Battle of New Orleans as if the United States had won the War of 1812, the British hardly noticed it, as news of the battle coincided with Napoleon’s escape from Elba. The subsequent showdown with Napoleon resulted in the Battle of Waterloo, which the British remember to this day as a defining moment for their nation. It was the wars with France that shaped the British historical memory. Victory over France is viewed as one of Great Britain’s greatest achievements, paving the way for Great Britain’s global dominance until the 20th century.(7) The War of 1812 does not make sense in this powerful historical master narrative. As a result, it is either ignored or described as an irritating distraction, forced on Britain by the United States, from the more important struggle on the Continent. Not surprisingly, British historians have never shown a keen interest in this conflict. In comparison to the European wars of the late 18th and early 19th century, the War of 1812 was relatively bloodless and short in duration. Fewer than 4,000 soldiers died in combat in North America between 1812 and 1815, while the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France caused millions of deaths in Europe. It is for all these reasons that the War of 1812 usually plays little role in histories of Great Britain.(8)
To this date, the various collective memories of the conflict are still largely based on national historical narratives. The bicentennial of the conflict, however, has sparked a number of new publications on the conflict. Although some retain the national point of view, others deconstruct the celebratory national paradigms and transcend the national narrative in order to analyze the War of 1812 from a more global perspective.
The catalog 1812: A Nation Emerges – accompanying the exhibition of the same name that is currently being shown at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. – presents the traditional American narrative. It is edited by Sidney Hart, the senior historian of the National Portrait Gallery, and Rachael L. Penman, the assistant curator of the exhibition. Three introductory essays by two leading experts in the field – J. C. A. Stagg and Donald R. Hickey – and by the curator open up the catalog. The main part features 115 large-scale color images of the objects displayed in the exhibition. Published for the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the book gives an overview of the conflict, the most important actors, and the major battles.
The artifacts displayed in the exhibition include portraits of American statesmen such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and James Monroe as well as portraits of the numerous American war heroes such as William Henry Harrison, Winfield Scott, Oliver Hazard Perry, Thomas Macdonough, and Andrew Jackson. Great Britain is represented by portraits of Lord Castlereagh and King George IV as well as British commanders such as Isaac Brock, Robert Ross, George Cockburn, and Edward Pakenham. Besides portraits, the catalog includes numerous paintings of battle scenes such as the encounter between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Leopard, between the HMS Macedonian and the USS United States, the burning of Washington, the bombardment of Fort McHenry, and the Battle of New Orleans. Moreover, reprinted are cartoons depicting British atrocities or British defeats or mocking the Hartford Convention as well as uniforms of the contestants, contemporary maps, the American flag of 1812 that flew on the American privateer Blockade, Dolly Madison’s dress, a model ship of the USS Constitution, a Congreve Rocket as used in the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the original manuscript of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, a copy of the first edition of Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (9), and a copy of the flag which inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would later become the text of America’s national anthem.(10) Brief but accurate descriptions complement the images.
The major claim of the exhibition and the catalog is that an American nation emerged in the War of 1812 and that the war provided Americans with a set of symbols, heroes, and legends on which to build their national identity. Aside from giving a boost to American westward expansion and growing political support for a large standing army and a sizable navy, federally sponsored internal improvements, and a national bank, the war also produced symbols of national identity such as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘Uncle Sam’.(11) ‘It is perhaps only a modest exaggeration to say that in the course of that conflict, America completed its struggle for independence’, Martin E. Sullivan, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery, claims in his foreword (p. ix).
The catalog demonstrates the importance of art works for American nation-building. During and after the war, numerous American painters such as Charles Willson Peale, Rembrandt Peale, John Wesley Jarvis, Thomas Birch, and William Charles ‘responded to the American public’s demand to see their heroes and, in Charles’ case, castigate their enemies’, Sidney Hart explains in his introductory essay (p. 21). Art works thus contributed to the nationalist narrative of the war. ‘In the Americans’ mythical view of the War of 1812, the United States courageously declared war because the mighty British Empire was interfering with U.S. trade, and its navy was kidnapping American sailors. Against formidable odds, Americans beat Great Britain and, while doing so, invented Uncle Sam, composed the poetry of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ and created America’s greatest antebellum hero: Andrew Jackson. The myth was immortalized in artworks – portraits of the heroes, cartoons satirizing the British, and paintings of the victorious battle scenes’ (p. 21).
The catalog recounts the standard narrative of the War of 1812 as the ‘Second War of Independence’ and highlights its effects on American nationalism. It thus does not offer new insights into the War of 1812. The selection of artifacts is also not very revealing or daring. The exhibition displays objects not only from its own collection but also from the British National Portrait Gallery, the McCord Museum of Canadian History, the Canadian War Museum, the National Gallery of Canada, the National Maritime Museum in London, and private collectors in Ireland. Despite the international origin of numerous objects, however, the exhibition’s story is solidly American in outlook. Since the catalog tells the story of how the War of 1812 proved to be a nationalizing event, moreover, it does not give much room to the domestic opposition to the conflict except explaining that revolutionary war hero Henry Lee who opposed the war was crippled in the Baltimore riot or that war opponent John Randolph was forbidden to bring his dogs into the halls of Congress.
