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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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.