In This Review

The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812
The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812
By Troy Bickham
Oxford University Press, USA, 2012, 344 pp.
The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (Cambridge Essential Histories)
The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (Cambridge Essential Histories)
By J. C. A. Stagg
Cambridge University Press, 2012, 216 pp.

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.



When the United States declared war on the United Kingdom in 1812, it cited a long list of grievances as justifications. The main American complaints were the British navy's enforcement of "orders in council," which restricted U.S. trade with Europe, and the British practice of impressment, the forcible removal of sailors from American merchant ships to fill out the crews of British warships. Although both policies harmed U.S. interests, that was not their primary aim. Rather, they were part of the United Kingdom's effort to win its war with Napoleonic France. The British could defeat Napoleon only by maximizing the use of their naval power. That meant shutting off French trade and keeping the sea-lanes open to their own vessels, both of which required a strong navy. 

The United Kingdom contended that a significant number of its sailors were deserting their posts and essentially hiding out on American civilian vessels. Impressment, from the British point of view, was a deterrent against such behavior, without which the Royal Navy would suffer wholesale desertions, leading to the collapse of British sea power. To the British, the U.S. declaration of war was a stab in the back at a time when the United Kingdom was waging war against French tyranny and barbarism on behalf of the entire civilized world. 

That context mattered little to most Americans, however, who embraced the fighting as a second war of independence, a struggle to preserve their hard-won autonomy in the face of British bullying. Most members of the Democratic-Republican Party, which controlled Congress at the time, supported the decision for war, whether reluctantly or enthusiastically. There was, however, strong opposition from some quarters. Most implacable of all were members of the Federalist Party, who believed that the fledgling young republic could never win significant concessions from the mighty British Empire. The Federalists in Congress voted unanimously against the war and thereafter tried to bring it to a speedy end by continuing their opposition, both in Congress and in the states they controlled (which were mostly in New England). 

Over such objections, the United States went to war. Since the Americans could not challenge the British on the high seas, they targeted Canada, which was still a British territory at the time, launching invasions in 1812 and 1813. But except in the remote west, the Americans were defeated everywhere. The U.S. Army was ill prepared for war, the logistic challenges were nearly insuperable, and the foe -- a small but veteran British army aided by capable Native American allies -- was formidable. Nevertheless, in 1814, when the end of the war in Europe allowed the British to take the offensive, they faced some of the same obstacles that the Americans had encountered earlier, such as the difficulty of keeping their frontlines reinforced and supplied. Except for successfully occupying Washington, D.C., and a hundred miles of the Maine coast, the British counter-offensive was no more successful than the Americans' initial strikes, and in 1814, the fighting ended in a battlefield draw, pushing both countries to a settlement in the peace negotiations in Ghent. 

Historians have sometimes blamed the United States' missteps and failures during the war on President James Madison. Shy, scholarly, and short, "Little Jemmy" has often been portrayed as a weak leader, dragged into the conflict by hawkish members of Congress, defied by insubordinate cabinet members, and unwilling to make the tough decisions needed to carry the nation to victory. In The War of 1812, the historian J. C. A. Stagg, who oversees the University of Virginia's publication of Madison's papers, challenges that view. Madison was not pushed into war, Stagg argues, but rather demonstrated his willingness to undertake hostilities even before Congress met to debate the issue. And according to Stagg, Madison had little choice but to rely on incompetents, such as Secretary of War William Eustis and Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton early in the war and Secretary of the Treasury George Campbell later on, because capable men willing to take on onerous wartime cabinet responsibilities were in short supply. In Stagg's portrait, Madison was not at a loss to make policy decisions and invariably made his thinking on policy matters clear. 

Instead of attributing the United States' wartime struggles to poor leadership, Stagg emphasizes a more fundamental problem: the nation's "inability to develop sufficient military power." In his analysis, Stagg identifies a number of institutional weaknesses that kept the army from performing to expectations: a lack of stability, cohesion, and sometimes even competence in the officer corps and a lack of sufficient training among enlisted men. The Republic's military weaknesses were exacerbated by its financial problems. In 1811, Congress had refused to renew the charter of the First Bank of the United States, the country's central bank, because it was considered an aristocratic institution that catered to the rich and was subject (through stock purchases) to British control. Then, once the war began, Congress was slow to increase taxes to pay for it. As a result, in 1814, the United States suffered its first severe credit crunch. As capital seized up, the U.S. Treasury found it could no longer borrow or even move money around the country; ultimately, it defaulted on the national debt. (Ironically, the United States was able to pay its over-seas bondholders only because its international banker, the British firm Baring Brothers, advanced the funds needed to cover U.S. obligations abroad.)

