Alan Taylor on the War of 1812

11 12 2010

I have just finished reading Alan Taylor’s new book The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies. It’s an important and well-written book, albeit one with one flaw I will discuss below.

As the bicentennial of the war approaches, I am certain that many people will turn to this work as a reference. This book incorporates recent scholarship, such as Carl Benn’s wonderful study of the Iroquois in the War of 1812. It is also based on extensive archival research in both Canada and the United States. Although Prof. Taylor is an American, he certainly cannot be accused of bias towards the United States in terms of his choice of archival source or overall interpretation.  Indeed, if one did not know that the identity of the author, it would be hard to guess his nationality. Patriotic Americans looking for celebratory stories will be disappointed by this volume, as will anti-American Canadian undergraduates  looking for heroes to add to the Canadian nationalist pantheon.  For instance, Taylor shows that most of the people living in what is now Ontario were essentially neutral during the war– or at the very least they tried to avoid getting involved in the conflict. Taylor destroys what remains of the militia myth, the once-common idea that the farmers of Upper Canada sprang to the defence of the Empire in 1812.

Taylor’s thesis is that the War of 1812 was less of a conventional war between nation states than a civil war — or rather a continuation of the civil war that was the American Revolution. Many of the participants in the War of 1812 had fought in the  Revolution and were spoiling to finish feuds that had been started a generation earlier. In other cases, the militiamen were the children of the Tories and Rebels of the Revolution.  Some of the family feuds that became wrapped up in the War of 1812 had their origins in upstate New York in the 1770s, the source of many of the United Empire Loyalists.

The War of 1812 was also a clash of ideologies. It was a struggle between the new and relatively egalitarian ideology of republicanism, which was represented most clearly by the Jeffersonian Republicans, and the defenders of the monarchy in North America. The two decades before the outbreak of the war saw what was effectively a Cold War between Empire and Republic in North America. In 1812, a range of factors including land hunger, American discontent with Britain’s alliance with Natives in the Old North West, and the issue of sailors’ rights caused this war to become a hot one.

The ideological nature of the war placed the Federalists, the conservative faction who had lost power to the Jeffersonians in 1801, in an awkward position. The Federalists’ anglophilia and admiration for the British aristocracy led them to oppose President Madison’s war against the British Empire. Indeed, some Federalists engaged in behaviour that was tantamount to treason: in late 1814, when politicians from Federalist-dominated New England seriously considered secession from the United States. Many Federalists and others in border communities arrange a sort of modus vivendi or local peace with the nearby British forces, which helps to explain why there was relatively little fighting along the St Lawrence River. The War of 1812 also exacerbated  the existing political divisions within Upper Canada between Loyalists and “late Loyalists” and the various shades of Reformers: some anti-establishment politicians in Upper Canada actually sided with the invading Americans. Most people in Upper Canada, however, were economic migrants from the United States who had come north seeking cheap land. Their attitude towards the conflict between the distant governments in London and Washington was essentially one of neutrality– they sought to avoid military service or indeed getting tangled up in the struggle. Taylor points out that US war aims were ambiguous– some of the military and civilian leaders of the US favoured the permanent occupation of Upper Canada, but others were opposed to the idea of joining this territory to the union. The ambiguity of the Americans’ public statements on this issue likely served to discourage some in Upper Canada from throwing in their lot with the American invaders.  Why risk a postwar prosecution for treason by helping an enemy that may or may return the conquered territory to the British at the bargaining table?

The War of 1812 was fought between two peoples speaking the same language and connected by close family ties. In some cases, it was literally a war of brother against brother.  First Nations warriors fought on both sides of the conflict. French Canadian habitants had their farms devastated by both nation’s armies. The Irish in North America were also divided by this conflict: many rebels of the 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule fought in the US army in this war. At the same time, most of the British regiments in Upper Canada were Irish.

The thing I liked best about this book was Taylor’s explanation for why the US did not do the obvious thing and try harder to seize control of the St Lawrence River, the supply line linking Lower Canada to the British armies in Upper Canada. I have always been baffled by the decision of the Americans to have devoted resources to repeated attempt to attack Upper Canada along the Detroit and Niagara Rivers rather than simply seizing control of the St Lawrence at, say, Prescott, Brockville, or Gananonque.

Taylor provides us with a plausible explanation for this curious decision: much of the land on the American side of the St Lawrence River was being developed by a financier who wanted to keep the actual fighting away from the properties he was attempting to sell to settlers. This financier had political clout in Washington because he was also the source of many of the loans the Republican administration was using to fight the war. Taylor shows that the low-tax ideology of the Republicans caused them to try to fight this war on the cheap, which severely hampered the US war effort.

This book gives us a very good account of the major campaigns and battles that took place along the northern frontier of the United States.  It also outlines the political history of Upper Canada from 1783 to 1812 in crystal-clear terms. As such, it will be essential reading for future generations of Canadian historians, not to mention scholars interested in the history of the Great Lakes States. However, this book’s coverage of military events in other parts of the continent is noticeably weak. For instance, we learn almost nothing about the burning of Washington and the Battle of New Orleans, important events mentioned only in passing by Taylor. Similarly, the decision of the Creek First Nation in Mississippi  to seize the opportunities created by the War of 1812 and launch their own campaign against the United States goes unexamined. Perhaps Taylor’s decision to focus on the northern US stems from the fact he is originally from Maine.

Taylor proves that the War of 1812 in the Great Lakes region had the characteristics of a civil war. However, one suspects that had he expanded his coverage to include the British amphibious landing at Washington or, so, the war in Louisiana, this thesis might have been undermined.

Overall, this is an excellent book. It reads well and would be suitable for undergraduates and members of the general public interested in this war.