The Weight of Vengeance: The 1812 War over National Self-Image
Book Review by Jim Cullen
The War of 1812, now in its bicentennial year, is widely regarded as an asterisk in American history. Sparked by a series of British decrees limiting U.S. trading rights during the Napoleonic era that were suspended even as the U.S. declared war, the conflict was a military draw that ended with the status quo ante. Andrew Jackson’s celebrated victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 took place after peace terms had already been negotiated (though not yet ratified). As such, the War of 1812 seems not only unnecessary, but just plain stupid.
In The Weight of Vengeance, Troy Bickham, who teaches at Texas A&M, does not assert that the war was fought over high-minded principle. But he does think it had a logic that transcended its stated grievances over trade, the legal status of sailors who may or may not have been British deserters, or the fate of Canadians and Indians in North America. These issues were real enough. But Bickham sees the war as effectively about the two nations’ respective self-image. An insecure United States felt a need to assert itself as part of the family of civilized nations.
And Britain felt a need to put its former colony in its (subordinate) place. But neither belligerent was in a particularly good position to realize its objectives, and both were subject to considerable internal opposition to their official government positions. Bickham’s parallel arguments seem mirrored by its structure. The book deftly alternates chapters that trace the pro-war and anti-war constituencies in both. For a while, it seems this approach to the subject, however admirably balanced, will only underline the way the various players effectively neutralized each other. But as his analysis proceeds, a decisive view of the war becomes increasingly clear — and increasingly persuasive.
In Bickham’s telling, U.S. conduct in declaring war was remarkably, even stunningly, reckless. The nation’s armed forces, particularly its navy, were absurdly unprepared to take on the greatest global power of the age. Its financial capacity for war-making was ridiculously weak, made all the more so by the unwillingness of even the most determined war hawks to make the commitments necessary to place and maintain soldiers in the field. Many observers have noted that there was considerable opposition to the war from the start, much of it with a sectional tenor — the secessionist tendencies of New England, made manifest by the Hartford Convention of 1814, have long been a staple of high school U.S. history exams.
Bickham duly notes this, but asserts the divisions between presumably unified Jeffersonian Republicans were even worse (the principal threat to President James Madison, running for re-election in 1812, came from fellow Republican DeWitt Clinton.) Even in the one universally acknowledged advantage the U.S. military had — its ability to strike first with an invasion of Canada — was hopelessly botched.
Once that happened, and once the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 freed Britain to redirect its energies across the Atlantic, the U.S. suffered a series of national humiliations, the sacking of Washington D.C. only the most obvious among them. By the fall of that year, the American position was bad and getting worse, with plans for an invasion of New Orleans on the horizon. (The lack of discussion of this strategic and diplomatic dimension of the conflict is a surprising and disappointing omission.)
Viewed in this light, the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict is not anti-climactic; it’s deeply counter-intuitive, if not a once-in-a century stroke of luck. As Bickham explains, the reasons for the outcome have very little to do with the United States. On the one hand, Britain was under considerable diplomatic pressure to resolve the American situation in ways that did not complicate its broader strategic objectives in Europe.
On the other hand, there was tremendous domestic agitation to wind down a quarter-century of of war that had taxed the patience of the electorate to the breaking point. At the very moment Britain might have permanently hemmed in American imperial ambitions, it effectively abandoned its wartime objectives in the name of tax relief. The fate of Florida, Texas, and the fate of Native Americans — who at one point were to get a swath of territory that cuts across modern-day states like Indiana and Michigan — were cast. Manifest destiny could now become common sense.
The Weight of Vengeance also discusses other hemispheric implications of the War of 1812, among them the emergence of a distinct Canadian identity (which Bickham feels is overstated) and the diminishing importance of the Caribbean in British imperial calculations.
As such, book the reflects the increasingly global cast of U.S. historiography generally, even as it remains attuned to domestic politics. This multifaceted quality is among its satisfactions, including readable prose. It’s doubtful that the bicentennial of the war will amount to much more than a commercial or academic blip in the next few years. Whether or not that’s fair, the conflict receives a worthy chronicle here that will clarify its meaning for anyone who cares to understand it.
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at History News Network. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year.