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.
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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Britain was astonished that the Madison administration didn’t call off the war once the Orders in Council had been repealed, and it underestimated how dreadfully its possessions in Canada and the West Indies would suffer during the war’s first half.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.