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Richard Carwardine

1812: The War Within the War

A vivid and compelling revisionist account.

The bicentenary of the outbreak of the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain will soon be upon us. Ask the average Briton or American what they know about the conflict and you will be lucky to be told (at most) that Britain, in a sideshow to the Napoleonic wars, bloodied the upstart new nation's nose by burning the White House, and that the American republic avenged itself when Andrew Jackson's frontier crack shots blew away the finest imperial troops at New Orleans. Canadians, when questioned, are likely to flourish their plucky victories against a powerful southern neighbor who had put Upper Canada to the torch. Alan Taylor's new study offers an escape from these stale headlines. His book is unlikely to be alone in marking the war's anniversary, but it is hard to imagine that any other will be more freshly conceived, compellingly analyzed, or vividly written. It is bound to find a wide and appreciative audience.

Not that Taylor, a prizewinning historian at the University of California-Davis, has opted to write a comprehensive account of the conflict. The war in the Gulf and the Atlantic barely gets a look-in. He focuses his lens on the region that suffered the greatest fighting and depredation: Lakes Erie and Ontario and their connecting river systems, between Detroit and Montreal. This is "borderlands rather than a national history," a vivid study of a contest across—and on each side of—the political boundary fashioned by the War of Independence. The Revolution's legacy was a porous frontier between the new American republic and the British Empire. It left plural identities and loyalties on either side. One of Taylor's key purposes is to challenge the too-easy misperception of the Revolution as marking a clean break. Americans of the post-1783 era, he declares, lived in a "precarious and embattled" nation, as "the republic and the empire competed for the allegiance of the peoples in North America—native, settler, and immigrant."

This book, then, is very much about ideology or, less grandly, about how ordinary people understood what it was to be an American or British/Canadian. The Americans' experience within the empire had led them to fear centralized power. The duty of government was, with a light hand, to protect individual freedom, property, and social opportunity for white men. "Ours is a government of opinion, not of force," declared a New Hampshire Congressman: in Britain "more power is concentrated in less compass then ever happened to any other nation on earth." Conversely, the British, celebrating the stability and energy of their "mixed government" and the liberty it nourished, characterized the Unites States as "a Mob Government … too weak to carry its own measure into effect" (Prime Minister Grenville), where the "Glittering Tinsel of American Freedom"—hypocritically offered only to white men and not to African American slaves—had ensnared "Outcasts & Vagabonds" (Admiral George Berkeley). "Seventeen staves and no hoop," sneered the British spy John Henry, "will not make a barrel that can last long."

Forty thousand Loyalists chose, or were forced, to leave America for Canada during the Revolution, and another 30,000 Americans—so-called "Late Loyalists" responding to the lure of grants of Crown land as the reward for armed preparedness against invasion—arrived by 1812. Optimists on both sides regarded the border as temporary. Canadian Loyalists expected their political stability and commercial prospects would draw the American rebels back into the empire and end a foolish republican experiment. Americans believed that a tiny imperial outpost would inevitably come to seek protective incorporation within the United States.

Why then did the United States declare war? Taylor believes previous studies have overstated the role of westerners' appetite for the conquest of Canada, and anger at British meddling with American commerce on the high seas. Instead, he argues for the interaction of multiple grievances that centered on British brutality: the impressment and whipping of "British" sailors seized from American ships and the savage mutilation of American citizens by the tomahawks of Britain's Indian allies. Flogging and scalping challenged American sovereignty and threatened to reverse the Revolution. The war "pivoted on the contentious boundary between the king's subject and the republic's citizen. In the republic, an immigrant chose citizenship—in stark contrast to a British subject, whose status remained defined by birth." A case in point was Ned Myers, born a British subject in Quebec, who ran away to New York City to become a sailor. He chose American citizenship. The British, however, denied that a "natural-born subject" could repudiate his nation. Captured during the war, Myers was seized from a prison ship by a British gang, and impressed as an Englishman onto a British vessel.

In the struggle for control of Upper Canada (the predecessor of today's Ontario), Taylor highlights four interacting civil wars. The conflict between Loyalist and republican Americans—mostly kindred peoples—was just one of them. A second brought the United States to the brink of political fracture. The party cleavages that had helped prompt war became a chasm as the blood of Americans flowed. Federalists derided the Republicans' decision for a land war in Canada as a futile response to attacks on American ocean commerce. Many Federalists worked as smugglers and British agents, while the party's leaders in New England dallied with secession from the Union. In a political culture where the idea of a loyal opposition lacked respect, Republicans branded their foes as traitors. "There are but two parties," declared a Republican newspaper: "Citizen Soldier and Enemies—Americans and Tories." Third, the armies on both sides were composed disproportionately of the Irish. The war of 1812 was in this respect a proxy for the suppressed Irish rebellion of 1798. Irish-American republicans (whose religion, in the words of a contemporary, "was to hate an Englishman") confronted a British army which included companies like James FitzGibbon's "Irish Greens" (terrifyingly known as "the Bloody Boys"), made up of refugees from poverty. Finally, the war in the northern arena drew in native peoples on both sides. Indians around the Great Lakes sided with the British to fend off the tide of American expansion, while the Americans looked to their own Indian allies for recruits.