Hugh Howard’s popular history of the War of 1812 – Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence – also follows the national trajectory. Calling himself a ‘narrative historian’ seeking ‘story lines’ (p. vii), he uses an anecdotal approach to the War of 1812, reconstructing particular episodes of the war in colorful detail. His claim, however, that his book will be a ‘corrective’ to the fact that the War of 1812 is ‘perhaps the least understood of America’s wars’ (p. viii) is misplaced, since he neither provides a complete historical overview of the entire war nor does he examine and bring forward his own argument about why the United States declared war against Great Britain in 1812.(12) He simply finds that the war was inevitable, as British foreign policy gave Madison no other choice than to ask Congress for a declaration of war (pp. 20–6). His historiographical contribution is to recount the story of the War of 1812 from the President’s and the First Lady’s perspective. Unlike most other accounts of the War of 1812, which largely ignore Dolly Madison, Howard finds that she ‘was a principal actor in the events that unfolded between the war declaration in June 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent’ (p. viii).(13) While she played no direct role in the actual war effort (apart from her often-told rescuing of Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington that hung in the President’s House as well as of government and personal papers when the British invaded and burnt the capital), she fulfilled an important function by organizing bipartisan social gatherings in the nation’s capital. By describing the First Lady’s ceremonial responsibilities, Howard provides us with a portrait of Washington’s social life in the early 19th century. Yet, his judgment that ‘[i]n the nation’s collective memory, Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War was better remembered for her role than his’ might carry his point a bit far (p. 305).
This book includes insightful portrayals of Richard Rush, James Monroe, William Winder, Isaac Hull, Stephen Decatur, Captain James Lawrence, Oliver Hazard Perry, and Joshua Barney as well as readable narratives about major battles such as the battle of York or the battle on Lake Eerie, and naval encounters such as those between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerrière or between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Shannon. Of great interest is also his discussion of more unknown episodes such as the naval encounter between a squadron of American barges and British warships on the Patuxent River in June 1814. A thorough discussion of the British invasion of Washington in August 1814, however, comprises the main part of the book.
Howard’s judgments are nationally biased. He characterizes the British burning of Washington ‘an act of international terrorism’ (p. vii), dismissing any comparison to the American burning of York (capital of Upper Canada at that point in time) on the grounds that the ‘destruction of several wooden structures in a regional capital’ was different from the ‘wholesale destruction of a nation’s monumental public buildings’ (p. 232). He also considers the outcome of the war from a narrow American perspective and in an entirely positive light. The British practice of searching American merchant vessels for British deserters on the high seas was discontinued, since the Napoleonic Wars ended at about the same time as the Anglo-American War of 1812 and thus the Royal Navy’s need for tars decreased (it was not the War of 1812, however, that led to the end of impressment). He further emphasizes that American manufacturing had received a boost through the war, foreign trade was resumed, and Republicans abandoned their hostility to the federal government sponsoring internal improvements, the U.S. Navy, and a national bank. Finally, while he celebrates the westward expansion as a result of the war, he fails to consider the consequences of yet another chapter in the history of Indian displacement (p. 294).
Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War is written in vivid prose, with colorful details of the battles. A distinct strength of this monograph is the inclusion of the First Lady’s role in the social life of the capital, which is mostly overlooked in monographs on the War of 1812. However, it does not provide fresh insights into the conflict but takes a rather traditional American perspective on the war.
In 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism, Nicole Eustace, Associate Professor of History at New York University, offers a cultural history of the War of 1812 investigating the link between the War of 1812 and American nationalism. How could a war that accomplished nothing militarily and diplomatically and which was marked by disastrous military failures on the American side, become ‘a popular success,’ pass into the ‘era of good feelings,’ and strengthen American national identity (p. xi)? To answer this question and ‘to assess the impact and importance of the War of 1812,’ Eustace posits, ‘we need to consider it as a cultural event as much as a military one’ (p. x). Whereas few Americans would take an active part in military encounters, ‘many more would enjoy the pleasurable sensory experience of artistic and literary representations of war’ (p. xii). The war became popular, she argues, since Republican writers and artists were able to link love of country to participation in the war and to romantic affections (p. xiii). Examining primarily presidential speeches, newspaper editorials, political cartoons, novels, plays, poems, and tavern songs which appealed to Americans’ emotions and thus generated support for the war, Eustace shows that during the conflict Republicans depicted the war ‘as a romantic adventure, one in which dashing young men went to war to win the hearts of patriotic maidens and in which the thrill of romantic love contributed directly to the surge of patriotism’ (p. xiii).
