Small War, Big Consequences

Why 1812 Still Matters

The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent
By J. C. A. Stagg
Cambridge University Press, 2012, 216 pp. $85.00 (paper, $24.99).

The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812
By Troy Bickham
Oxford University Press, 2012, 344 pp. $34.95.

The War of 1812 gets no respect. It's easy to see why: the causes of the war are still subject to debate, and they were sometimes unclear even to the warring parties. Most of the fighting took place on the U.S.-Canadian border, leaving few iconic battlefields like those of the Revolutionary War or the Civil War. And the results were so inconclusive that the treaty ending the war simply restored the antebellum status quo, without even mentioning the maritime disputes that had provoked the fighting in the first place. As a result, the war is often treated as insignificant in the United States and is all but forgotten in the United Kingdom.

But even small wars have consequences, and two recent books timed to coincide with the war's bicentennial reveal why the legacy of the War of 1812 has proved to be profound and lasting. The war shaped a generation of American leaders and transformed the country's ragtag armed forces into a professional military, paving the way for the rise of a powerful national security establishment. American military victories during the war encouraged an aggressive territorial expansionism that later generations would call manifest destiny. And the apparent stalemate that marked the war's end masked an important shift in U.S.-British relations: the emergence of a détente that ultimately developed into an alliance, which in turn helped sustain the Pax Britannica of the nineteenth century and the Pax Americana of the twentieth.


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