The Magazine

War Without Victory

A bicentennial reflection on the War of 1812.

Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States—“the American War” to Britons—was part of the closing phase of the Napoleonic Wars. Those wars composed the final of three world conflicts—60 years of them—reaching back at least to the Seven Years’ War (our French and Indian War) of the mid-18th century, and including the American War of Independence. Some historians even see the Napoleonic Wars as the last gasp of what they call the Second Hundred Years’ War—extending longer than a century, in fact—commencing as far back as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) for dominance in Europe and overseas.  

Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans

Andrew Jackson conducts ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’ by Edward Percy Moran (1910).

Moreover, since, despite its dispiriting prosecution, the War of 1812 secured American sovereignty once and for all, it’s sometimes called “the Second War of Independence.” It was the nation’s first chosen war and the first to be declared by Congress under the Constitution. It was also a war of huge scale, fought not only in the northeastern states and Canada, but along the Gulf Coast, in the Caribbean, and on the Atlantic.  

Given all this, you’d think that the War of 1812 would bulk large in British and American histories of the era. But it doesn’t. Why not? Because nothing about the War of 1812 meets the normal, unrealistic criteria by which we like to measure American wars: It didn’t end conclusively; it had no striking immediate consequences; it offered up no undisputed victor. Cynics point out that the War of 1812 gave us little to celebrate, save perhaps some naval battles, the repulse of the British at Fort McHenry, and Andrew Jackson’s victory over British regulars at New Orleans. 

As these scoffers point out, it was a misbegotten conflict. The British didn’t want a war with the United States; they were already in the midst of a titanic fight on the Continent. They aimed only to control American freedom of commerce during the island nation’s struggle with France, as if the United States could be treated as a dependent power. Once an American declaration of war over British trade restrictions threatened, Britain repealed the offensive restrictions, the Orders in Council, to head the war off. But due to the day’s slow communications, President James Madison had already sought and received a congressional declaration of war, which stood even after one of the president’s principal pretexts no longer existed.

The remaining stated causes for war—the impressment of American seamen and Britain’s troublemaking among the Indians around the Great Lakes—remained. Impressment was a particularly insulting irritant to the United States. Even if, as Britain claimed, thousands of British seamen needed for war had deserted to the American commercial and naval fleets, the Americans could not tolerate the insult to their honor resulting from British ships’ stopping American vessels on the high seas for
the removal of supposed British tars. The war commenced.

As detractors also point out, the war was badly fought, especially by American forces. Most of the engagements that Americans found themselves fighting ended badly, some of them embarrassingly or tragicomically. Ragtag ground forces repeatedly proved themselves ill-led, and the nation’s celebrated naval victories yielded few strategic gains, save perhaps those at the war’s very end. Nor did the war cast up a great generation of indomitable warriors, although many of its figures (Winfield Scott, for instance) went on to later military fame, and two (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison) became president. Most historians agree that had the war ground on longer, the United States would have decisively lost—and lost in such a way as to threaten its very integrity.

As if this weren’t enough to doom the war’s reputation, cynics point out that its most celebrated battle, Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans in early January 1815, was unnecessary to the war’s outcome. The battle took place after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed roughly 10 days earlier—a fact that, once again because of slow communications, Americans didn’t learn until February. In another era, Jackson would have been denied his glory, and the war would simply have fizzled out.

These are standard items in all histories of the War of 1812. And each warrants attention. But in contrast to most earlier historians, Troy Bickham is at pains to emphasize that what was more important than the war’s prosecution was its consequences. It has long been said that we gained nothing from it; after all, didn’t the Treaty of Ghent leave everything as it had been at the start—status quo ante bellum—despite two-and-a-half years of fighting and roughly 15,000 American casualties, to say nothing of Canadian, British, and Indian dead? Yes, it did. But a notable characteristic of recent histories of the war is their questioning of the claim that the war was of little significance to the United States. In their telling, that view is no longer tenable. And surely they are correct. As we can see now, the war was critical to the subsequent history of the United States, and much of the rest of the world.