Stagg comes close to suggesting that considering how ill prepared the United States was, its war against the British was unwinnable. In his view, the U.S. decision to take on the United Kingdom was as an act of extraordinary hubris. After all, even great powers cannot always work their will on others, and at the time, the United States was only a second-rate power. As Daniel Sheffey, a Federalist congressman from Virginia who opposed the war, remarked on the eve of the conflict: "We have considered ourselves of too much importance in the scale of nations. It has led us into great errors. Instead of yielding to circumstances, which human power cannot control, we have imagined that our own destiny, and that of other nations, was in our hands, to be regulated as we thought proper."



An overly generous appraisal of its own strength might have led the United States to miscalculate its way into declaring war on a genuine great power. But is it possible that the British were, in fact, spoiling for a fight with their erstwhile American subjects? Historians often give short shrift to British intentions and attitudes about the war, generally concluding that the British saw the fight against the United States as a sideshow. In The Weight of Vengeance, Troy Bickham counters that conventional wisdom, arguing that the war "was not militarily, strategically, or emotionally a peripheral event for Britain and its empire." Indeed, Bickham believes that the British government hoped for war and that, as a consequence, "Britain pursued a prewar and wartime agenda that aimed to humble the United States and demonstrate that Britain could ignore American national sovereignty." 

To make his case, Bickham relies heavily on newspaper reports from the time, ferreting out printed matter from across the British Empire to show that the war found support not only in England itself but throughout the realm. TheBermuda Gazette, for example, compared the "murderous despotism" of France with the "generous and enlightened" nature of the United Kingdom and complained that the Americans were "meanly profiting" while the British spent blood and treasure defending the world from French oppression. 

But Bickham occasionally falls into the trap of assuming that public opinion and elite views reflect government policy. He shows that some British newspapers and some segments of British society favored war with the United States in 1812. But the idea that the British government wanted a war is clearly contradicted by the rest of the historical record. The correspondence of government leaders -- Lord Liverpool, Lord Castlereagh, the Duke of Wellington, and others -- shows that they almost always preferred a moderate course of action. Bickham pays too little attention to such government sources, which make clear that the overriding British aim in this period was to win the war in Europe. All else was subordinated to that objective; the war with the United States was an unwelcome distraction. 

That priority explains why the British waited to authorize reprisals for a full two and a half months after receiving news of the declaration of war and in the meantime allowed scores of American ships in British ports to return home. The British did not welcome war with the United States; they reluctantly accepted it as preferable to giving up policies that might undermine their war effort in Europe. In fact, by the late summer of 1812, the British had eliminated the orders in council, leaving impressment as the only unresolved issue of any consequence. And in the eyes of the British, surrendering this practice as long as the war with France continued was simply unthinkable. 

Bickham tends to overstate British hostility toward the United States in the prewar period. But his analysis of the peace negotiations that ended the war -- the first fresh treatment of that subject in years -- captures the moderation and restraint that characterized British diplomacy during this era and allowed the British Empire to secure peace by offering its enemies terms they could live with. Although initially the British demanded U.S. concessions, including the creation of a Native American barrier state in the Old Northwest and changes to the U.S.-Canadian border, in the end they dropped those demands in response to stiff American resistance and settled for a return to the antebellum status quo represented by the Treaty of Ghent. By holding on to Canada and preserving their maritime rights, the British could have claimed that they had won the war. But by resisting British demands at Ghent, the Americans boasted that they had won the peace. 



Although it is hard to determine who was the true victor, there is no doubt that the struggle left a profound and lasting imprint on all the participants. The Americans learned a number of lessons, including the importance of military preparedness and the need to develop the financial and transportation infrastructure to support war. The United States maintained a large peacetime army after the war and carried out major programs to expand its navy and build coastal fortifications. It also resurrected the country's central bank and built miles of roads, bridges, and canals. The U.S. Army emerged from the war as a professional service, and with the U.S. Military Academy funneling a steady stream of new recruits into the officer corps, the army would never again find itself in the sad state it had been in when the conflict began. The U.S. Navy was already a capable service in 1812, but it, too, emerged with an enhanced commitment to professionalism, and at the end of the war, Congress created the Board of Navy Commissioners to ensure that it retained that commitment.

