The War of 1812: A Q&A with J.C.A. Stagg
The War of 1812 was such a formative event in America’s history that it was also known as its “Second War of Independence.” Yet aside from our national anthem, it’s not foremost in American popular culture. Why do you think that’s the case? What’s the biggest misconception the public has about the war?
The main reason why the War of 1812 does not loom larger in American historical memory is probably the Civil War. The war between 1861 and 1865 totally altered the role of the earlier war in the story of the making of the nation. And as time went on, the question of independence from Great Britain could be taken for granted whereas the Civil War become more important because it gave rise to a “new birth of freedom” for the American people. Memories of the War of 1812, with one or two exceptions, did not survive this displacement in the larger narrative of the nation’s history.
There are a number of “big” popular misconceptions about the War of 1812. One is the United States was the victor. Britons and Canadians strenuously dispute this notion. Another is that the war was unnecessary, meaningless, and settled nothing. The idea that the war was unnecessary only seems valid in the hindsight of the knowledge that the Napoleonic Wars would be over by 1814-1815. No one in 1811-1812 had any good reason to believe that this would be the case. The war was not meaningless inasmuch as it confirmed that the U.S. was prepared to wage war to vindicate its existence as a neutral and independent republic. And even if the U.S. did not defeat Great Britain in the war, it certainly defeated the Indian nations in the trans-Appalachian West and on the Gulf Coast. Those outcomes guaranteed that the U.S. would come to dominate the heartland of the North American continent. In the years before 1812, that development could not have been taken for granted.
What were the main factors that triggered the war?
The issue on which war and peace turned in 1811-1812 was the British policy of restricting American neutral trade by means of the Orders in Council. The Madison administration decided to resort to war at that point when it concluded that Great Britain would never repeal its Orders in Council for as long as the Napoleonic Wars continued in Europe. There were many other issues in dispute between Great Britain and the U.S.—such as the impressment of American seamen and the alleged British role in inciting Indian war on the western frontiers of the republic—but those issues, in themselves, would not have produced war in 1812.
One of the many strengths of your book is that you take a comprehensive look at not only the American side, but also the other actors involved. How did international events, such as the Napoleonic Wars, impact the course of the war?
The Napoleonic Wars did not merely impact the course of the war. They provided the essential context in which many of the events leading toward war in 1812 occurred. Most of the maritime disputes between Great Britain and the U.S. were a result of the policies Great Britain adopted to defeat Napoleon and destroy his European empire. The most important European event to impact the course of the War of 1812 was the failure of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. That failure ensured that Great Britain would remain a more formidable enemy than the U.S. had assumed it might be, thereby making it more difficult for the Madison administration to extract diplomatic concessions from its enemy. And the overthrow of Napoleon in the spring of 1814 turned the international balance of power against the U.S. Great Britain then tried to exploit that situation for its advantage, but its inability to wage successful military campaigns against the U.S. in the summer and fall of 1814 eventually led to the decision of both the U.S. and Great Britain to accept a stale-mated peace treaty at Ghent on Christmas Eve in 1814.
You’re also the editor of the James Madison papers. How did such access to his thought and writings enhance your account?
The requirements of editing and publishing Madison’s papers required me to study his thoughts and actions at a much higher level of detailed scrutiny than most historians would normally undertake. In particular, it led me to locate his policy decisions in the most precise context possible, and that process of contextualization led to fresh insights about why and how Madison tried to manage this war.
At least on this side of the border, the war’s impact on Canada is often little discussed. Yet what role did the war play in the development of its national identity—years before Confederation?
That the Canadian colonies managed to repel the American invasions after 1812 gave rise to a certain “mythology”—that the Canadians themselves had accomplished this feat with little assistance from Great Britain—that led to the formation of a “proto-Canadian” identity that became much more explicitly anti-American and more pro-British after 1815 than it had been before 1812—at least in the province of Upper Canada (Ontario). These anti-American bases for a “Canadian” sense of identity war were reinforced by subsequent crises between Great Britain and the U.S. in the nineteenth century, especially in the 1840s and the 1860s. These contributed more directly to Canadian confederation in 1867.
Had the war turned out differently, the history of Native Americans would have been drastically altered. What was their stake in the war, and why did they ultimately fail in their bid?
What was at stake for the Native Americans was nothing less than the very integrity and survival of their cultures and the unchallenged possession of their territorial rights, particularly in the region between the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast and in the trans-Appalachian West. It would be too simple to say that the Indians failed because they were overwhelmed by superior American technology and numbers—though the demographic factor certainly did not work in their favor. Many Native American groups tried to unite to frustrate the expansion of the U.S., but they were invariably unsuccessful in maintaining a sufficient degree of unity for their purposes. In that sense, the Native Americans were defeated by their fragmentation and disunity as much as by any other factor.
In your opinion, what’s the legacy of the war? Why commemorate it now, two hundred years later?
One main legacy of the war was a heightened level of suspicion and distrust between Canada, Great Britain, and the United States that persisted well into the twentieth century, notwithstanding all professions of Anglo-American-Canadian amity and friendship to the contrary. Indeed, such suspicions still persist in Canada to this day. Those emotions helped preserve Canada for the British Empire. For the Americans, they led to a more sustained effort to improve their armed forces—especially on land—in anticipation of the need to fight another war with Great Britain. The war also ensured that future American expansion across the North American continent would not be contested—at least not to the point of war—by either Canada or Great Britain. In that sense, Americans certainly should remember the significance of the War of 1812 for its role in shaping the larger contours and destiny of their republic. And Canadians will celebrate the war for ensuring that they did not become American republicans.