These cross-cutting conflicts weakened the Americans more than they did their foes. President James Madison's administration governed a fragile nation averse to the taxes that building an adequate army and navy required. But the alternative—dependence on big financiers—proved strategically costly. Instead of contesting the St. Lawrence River and choking the line of supplies to British forces upstream, the Americans concentrated their efforts on Niagara and Detroit, where the war could never be won. To appease David Parish, a German capitalist who loaned millions of dollars to the administration, Madison kept U.S. troops away from Ogdensburg, New York, where Parish owned 200,000 acres and where Canadians erected a border sign for American eyes: "If you don't scratch, I won't bite." The voices of powerful western New York Republicans only encouraged this flawed over-focus on the Niagara front. By contrast, the Federalists who dominated northern New York helped keep troops out of St. Lawrence County. Here the smuggling of cattle, pork, and grain from American farms did much to sustain the British army, whose numbers (14,000 by 1814) came to exceed Upper Canada's agricultural capacity. "The porous northern border," Taylor concludes, "became a debilitating open sore for the US." In the face of British regulars, their flanks guarded by Indian guerrilla fighters, the Americans suffered regular defeats in the Lakes region. Stalemate worked to the advantage of the empire, which needed only to defend.

A conflict that began with (albeit confused) American overtures of friendship to the people of Upper Canada soon collapsed into deepening hostility. Taylor's narrative vividly conveys the war's horror and hardships, above all by giving voice to its common soldiers and to the civilian victims of brutality. Michigan governor William Hull's misguided and bungled campaign to protect Detroit degenerated into plunder and looting. Atrocities by Indians followed. In the summer of 1813, a party of Americans on the shores of Lake Ontario was reported "most shockingly butchered, their heads skinned, the hearts taken out and put in their mouths, their privates cut off and put in the place of their hearts." The British commander Gordon Drummond's burning and destruction of the Niagara Valley villages in the winter of 1813-14 shocked Americans into savage retaliation. Unscrupulous Kentucky riflemen ransacked and burned the pacifist Indian mission at Moraviantown. Each side accused the other of barbarism. Taylor calls "flimsy" the excuses of Madison's administration for the destruction at Moraviantown, York, Newark, and elsewhere: what else could be expected from sending "undisciplined troops and reckless generals across the border to plunder and burn with impunity"? Consequently, "the war hardened bitter feelings along national lines, which gave greater meaning and power to that boundary." A new British-Canadian "nationality" was born amongst settlers of previously doubtful loyalty to the empire. Paradoxically, the war's stalemate boosted American nationalism, too, for with the peace treaty came Britain's acceptance of the United States' permanence and the opportunity—energetically seized—for Americans to dispossess the Indians, now without an external ally.

Taylor offers a glimpse of the religious dimensions of the conflict. In pre-war Canada, political and social authority lay with the established Anglican Church. Anglicans were ready to tolerate introverted pietist groups—Quakers, Mennonites, and Dunkers—and respected kindred Presbyterians and German Lutherans, but they feared the egalitarianism and "infidel" American connections of burgeoning evangelicalism, most widely represented by Methodists (the largest denomination by 1810) and Baptists. When the fighting began, the dominant religious stories in Upper Canada became those of fierce loyalty or apolitical quietism and pacifism; "sedition," as in the case of the Baptist preacher imprisoned for welcoming Dearborn and his troops to York, was comparatively rare. The faith-enhanced Canadian nationalism of wartime was a prelude to a sharper postwar ecclesiastical separation. Canadian churches cut their bonds with the United States, honored hierarchy and church establishment, and pursued less enthusiastic forms of evangelical worship.

There is, however, a broader religious story to consider, one which in some respects qualifies the picture Taylor presents in this superb book. For the war did not end cross-border activity and aspiration. The Methodists, the largest force in both countries in the 1820s, continued to work across what remained a porous boundary for them. Many preachers honored John Wesley's command: "Lose no opportunity of declaring to all men that the Methodists are one people in all the world." They saw themselves as a transnational "people" concerned only for soul-saving. Topography, more than political geography, shaped their organizational boundaries. Methodist voices renounced jingoism in the face of a calamitous war. "I know not," said one contemplating the carnage of Sackett's Harbor, "that I felt any partiality for Americans more than for Englishmen: all of one creation—alike the subjects of redeeming blood, all accountable to the King of kings, and deserving the same condemnation!" Another lamented how the chauvinistic celebration of the return of peace "served rather to feed than to extinguish the flame of political strife and animosity, as well as to call forth and strengthen the warlike propensities of the human heart." A persisting sense of common purpose meant that Upper Canada continued to be organized within the Methodist Episcopal Church until 1828. At the same time, British ministers worked within the northern reaches of the republic (a church member complained of one that he had been "brought up under a tyrannical government; and if he thinks to tyrannize over us, it won't answer"). A new, cross-border Reformed Methodist Church was planted in Upper Canada shortly after the war, while the African Union Church organized branches for black Methodists across the national boundary into the mid-19th century and beyond. This suggests that while 1815 may have been a watershed, it was no more a clean break than 1783 had been. And in the realm beyond evangelical religion, too, a similar gradualism and evolution continued to operate. After all, although Britain recognized America's permanence after 1815, it did so within the confines of a new set of mutually beneficial relations in which the independent United States remained within the orbit of the British system. It would take another century to alter that balance of power.

Richard Carwardine is president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the author most recently of Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power (Knopf). He is currently working on a study of religion in American national construction between the Revolution and the Civil War.

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