Since Eustace unravels many new fascinating aspects of the war and its cultural representation, it is worthwhile recapitulating some of her arguments. In chapter one, she demonstrates that Republicans, before and during the War of 1812, came to equate population growth with national power. Individual reproduction and national expansion were thus intrinsically linked. ‘So long as population was the fundamental source of strength for the country then anyone’s sexuality could not only foster personal happiness but also contribute to the very foundation of the nation’ (pp. 33–5). In this way existing political inequalities could be fomented. Even though women were not allowed to vote, they could still become members of the nation: by producing progeny for the nation and thus adding to the strength of the nation. In return, they would be protected from America’s external enemies (p. 30).
In chapter two, Eustace shows that war proponents linked love of country to romantic ardor. Men should win the hearts of women by taking part in the war and women should ‘sport’ with soldiers, ‘for men who met their obligations to country would never fail to respect those to their sexual partners’ (p. 53). By presenting women as the reward for soldiers, war supporters – for example, in songster books or broadside ballad posters – linked nationalism, war-making, and sexuality: ‘all women were encouraged to incite in men the sexual ardor that both spurred population and stirred acts of patriotism’ (p. 53). Eustace comes to the conclusion: ‘the message for women was clear: they were to enter marriages as men entered military service’ (p. 100). The message for young men was that they could more easily find a woman willing to marry them if they first showed their devotion to the nation through military service (p. 54).
According to Eustace, the issue of impressment allowed Americans to gain the upper hand in arguments with the British over who possessed more virtue, as laid out in chapter three. Whereas the British criticized Americans’ hypocrisy claiming liberty for themselves, while enslaving the black population and driving Indians off their lands, American politicians and popular polemicists used the issue of impressment ‘to tip the scales of virtue back toward the United States’ (p. 78). They insisted that American sailors forced into the service of the Royal Navy not only lost their personal freedom and their freedom to choose a national allegiance; but also that they were violently separated from their families (p. 78). ‘Portraits of gallant husbands and dedicated fathers severed from their families and compelled to miserable toil in the floating dungeons of an enemy nation proved highly effective in American efforts to dramatize the issue of British impressment’ (p. 78). Waging war against the former mother country, she explains, thus ‘became a means of reuniting lost lovers’ (p. 81). Americans – by contrast – honored Britons’ and Canadians’ familial ties, as war supporters claimed. When Captain Oliver Perry defeated the British fleet on Lake Erie, he allegedly allowed Canadian sailor-husbands to reunite with their wives and thus displayed his respect ‘for the marriage obligations of the Canadian men who fell into his hands’ (p. 80). The Republican public could find comfort in this ‘sharp contrast between the American naval hero and the standard procedures of the British press gang’ (p. 80).
In chapter four, Eustace hones in on ‘the key relationship between population expansion and territorial expansion’ (p. 119). More land would allow American families to grow larger; more descendants would allow America to seize more land from the Indians. In the War of 1812 then, both Indians and white Americans alike understood reproduction as ‘a tool of war’ (p. 119). In this context, captivity novels (stories of white Americans being abducted by Indians), of which a dozen appeared during the war years, played an important role in fostering pro-war sentiment. ‘Such tales emphasized the power of ordinary people to advance the progress of the U.S. nation through the simple acts of migration and procreation’ (p. 120). At the same time, they warned about the dangers of ‘illicit love between the politically distinct populations of the United States and Indian nations’, since it would undermine America’s position in this ‘war for population domination’ (p. 123). Novelists thus sought to elicit ‘feelings of repulsion toward Indians’ and to stir ‘domestic desires’ at the same time in order to promote American patriotism (p. 124). ‘Captivity novels were war propaganda. They incited U.S. hostility by describing Indian atrocity’ (p. 153). Indian men and women were depicted as sexually unattractive. The consensual character of American marriages was contrasted with alleged ‘forced’ Indian marriages. The happy ending of many of these captivity narratives consisted of a marriage between a returning captive and another white American. ‘Patriotic white women did not have to avoid sexuality altogether; but the sole focus was to be on forming a fruitful and faithful relationship with a white husband’ (p. 131). Patriotism, war-making, expansionism, and gender relations were thus bound together in a powerful mix: ‘The nation needed men to win the land and women to populate it’ (p. 138).
The War of 1812 was not only a military battle, as Eustace makes clear in chapter five, but also a symbolic battle over whether the United States or Great Britain was the true ‘land of liberty’. Given the existence of slavery in the United States, and the fact that Great Britain used her Royal Navy to put an end to the Atlantic slave trade, the American republic ‘lost significant moral ground to the [British] monarchy whenever anyone raised the issue of slavery’ (p. 169). Abolitionists in the United States sought to gain the upper hand in this struggle by suggesting slavery should be abolished there. Most Republicans, however, did not embrace such a solution in this symbolic fight with the British but instead came up with other ways to defend American slavery. One strategy was to depict the British practice of impressment as worse than American slavery. America’s chargé d’affaires in London, Jonathan Russell, for example told Britain’s foreign minister that impressed U.S. seafarers suffered more than enslaved Africans, ‘because once Africans had been torn from their homeland they had no chance of ever meeting kith or kin again, whereas American sailors forced into British service might very well be put into the position of having to fight against members of their own families’ (p. 174). Not only did British press gangs sever American men from their families, but Britain’s Indian allies killed American women and children in the Northwest, they argued (p. 170). Yet another strategy to justify slavery was to declare black slaves as part of the larger ‘family’ of the plantation owner who served as the household head. When the British tried to encourage slaves to escape, they were, in fact, breaking apart American households (p. 203). Finally, Republicans depicted the British burning of the American capital in August 1814 as proof that the British – laying waste to the homes of American families – were worse than Americans who incorporated black slaves into their own families (p. 204).