Take the Treaty of Ghent itself. As many have pointed out, while Britain may have won the war, America won the peace and, arguably, the ideological upper hand thereafter. As Bickham emphasizes, Great Britain had long wished to keep the United States a client state, one subordinate to Britain’s own commercial interests around the globe. In that aim it failed; the United States succeeded in preserving its independence and freedom of action while winning the permanent regard (however grudging) of its former mother country for having done so.  

It’s also the case that status quo ante bellum—neither enemy conceding anything to the other—was
better than an alternative outcome—uti possidetis, the retention of terri-tories in the possession of each nation. Not that Britain possessed much American territory at the war’s end. But had the victor over Napoleon wanted to continue the war, and sent the future Duke of Wellington to command British forces across the Atlantic, the United States would have been in grave danger. Fortunately, Wellington advised against an invasion, and Lord Liverpool’s ministry took his counsel. There would be no revanchism after this war.

Bickham’s book, taking up such large realities, comprises only a modest proportion of the torrent of books and films already accompanying this bicentennial of the war. Yet it is among the most authoritative, up-to-date, and readable works that have so far appeared—modern scholarship at its very best. 

The Weight of Vengeance owes much to the recent effort among students of politics, institutions, and diplomacy—the stuff of traditional history—to understand those classic topics in the context of the social and cultural realities surrounding them. To these historians, a war is not just a series of campaigns and battles topped off by a negotiated peace, but a large human event that can be fully understood only by taking into account such matters as the ethno-racial composition of military forces, the words used by governments and propagandists to explain and justify it, and the intellectual content of strategic decisions. 

This political-culture approach has greatly broadened our understanding of politics in recent years, and has led to a welcome revival in the study of political, diplomatic, and military history—albeit all in new forms and with new emphases. Bickham’s book is an example not only of this new approach but also of the effort, steadily gaining ground, to place American history in its world context. His War of 1812 is, as it must be, part of a world war, its prosecution and diplomacy affected at every turn by what is going on elsewhere.

Thus, anyone reading this book should be prepared to encounter not warfare history as they’ve known it, nor even as (improved in recent decades) it has become. Bickham gives us a war without warfare, something more akin to political history: no battlefield gore and terror, no attention to the realities of fighting, no arguments about tactics or grand strategy. Emblematic of this is the fact that The Weight of Vengeance contains only a single chapter among eight on what we would normally think of as the war itself—its prosecution and its battlefield and naval consequences.  

Concentrating instead on public opinion, especially newspaper opinion, in Britain and America, Bickham shows how policymakers in both countries were hemmed in domestically. Both miscalculated the other’s will to fight. Accordingly, Britain was astonished that the Madison administration didn’t call off the war once the Orders in Council had been repealed, and it underestimated how dreadfully its possessions in Canada and the West Indies would suffer during the war’s first half. As for the United States, it failed to understand how Britain, not for the first or last time, felt itself to be in a life-and-death struggle with a continental power, and would do everything to protect itself and its far-flung interests.  

Thus, Bickham immerses us in the world context of this two-and-a-half year conflict and, unlike so many earlier historians, takes it seriously. He sternly notes, for instance, that to Britain, the war was “not a sideshow or distant nuisance.” It was central to Britain’s larger global struggle against France and its allies. Yet he does not let readers forget the realities that drove the United States to undertake the risk of confronting the world’s dominant seaborne power, a risk that put America on the ropes by 1814: its coast blockaded, its Navy bottled up and facing defeat, and Britain ready to throw everything at the infant nation, including a massive invasion of ground forces. 

Yet, determined to face down Britain’s “grating imperial arrogance,” America fought on. Bickham skillfully fills the scene on both sides of the Atlantic as these two powers—one fighting in this conflict alone, the other fighting over much of the world—grappled with one another to a diplomatic stalemate, brought on by tough American diplomacy as much as by British fatigue.