No less significant was the way that the war transformed the American cultural landscape and political imagination. The war fostered a heady national self-confidence and patriotism that gave mo-mentum to manifest destiny. And it gave Americans a set of patriotic symbols and slogans that helped define the emerging republic as a unified nation: "Old Ironsides," Uncle Sam, "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The war also promoted the careers of a number of men who went on to dominate the American political and military establishments. No fewer than four wartime leaders were later elected president: James Monroe, who served as secretary of state and secretary of war; John Quincy Adams, who served on the peace delegation at Ghent; William Henry Harrison, who engineered the U.S. victory over the Native Americans at Tippecanoe before the war and then the triumph over British and Native American forces at the Battle of the Thames, in present-day Ontario, during the war; and Andrew Jackson, whose success commanding American forces catapulted him into the national limelight and made him a symbol for the entire postwar era. The Battle of New Orleans, Jackson's greatest triumph, was the biggest and bloodiest engagement of the entire war. Since the battle was fought two weeks after the peace treaty had been negotiated (but before it had been ratified), it had no impact on the war's conclusion. But Americans quickly convinced themselves that the battlefield victory had produced the favorable settlement, an act of mythologizing and romanticizing war that would become a fixture of American political culture. 

As Americans celebrated their victory at New Orleans, they lost sight of the causes of the war and forgot how very close the nation had come to military defeat and financial collapse. Instead, they boasted how they had beat "the conquerors of the conquerors of Europe." Just a year later, Niles' Weekly Register, one of the nation's leading magazines, would unabashedly claim that the United States "did virtually dictate the Treaty of Ghent." Thus, with-out losing a beat, Americans managed to fit the war into a developing national narrative of exceptionalism.

For Canadians, the war initially served to cement their loyalty to the British Empire. Later, however, Canadians looked back and concluded that the War of 1812 was, in fact, their war of independence. The heroes of the war were elevated to the Canadian national pantheon, especially General Isaac Brock and the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, whose combined forces overcame the Americans during the Siege of Detroit, and Laura Secord, the wife of a Loyalist soldier, who supposedly warned British forces of an impending American attack. According to a recent poll, Canadians now rank the war as the third most important event in their history (after the establishment of the Canadian Confederation in 1867 and the completion, in 1885, of the Canadian Pacific Railway), and the Conservative-led government in Ottawa is spending millions of dollars on programs designed to further raise the profile of the conflict among Canadians.

In the United Kingdom, the war was quickly forgotten by the public, overshadowed by the end of the Napoleonic Wars and especially by the British triumph at Waterloo, which played much the same role in the British imagination that the Battle of New Orleans played in the postwar United States. British officials, however, did not have the luxury of forgetting the American war. Although they discarded their Native American allies (who were the biggest losers in the war), the British still had to grapple with the problem of defending Canada against the growing colossus south of the border. Study after study showed that the cost of preparing adequate defenses would be prohibitive, and the Canadians refused to contribute, claiming that such defense was an imperial responsibility. Thus, British officials concluded that their best policy was to accommodate the United States, even if it meant occasionally sacrificing interests elsewhere in the empire. The British could live with an assertive and land-hungry United States as long as it did not threaten Canada because the Americans were unlikely to pose a challenge to the United Kingdom's two main foreign policy objectives: maintaining a balance of power on the European continent and keeping the seas open to British trade. 

At the time, not many people thought the War of 1812 would be the last Anglo-American war, because it appeared to settle nothing. And in spite of the British policy of accommodation, there were recurring Anglo-American tensions and even a war scare or two in the decades that followed. But because both sides could live with the Treaty of Ghent, there was no need to revise it. Both nations gradually came to see themselves as bonded together by shared values and culture and realized that letting any crisis escalate into war was unlikely to benefit either. By the end of the nineteenth century, whatever issues had once divided the two nations either had been resolved or had passed into history. By then, memories of the War of 1812 had faded, and a relationship that had once been contentious and antagonistic turned into a genuine accord. Two world wars turned that accord into an alliance that persists to this day.


You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • DONALD R. HICKEY is Professor of History at Wayne State College, in Nebraska, and the author of The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.
  • More By Donald R. Hickey