Finally, Eustace explains how Republicans could proclaim the War of 1812 as a success, even though the stated diplomatic war aims were not mentioned in the Treaty of Ghent. After the Battle of New Orleans, throughout the United States Republicans circulated the lie that the British soldiers had allegedly been promised the women of New Orleans as their reward. This story, although untrue, ‘helped validate assertions that American men fought for country because of the romantic ardor they felt for their wives and sweethearts’ (p. 214). Even though it had not resulted in diplomatic gains, Americans could thus celebrate the Treaty of Ghent because throughout the war, it seemed, ‘American men had protected their women’ (p. 216). This tale about how American men had protected their women against sexual violence by British soldiers allowed men to ignore the issue of women’s citizenship and of gender inequality in marriage. ‘Framing Jackson’s victory at New Orleans as a strike against sexual assault helped men maintain the proposition that, even in the absence of any other economic or political rights, wives owed unquestioned allegiance to their husbands and their nation in return for simple protection from rape’ (p. 218).
Among the most significant results of the War, according to Eustace, was the defeat of Great Britain’s Indian allies. As the Indians in the Northwest and Southwest had been beaten during the war and as Great Britain withdrew her demand for an independent Indian buffer state in the peace negotiations, the remaining barriers to Americans’ westward expansion were lifted. ‘The decision to do nothing at Ghent meant everything to the Indians who faced certain dispossession from that day forward’ (p. 227). The exclusion of women from full citizenship was another important result. The war and its depiction as a fight between virtuous American husbands and English, Indian, and black rapists put the issue of whether women should be given equal citizenship off the agenda (p. 218). Finally, the War of 1812 resulted in the marshaling of patriotism: ‘it mattered less who took up arms to fight than who opened their hearts to feel. Sharing in the emotional experience of patriotism created real and recognized contributions to the strength of the nation even in the absence of any concerted action’ (p. 220).
Probably no book published on the occasion of the bicentenary of the War of 1812 offers so many new insights into the War of 1812 as Eustace’s. The role of gender and race in popular representations of the war but also their relation to the burgeoning American nationalism in the war years had hitherto yet to be addressed in such a compelling manner. What could however have strengthened Eustace’s case is if she had also investigated the causes of the War of 1812 through a cultural lens and thus been able to draw links between the development of American nationalism and changes in gender relations to the outbreak of war. It is also not clear in what way the popular depiction of the war influenced either the decisions of federal policy-makers or the conduct of American soldiers in military encounters with the British. What effect the skillfully unraveled narrative structures had on public policy is thus not clear. This is not so much a criticism, however, but rather a call for scholars to build upon Eustace’s perceptive study to investigate, using a cultural approach, the origins and the course of the War of 1812 anew.
J. C. A. Stagg – Professor of History at the University of Virginia, acknowledged expert, and author of numerous works, on the War of 1812, editor of The Papers of James Madison, and thus uniquely qualified to take an active part in the discourse of the bicentennial publications on the War of 1812 – has written a concise 200-page synopsis of the Anglo-American conflict in The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. Besides giving a diplomatic, political, administrative, and military overview of the conflict, his monograph’s particular contribution to the literature is that it situates the war in the larger international context which was dominated by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. He connects the developments of the European war with that in the American theater. How were, for instance, American and British war strategies adjusted after the defeat of the Grand Army in Russia and Napoleon’s subsequent retreat and final expulsion from France? How was the British and American diplomacy at Ghent – to give another example – affected by the outcome of military encounters in the war?
In the first chapter, Stagg discusses the way the War of 1812 has been remembered in the United States and Canada. The second chapter gives an excellent overview of the international context and the events leading to the declaration of war. According to Stagg, the U.S. attacked Canada because its navy was too tiny to take up a real fight with the British, not because the acquisition of Canada was a war aim. Since America’s manpower greatly surpassed that of Canada, it was simply an easier target. The following three chapters – being structured by the years 1812, 1813, and 1814 – examine the war years. Of particular interest is Stagg’s analysis of how Secretary of State James Monroe and Secretary of War John Armstrong each sought to exploit the war for their political purposes and to gain an upper hand in the Republican presidential candidate nomination of 1816. Monroe – fearing Armstrong might take the position of lieutenant general of the army, which, if the impending 1814 campaign was to be successful, could catapult him to the Presidency – urged Madison to remove his rival from office on the grounds of poor performance as Secretary of War. Armstrong – by contrast – sought to make an alliance with Northern Federalists to prevent another Virginian from taking the office of Chief Magistrate.
