The Magazine

On to Canada?

The other side’s view of ‘the struggle for mastery in North America.’

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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Stagg knows the American political scene inside out, not surprising for the editor of 17 volumes of Madison’s papers. And he is very good at explaining the international political context. He calls the price of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase a down payment on Napoleon’s next war with Britain. Also, the role of the Russian czar may come as a surprise to some readers. Just a few months after America declared war, Alexander I offered to mediate the dispute. He did not want the British distracted across the Atlantic when he needed them to hammer Napoleon closer to home.

In assessing the war, Stagg finds complications on all sides. For Americans, after the humiliating fall of the capital city and threatened disunion in New England, came electrifying news from New Orleans. Despite that distant victory, the administration faced dim prospects for prolonging the war. No wonder Americans were elated to hear that their diplomats had concluded peace in Ghent, even though it merely restored the status quo ante bellum and gave no satisfaction on war aims. No matter. Americans viewed the war as a victory. It would take the long years of post-Waterloo peace in Europe to resolve the issue of impressment. 

British Canadians heralded the outcome as a victory, too: They had survived the threat to their independent existence from the south. That survival was a crucial prerequisite to the 1867 act creating the dominion of Canada. 

The British had a hard time claiming victory, even though it was their army and navy that sustained a separate Canada. Stagg argues that the main conundrum of the war was why the United States failed so miserably in multiple attempts to conquer the less populous colonies to the north. Despite such failure, in the years that followed, Great Britain came to realize that conflict with the United States was foolhardy, even with the Royal Navy’s control of the high seas.

Stagg’s slim volume offers readers a surefooted guide through the thickets of American political intrigue and international affairs, but they will have to turn elsewhere for the thunder of cannon and the clash of arms. As we enter this conflict’s bicentennial years, readers should begin with Stagg, and then branch out to explore particular military and naval campaigns in the surprising wealth of recent books on the War of 1812.

Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.