One unaccountable feature of Bickham’s book is the author’s apparent failure to have consulted the extraordinary letterpress edition of Madison’s writings now available through June 1814 in the ongoing series of volumes under the title The Papers of James Madison. Like similar series of the papers of such central figures as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, the Madison volumes result from a blend of private and federal funding, without either of which the records of our revolutionary and constitutional Founding would have remained unavailable to anyone but the most sedulous researchers and scholars. That Bickham did not use the wealth of information and documentation relating to the Madison administration that is available in the published volumes casts some doubt on the accuracy and dependability of the whole. Nor does it help that a book about a war stretching around the world contains not a single map.

So where does this fine book leave us? Above all, it elevates the war’s significance in the sweep of American history higher than it has ever been, and not so much because of the war itself but because of its consequences. One must, of course, tread lightly here to avoid two snares: The first is to see the war as a cause of what came after simply because it came first; the second is to misapply counterfactual thinking to the war—that is, to be too enthusiastic in imagining what otherwise might have occurred had the war turned out differently, or not taken place at all.

Yet putting this work together with others recently published, and those yet to come—all of them adding immeasurably to our thinking about the subject—makes clear that the War of 1812 was at the very least, as J. C. A. Stagg puts it in The War of 1812 (see review by Nelson D. Lankford, The Weekly Standard, July 2, 2012), “a critical episode in the emergence of North America’s nation-states, in their internal development, and in the history of their indigenous peoples.” For the native tribes, especially those in the United States, the war was (once again in Stagg’s words) “devastating” and “disastrous.” They would never recover, and the pattern of their control and annihilation, set in motion during the colonial era, now became a permanent fixture of American policy.  

In addition, the War of 1812 had the ironic effect—instead of gaining Canadian territory for the United States, as Madison’s political and military strategy sought without success—of creating what hadn’t existed before: Canadian nationalism. To this day, Canadians see the war as having given them, even during this colonial period of their history, a sense of shared situation, of distinctiveness from American governance and aspirations, and of comfort under British governance, which slowly began to adapt to new Canadian realities. Modern Canada emerged from the War of 1812. 

For Americans, the war was of major significance. Once and for all, the United States gained its warranted standing among independent nation-states, something it sought at the outset. The settlement of long-outstanding issues with Britain soon followed. Commercial relations were restored on a more equal footing, fishing rights were negotiated, naval armaments on the Great Lakes were limited, and the two-centuries-long peace between the United States and Canada that exists today commenced. Those issues settled, the Monroe Doctrine (1823), by which the United States warned off European powers from the Western Hemisphere, was probably only a matter of time. “Mani-fest Destiny” was not far behind.

What’s more, the failure of American civil and military institutions during the war laid the groundwork for the slow emergence of a stronger national government and stronger military forces, both of which would be tested and proven in the Mexican War (1846-48) and then in the Civil War. The War of 1812 also cemented American, just as it created Canadian, nationalism. It gave courage to newly independent Latin American republics that had been born in revolution against Spain at about the same time. Regarding Spain, with which the Treaty of Ghent settled nothing, the war gave America confidence to continue to pursue its interests in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, and ushered in the spread of Americans (and their slaves) southwestward along the Gulf and into Texas.

The war was also, in recent lingo, part of a larger postcolonial war in which former colonies throughout the Western Hemisphere battled their former rulers, the United States finally freeing itself of British neocolonialism. And as a forthcoming work will argue, the War of 1812, by leading Britain to repeal many of its trade restrictions, helped put an end to the great age of mercantilism and opened the liberal era of free trade among nations.

An inconsequential war? Far from it. The Treaty of Ghent was part of an arrangement among the great powers of Europe that reordered relations among Western powers for roughly a century. The United States figured in that settlement, and bent it toward her own interests.

James M. Banner Jr. is the author, most recently, of Being a Historian.