The last chapter analyzes the diplomatic negotiations leading to the Treaty of Ghent and Stagg draws conclusions about the ramifications and the outcome of the war. He accurately outlines the wider diplomatic strategies and goals of both governments and explains how the military events in both North America and Europe played into the discussions. He does not agree with historians who – given that the U.S. did not achieve its stated war aims – consider the War of 1812 an American defeat. Great Britain also did not accomplish its goal of permanently securing Canada from a future American attack by readjusting the American-Canadian border, demilitarizing the Great Lakes, and creating an Indian buffer state in the Northwest, Stagg argues (154–5). If anyone could be considered the victor it was the Canadians. With the help of British troops and the Royal Navy they were able to repel an American invasion and thus maintain their membership in the British Empire. Had the United States successfully conquered Canada, ‘there could have been no Canadian confederation of the sort that was formed in 1867’ (p. 155). If there was an outright loser in this conflict, it was the Native Americans residing within the territory of the United States. They lost significant amounts of land and were never again able to form a united resistance against American expansionism (p. 155).
Why then did the United States fail to take Canadian territory during the war, even though its larger population and resources gave it a distinct advantage over its northern neighbor? Again, Stagg disagrees with most of the explanations historians have given to this question. Madison was not as weak a wartime leader as some scholars have claimed. Stagg also does not consider war strategy the most salient reason for America’s failure to conquer Canada and he does not credit the British troops with superior performance. Once they took the offensive – as they did when they invaded the state of New York and marched down the Champlain Valley in 1814 – ‘the British were no more successful than the Americans’ (p. 159). Recruiting was also not the cause of the army’s failure to take Canada, since the United States Army was far larger than the number of British regulars in North America. The incompetence of American generals was also not the key to America’s military failures, Stagg maintains. At the root of the army’s problems was its poor organization and training. There was a high rate of turnover in the officer corps giving it little cohesion. Few officers had military experience and education. The War Department also promoted three ‘incompatible systems of drill’ during the war (p. 163). Finally, the United States Army did not employ most of its soldiers long enough to properly train them to march, to load and fire their weapons, and to practice battlefield maneuvers. ‘In short, the United States between 1812 and 1815 created the skeleton of an army, but it could never put flesh and muscle on that skeleton’ (p. 164). ‘The result was a largely untrained and haphazardly organized army, led by too many manifestly inadequate generals, that was in no condition to fulfill the strategic requirements of the Madison administration, namely that it seize enough Canadian territory to compel Great Britain to respect American neutral rights in a peace treaty’ (p. 164).
Stagg’s War of 1812 provides an excellent analysis of the international and domestic political context. Presenting the viewpoints of the various influential actors and drawing from his extensive research on the War of 1812, he makes very judicious and fair judgments. The large bibliographical section at the end of the book is very helpful and points to the important literature on various aspects of the war (unfortunately there are few footnotes referring to secondary literature in the text). The book is therefore to be highly recommended to students since it succinctly presents and analyses the policy choices, administrative requirements, military events, and relevant actors. The general reader however might find that there are too many details on the administrative aspects of the war and military campaigns, such as the in-depth recapitulation of the disputes between Armstrong and Harrison over military strategy in the Northwest (pp. 89–91), and between Armstrong and Wilkinson over where to attack Canada in 1813 (99–101). Stagg writes in detail about the mismanagement of financing the war, recruiting soldiers, and decisions about military personnel, but little about the cultural and social change surrounding the war. Nonetheless, together with Donald Hickey’s account of the War of 1812, which appeared this year in a bicentennial edition, Stagg’s book is the best general study of the conflict.(14)
While Stagg recognizes the need to write a global history of the War of 1812, he himself admittedly takes an American perspective concentrating on U.S. politics, diplomatic and military strategies, and the American administration of the war efforts. ‘Ideally … the historian of the War of 1812 must acknowledge and synthesize the political histories of three, if not more, nation-states …’. To give the monograph a narrative structure, however, Stagg organized his ‘new history of the War of 1812 around the story of the United States …’ (p. 16). For a global approach we therefore need to look at another work published for the occasion of the war’s bicentennial, which gives the British perspective its due attention.
In The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812, Troy Bickham, professor of history at Texas A&M University, is the first to provide an account that pays equal attention to both the American and the British side of the conflict.(15) He thus supersedes the usual national perspective that focuses on the motivations of the American actors and their perceptions of international events. A glance at the table of content makes his balanced approach clear. ‘The American case for war’ is followed by ‘The British Empire’s case for war’ and ‘Wartime opposition in the United States’ is complemented by ‘British opposition to the War’. He does not narrate the military history of the war, nor is his monograph a chronological account of the conflict. He rather scrutinizes why both nations found themselves at war with each other in 1812 and why the war ended in a peace treaty, which did not address the issues the United States had originally declared war for. His study is based on an analysis of an impressive array of primary sources, mainly contemporary newspapers and state papers from Great Britain, Canada, the British West Indies, and the United States.
