The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is now upon us. It might be supposed, after the passage of two centuries, that all the emotions surrounding the conflict have subsided and that American, British, and Canadian historians would be free to discuss the war in neutral and dispassionate ways. After all, many of these scholars have been telling us for some years now that the war was a “draw.” The United States may have failed to conquer Canada and impose its peace terms upon Great Britain; but the British, when they sought to obtain a settlement that might have secured Canada against future American aggression, were no more successful when they invaded the United States in the summer of 1814. Common sense eventually prevailed and both sides settled for the restoration of the status quo ante bellum.
Yet current indications suggest that the bicentennial might well revive the passions of two centuries ago. To the extent that the United States has taken any cognizance of the conflict, the emphasis has been on the unexpected triumphs of the infant American navy over the frigates of the Royal Navy and in the engagements on Lakes Champlain and Erie. These victories sufficed to persuade Americans—then and now—that the republic had stood up to the “Mistress of the Seas” and taught her the lesson never again to violate American neutrality or maritime rights.
The Canadians, whose government is devoting some $30 million to the bicentennial, are remembering the war for having created an independent sense of Canadian identity that became the foundation for Canadian nationhood itself, one that is rooted in loyalty to the British crown and in a repudiation of the values of American republicanism. As a consequence, they are celebrating the valiant deeds of the military heroes who made this possible, just as they did in the nineteenth century. Two new biographies of Sir Isaac Brock, the savior of Upper Canada (Ontario), have already appeared, and we can surely expect additional accounts of the successful defense of Canada against American aggression in the months to come.
But it is the British reaction to the bicentennial that is the most surprising. Surprising because British historians have long told us that Britons retain no memories at all of a war that was no more than a small and irritating sideshow to the main event of 1812—which was the struggle against Napoleon’s domination over the continent of Europe. Yet three recent British accounts of the war adopt a very different stand. The first, 1812: War with America published by the late Jon Latimer in 2007, is absolutely unequivocal in asserting that because the Americans failed to accomplish their war-time goals, they necessarily lost the conflict and that the British and the Canadians must logically be considered as the victors.
In 2011, Brian Arthur published a monograph with the bold title How Britain Won the War of 1812. Arthur built on Latimer’s claims by arguing that it was the impact of the British naval blockades of the American coast in 1813 and 1814 that gave the British their triumph. Historians, it should be said, had long been aware that the British blockades distorted the flows of trade and money in the United States in ways that made it increasingly difficult for the Madison administration to find the financial resources to wage war, but few scholars had ever believed that their impact had been so decisive as to force the United States to seek peace terms from the British. Arthur can certainly make a case that the British blockades were more effective than historians had hitherto suspected, but even so the argument does not quite suffice to explain the timing of the critical developments that led to peace. The Americans abandoned their hopes for imposing peace terms on the British in June 1814. They did so not because of the difficulties caused by the blockades but more in response to developments in Europe, namely the fall of Napoleon in the spring of 1814. This event decisively shifted the international balance of power against the United States and threatened to leave the republic diplomatically isolated and militarily vulnerable to the increased capacity of Great Britain to wage offensive war in North America in ways that had not been possible in 1812 and 1813.
Now, in May 2012, we see the appearance of Andrew Lambert’s The Challenge: America, Britain and the War of 1812. Lambert not only endorses Arthur’s findings; he takes them several stages further and even as far back as some of the anti-American polemics that circulated in Great Britain between 1812 and 1818. Much of the book centers on a carefully detailed reconstruction of the June 1 1813 encounter between HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake, in which the British disposed of their enemy in less than fifteen minutes, thereby restoring what Britons regarded as the rightful balance of naval power between the two belligerents.
Furthermore, Lambert frames his naval history in a context that not merely castigates the Americans for their deluded folly in supposing that they might even challenge the British in the first place but also grants no credence to the American belief that the challenge was necessary to vindicate American neutrality and maritime rights against years of abuse by the Royal Navy. Maritime grievances, it would seem, had nothing to do with this war. Rather, they were simply a smokescreen for indefensible American ambitions to seize land from Great Britain, Spain, and their Indian allies in North America.
Reputable American historians had repudiated earlier (and more restrained) versions of such arguments more than fifty years ago, but the British subscribed to them quite freely two centuries ago. Now they appear to be on the point of reviving them. Why this might be so is an interesting question. Possibly, British historians of the Napoleonic Wars have belatedly come to realize that there are new topics to explore in the American dimensions of those conflicts. Or, more likely, they have no wish to be subjected to a barrage of tiresome American claims over the next three years that the United States really won the naval war of 1812-1815. If so, that might suggest that deeply embedded strains of anti-Americanism in British culture will continue to inform how Britons react to American commemorations of the bicentennial. Under such circumstances, can it be long before they will demand a re-enactment of the burning of Washington?
J.C.A. Stagg, professor of history at the University of Virginia, was born in New Zealand. His recent book, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (on sale now) supports none of the positions described in this blog.