Bickham’s account places the War of 1812 in a global context, emphasizing how intimately the War of 1812 was tied to the European conflict, and that the Anglo-American war transcended bilateral issues between the United States and Great Britain. American proponents of a declaration of war against Great Britain hoped that ‘giving Britain a good drubbing would send an equally effective message to any other European power thinking of interfering with the United States’ (p. 8). Many Britons considered the War of 1812 an extension of the European conflict. They were concerned about – what they perceived to be – the ‘favoritism’ Republicans showed to France. The U.S. provided France and her colonies with foodstuffs and other vital products, thus helping France keep up her war against Great Britain. The United States had furthermore bought Louisiana from France and thus provided Napoleon with fresh money to resume warfare against Great Britain. The Madison administration seemed to accept French restrictions on American trade, while it refused to compromise with Great Britain over neutral rights during wartime (pp. 65–6). British colonists in Canada also considered the United States a ‘de facto ally of France, thereby linking their struggle in North America to the empire’s global struggle’ (p. 8).
Brickham also addresses the transnational linkages between both the United States and Great Britain and how they influenced the unfolding war. He emphasizes that Americans were not only heavily dependent on trade with Great Britain but that Americans also relied on British culture: ‘fashion, news, literature, and music’ (p. 11). This desire for British cultural products, ‘along with the snobbish refusal of Britain’s social elite to accept Americans as equals, helped to create an enormous chip on the shoulder of America’s elite that bled into Anglo-American foreign relations’ (p. 11). But the transatlantic flow of culture went both ways. America exported its republican ideology. ‘In consequence, the British elite knew and resented, if not feared, the export of republicanism to the discontented peoples of the British Isles’ (p. 12) British newspapers frequently quoted American papers to inform their readers what transpired on the other side of the Atlantic, and excerpts from British articles filled the columns of America’s press. When they read American opposition papers, British policy-makers got the wrong impression about public opinion in America and assumed America would not go to war. ‘Anyone reading a British newspaper in early 1812 could be forgiven for concluding that the United States was on the verge of breaking up, or at the very least that the vast majority of Americans opposed the war’, since they mostly read Federalist papers from New England as a result of ‘the structure of trade networks’ (p. 94). United States policy makers on the other hand, reading British opposition papers, wrongly assumed there was widespread opposition to the orders-in-council in Britain, such that economic coercion or threats of war would make the British government relent. ‘The close, and often selective, coverage in the American press of Britain’s domestic opposition to the Orders in Council led many in the United States to believe that the pressure of a looming war would lead to repeal’ (p. 89).
Bickham’s original contribution to the discussions about the causes of the War of 1812 is that he does not only look at American policy makers’ motivations and goals but also holds Great Britain responsible for the outbreak of war in 1812: ‘the British government was not a spectator. Rather, it had a postcolonial agenda with regard to the United States that did not include its rise as the undisputed power in North America or as a commercial rival to Britain, and the War of 1812 was Britain’s opportunity to advance that agenda’ (pp. 9–10). The British government was aware that America might declare war because of the orders-in-council and the practice of impressment (p. 90). If the British government had wished to avoid war, it would have had ample opportunity to do so before June 1812 (p. 79). ‘To a great extent, Britain’s failure to yield has been dismissed by historians as a combination of British ignorance and arrogance, but such explanations seriously undermine the depth of British interests in the conflict’, Bickham argues (p. 90). ‘In fact, for many Britons war was preferable to the status quo, because a wartime setting would allow Britain to thwart more aggressively the rise of the United States’. As soon as war was officially declared, the Royal Navy would be in a position to capture American merchant vessels and sailors without having to follow peacetime regulations. American trade with the British Empire could be prohibited, benefitting the West Indian interest and British North America. American expansionism could be effectively stopped, and ‘perhaps greatest of all, the United States would at last be put in its proper place’ (pp. 90–1).
According to Bickham, the War of 1812 was both a power struggle over dominance in North America and an ideological struggle between American republicanism and British imperialism. ‘American supporters of the war argued victory would signify that the United States had shed its colonial past once and for all, placing Americans in control of what they increasingly believed was their destiny: dominance of the North American continent’ (p. 10). Furthermore, a successful war against the former mother country would vindicate the American experiment in republicanism, which had been subject to severe criticism after the French Revolution had turned radical and resulted in the dictatorship of Napoleon (p. 10). For Great Britain, the War of 1812 offered the chance to put a halt to American expansionism, which was viewed as increasingly threatening. The British government and British colonists in Canada feared that land-hungry Americans had ‘set their sights on the remnants of the British and Spanish North American empires’ (p. 74) and that the United States thus had to be subdued before it became too powerful. Had Great Britain won the war, she would have placed insurmountable barriers against further American westward expansion. In the peace negotiations, the British demanded an Indian buffer state in the Northwest and a readjustment of the American-Canadian border (pp. 10–11). ‘Thus for Britain the War of 1812 became a gamble for renewed empire in North America and the retention of British hegemony over the Atlantic world’ (p. 11) Defeating the American upstart republic was, moreover, a welcome opportunity to discredit republicanism. ‘The long war with Revolutionary France and fears of similar upheaval at home had clarified and entrenched British antipathy for republicanism and democracy’ (p. 52).
At face value it appears as though America lost the War of 1812 as the Treaty of Ghent did not settle the issues for which the United States had gone to war in the first place: neutral rights, impressment, and alleged British assistance to Indians on the frontier. In the end, America could be content to have survived the conflict which had increasingly turned in Britain’s favor. Bickham, however, does not consider the United States the ‘loser’ of the War of 1812. For him the major issue of the War of 1812 was ‘whether or not the United States would be respected as a sovereign nation rather than humbled as a quasi-part of the British Empire’ and by this account ‘Britain had lost’ (p. 263). Bickham’s account makes clear that the British government was not just reacting to America’s ambitions but had itself pursued an aggressive agenda before and during the war. ‘It went to war to crush an emerging rival’ (p. 276) and in that endeavor it failed. British war aims became clear in the peace negotiations at Ghent, when the British diplomats demanded territorial gains for British North America and an independent Indian buffer state. Since the American negotiators were able to thwart Britain’s goals, and the British government accepted a peace on the basis of the pre-war status quo , Great Britain cannot be called the victor of this war. Great Britain was not able to decisively beat the United States after the British invasion force was defeated at the Battle of Plattsburg, the British public demanded a reduction of war-time taxes, and the Vienna Conference did not proceed as smoothly as the British government had hoped. These factors forced the Liverpool ministry to give up their territorial ambitions in North America. As a result, the War of 1812 encouraged and made possible Americans’ aggressive expansionism in the antebellum period. ‘Rather than humbling the United States, the war helped to create a nation that was far more powerful and resolute in its expansionist plans’ (p. 277). Moreover, it convinced European powers that attempts to meddle in North American affairs would prove futile. According to Bickham, the fact that the European powers did not intervene in America’s wars in the 19th century – such as the Mexican-American War or the Civil War – was a direct result of the War of 1812 (p. 263).
Bickham’s monograph is one of the best books published on the Anglo-American conflict. He masterfully synthesizes the large body of scholarship on the War of 1812, uses a wide array of primary sources, and successfully weaves together the American, Canadian, British, and British West Indian perspectives. His monograph is up-to-date, carefully researched, well-written, and most of his conclusions will probably become authoritative.
At times, however, Bickham – exaggerating his conclusions on British motives – carries his case too far, for example when he insinuates that the British government actually wanted war and intentionally provoked the United States into declaring it. ‘The British government had encouraged the United States into a war partly in order to curtail its power’ (p. 243). This reading ignores a) that Great Britain could not wish an additional war with the United States, as she was tied up in a titanic struggle with Napoleonic France, and b) that the American declaration of war was not solely the result of diplomatic disputes but – at least in part – the result of an anti-British American nationalism, which the British government certainly did not intentionally incite.(16) Bickham misinterprets his sources in this instance. Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord Castlereagh told Britain’s Minister in the United States, Augustus John Foster, that he should ‘conduct [himself] with the utmost Conciliation towards America’ without giving up what Britain considered her rights and essential for her national survival, such as the right to impress British subjects from American merchant vessels on the high seas. If the American government concluded that this was grounds for war, Foster was ‘to throw distinctly upon the United States the option of War’ (p. 98). The British government preferred risking war with America to compromising its naval superiority, but to infer from this that it actively sought war is too sweeping a conclusion. Bickham claims: ‘America was intentionally being forced into a corner, leaving its government no choice but to yield or to fight its way out’ (p. 99). One might more accurately argue that the Jefferson and Madison Administrations had positioned the United States to either give in or declare war, notably by pursuing a hostile foreign policy towards the former mother country, refusing compromise for example in the abortive Monroe-Pinkney Treaty of 1806, and waging ill-conceived economic warfare against Great Britain through the Embargo Act, Non-Intercourse Act, and Madison’s acceptance of the Cadore-Letter. The fact that the British government wished to cast the responsibility of war onto the United States – if the latter was to declare it – is not tantamount to a British desire for war.
In his evaluation of the conflict, moreover, Bickham does not consider the fact that at the war’s beginning many Britons and Canadians feared that Canada would be easy prey for the Americans. Yet one of the results of the inconclusive War of 1812 was that the United States never again attacked Canada or tried to incorporate it into the union. In this sense, Great Britain was successful in convincing Americans that attempts to conquer Canada would be futile and would meet massive British resistance. His monograph will in any event fuel the ongoing debate how to interpret the result of the Treaty of Ghent.(17)
Bickham offers a fresh perspective on the conflict by giving American and British sources equal weight. He thus provides the reader with new insights into British motives, goals, and strategies in the war. One might add, however, that a truly global context would have required an analysis of Napoleon’s policies, the positions and perceptions of the Spanish, and the situation, aims, and conflicts of Native Americans on both sides of the United States-Canadian border as well. Generally, the literature on the War of 1812 suffers from a lack of attention to Native Americans and their motives, strategies, and intra-tribal conflicts. African-Americans also have not been given their due attention with regard to the War of 1812.
While the occasion of the bicentennial has, on the one hand, seen the publication of monographs reaffirming the traditional American narratives (Hart and Penman as well as Howard), it, on the other hand, has also witnessed the application of new approaches which transcend the national perspectives. Eustace deconstructed Republicans’ attempts to use the War of 1812 as a nation-building tool and demonstrated that the war served to reaffirm traditional gender roles and to justify slavery and the expulsion of Native Americans from their homelands. More than simply a nationalizing event, the War of 1812 was used to cement existing racial and gender hierarchies. Bickham (and to a lesser extent Stagg) analyzed the War of 1812 from multiple perspectives and persuasively argued that – in order to understand why the war came about and why it resulted in the Treaty of Ghent – one cannot simply look at American sources but must take into account how British and Canadian actors perceived developments in the Euro-Atlantic world and which objectives they pursued. Future research could build on these studies and firstly use a cultural approach to explain the origins of the War of 1812 and secondly incorporate Spanish, Native American, and African American sides of the story, without neglecting traditional diplomatic and domestic political factors, to provide us with a truly encompassing interpretation of the War of 1812.
- C. P. Stacey, ‘The War of 1812 in Canadian History’, in The Defended Border: Upper Canada and the War of 1812, ed. Morris Zaslow and Wesley Turner (Toronto, 1964), p. 331.Back to (1)
- The percentage numbers are the result of a poll on the War of 1812 conducted by Phoenix Strategic Perspectives for the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces.Back to (2)
- Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana, IL, 1989).Back to (3)
- In fact, given the large number of French Canadians and the ‘late loyalists’ – U.S. Americans who had emigrated to Canada after the American Revolution in search for cheap land – and also given the intensive family and trade relations between inhabitants on both sides of the border, Canadians’ allegiances were not clear at all in 1812. For the personal ties between inhabitants on both sides of the border see Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (New York, NY, 2010).Back to (4)
- Government of Canada, The War of 1812, Historical Overview, Did You Know? <http://1812.gc.ca/eng/1305743100762/1305743162190 > [accessed 7 January 2013] .Back to (5)
- William Kingsford, History of Canada (10 vols., Toronto, 1887–98), viii, pp. 579–80.Back to (6)
- Linda Colley, Britons: Forging of the Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven, NY, 1992); C. A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780–1830 (London, 1989).Back to (7)
- See Roy Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon, 1807–1815 (New Haven, NY, 1996), p. 232. Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (Oxford, 2006), pp. 230–1. Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (New York, NY, 2004), p. 411.Back to (8)
- Noah Webster – engaged in efforts to promote American nationalism in the postwar period – produced an American dictionary which distinguished American English from the British original.Back to (9)
- The original flag can be seen in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.Back to (10)
- Samuel Wilson, a supplier for meat to the Army from Troy, New York, stamped his barrels ‘U.S.’ This abbreviation later evolved into the figure ‘Uncle Sam’.Back to (11)
- More comprehensive popular histories of the War of 1812 are Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation (New York, NY, 2004). A. J. Langguth, Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence (New York, NY, 2006).Back to (12)
- For Dolly Madison’s role in the War of 1812 also see Catherine Allgore, A Perfect Union: Dolly Madison and the Creation of the American Nation (New York, NY, 2006).Back to (13)
- Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, bicentennial edition (Urbana, IL, 2012).Back to (14)
- Bradford Perkins also examined both American and British sources for his classic on early Anglo-American relations in the early 19th century but he came to the conclusion that Britain’s foreign policy was largely reactive and was not based on a larger ‘grand design’ for North America. Bradford Perkins, Prologue to War. England and the United States, 1805-1812 (Berkeley, CA, 1961). Jeremy Black also analyzed the war in a global context but he was more concerned with the military history of the war than with its origins and long-term effects. Jeremy Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK, 2009).Back to (15)
- For the linkage of American nationalism and the American declaration of war see Jasper M. Trautsch, ‘”Mr. Madison’s War” or the Dynamic of American Nationalism?’, Early American Studies, 10, 3 (2012), 630–70.Back to (16)
- The contentious national perspectives on the conflict have sparked vigorous debate in the past. Wikipedia editors, for example, would find no compromise over the question who won the War of 1812 such that they had to appeal to Wikipedia’s mediation process to solve the issue. Richard Jensen, ‘Military History on the Electronic Frontier: Wikipedia Fights the War of 1812’, Journal of Military History, 76, 4 (2012), 1165–82.Back to (17)