It’s time again for the Concerning History Book Club, where we recreate the experience of the engaging book discussions we’ve had throughout the years in classes and with each other. This month, Bryan, Ryan, and Kevin read The Civil War of 1812, by Alan Taylor. The conversation below has been adapted from a Zoom get-together.
BC: This July, we here at Concerning History wanted to celebrate the United States’ Independence Day a little differently, by reading a study on one of America’s most overlooked conflicts. The Civil War of 1812 had been on our radar for a while, and the three of us were finally able to line up our reading schedules and get through it together! I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed Taylor’s work. The first 150 pages especially contained the best discussion of the underlying factors of the War of 1812 that I’ve ever encountered. Taylor places the impressment of American citizens in its proper context, demonstrating how grave a threat it was to America’s existence as an independent nation less than fifty years after its revolution. Before this book, I conceived of the conflict as a minor diplomatic spat; now, I can’t help but view it as a necessary epilogue to American independence.
RN: For some context, this actually wasn’t my first time having a go at Taylor. I picked up this book a few years back, and reacted similarly to the opening. As I believe I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, I have a soft spot for understudied subjects, which the War of 1812 certainly is, wedged uncomfortably between Independence and Civil War militarily and the Federalist/Jeffersonian and Jacksonian eras politically. Despite that hope, I couldn’t finish it on my first read—for a lot of the reasons we’ll be discussing today. Since that attempt, I’ve frequently used it as an example in conversations as a book with scholarship I greatly respect—it is, after all, impeccably researched—but with a dry narrative that misses much of the forest for the trees.
KL: We all seemed to have that reaction. The first 50 pages or so offered a detailed and significant account of the causes of the war at a national level. Then, suddenly, it shifted primarily into a detailed campaign history along the Niagara front that seemed to consist mostly of raids and counterraids. Between the title and the first few chapters, we seemed primed to expect it would be a full history of the war, despite the fact that he was clear about his borderlands focus in his introduction.
RN: I may be able to concede that the American political landscape falls out of Taylor’s framing device, but I also found that frame itself to be overly narrow. In discussing the relationship between Americans and Canadians during the war, he focuses exclusively on the Great Lakes front, ignoring all other theaters of the war. Even humoring this decision, as a Mainer, the absence of almost any discussion of the war in the then-District of Maine struck me as a bizarre omission. During the war, the British, based out of Canada, seized nearly half of the state and, as Taylor does briefly mention, forced oaths of loyalty from American citizens on bordering islands. Federalist Massachusetts’ complete failure to defend the District provided political kindling for Maine’s statehood only half a decade later– even as the border between Maine and Canada remained nebulous and only loosely defined for nearly thirty years following the Treaty of Ghent. How this loosely defined borderland, where the British tried to outright reimpose their model of citizenship as a direct consequence of the political failings of wartime America, fails to feature in this narrative is astonishing to me!
BC: I for one rather enjoyed Taylor’s military history, though admittedly it was rather detailed. I think this comes mostly from the fact that I’d never read a truly comprehensive history of these campaigns (or any of the war’s campaigns other than New Orleans, and that only because I had the pleasure of visiting the battlefield in the spring of 2019). My biggest criticism comes from Taylor’s framing device. The idea of redefining conflicts as civil wars had been popular in the last decade of historical scholarship, from the American Revolution itself to many decolonization struggles, but here it fell absolutely flat. While Americans might have fought former residents, and English speaking peoples fought other English speaking peoples, the War of 1812 in no way fits any traditional definition of civil war, nor does Taylor attempt to redefine the term to make his analysis fit. In fact, by continuously describing the conflict as a civil war, he seems to himself accept the British definition of subjects never being able to renounce their loyalty to the crown.
RN: That said, if Taylor wanted to talk about a genuinely possible civil war, he had plenty of opportunity to do so. The partisan conflict between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans appears frequently throughout his narrative, and paints an incredibly damning picture of politics in the early republic. In their zeal to conquer Canada “on the cheap,” the D-Rs come across as jingoistic, wildly incompetent bumblers unable to differentiate between practical policy and idealistic aspirations. While perhaps more realistic in the consequences the war is likely to have on the nation, the Federalists are self-defeating at best and outright treasonous at worst. With many New England Federalists openly discussing secession and the Union itself still in its infancy— well, the recipe for an American civil war is there. So I was surprised that Taylor ultimately only used this partisan conflict as a garnish to explain some of the more nonsensical and blundering events of the war: generals appointed for political purposes, illogical War Department management, homefront espionage, and so forth. This, it seems, should be at the center of any discussion of the War of 1812 as a civil war, but instead takes a backseat to the Canadian-American narrative.
BC: I totally agree, and at times it was shocking to see how much the partisan politics of 1812 as related by Taylor reflected the partisan landscape of 2021. From different parties cutting off the country’s nose to spite the other party’s face, to outside observers commenting on the ineffectual nature of American democracy or even decrying Americans’ penchant for caring about profit first and everything else later, there were multiple times that The Civil War of 1812 had me wondering just how much we’ve changed as a nation in the last two hundred years.
KL: It’s striking—but unsurprising—that we don’t grapple with the historical implications of this war. Our collective disinterest in this conflict really accentuates our obsession with the American Civil War. Just think how little we learn about the War of 1812 compared to how the Civil War permeates American culture. I’m not saying this war necessarily deserves the same amount of attention, but it definitely deserves a little bit more than a footnote in history class, especially given how formative it was for the Early Republic. Taylor’s strongest contribution is how important this war was in defining both the literal and conceptual borderlands between the U.S. and the British Empire.
BC: Well said! My own pursuit of more global histories has in large part been a response to Americans’ penchant for historical navel gazing, and while we may have numerous critiques of his work, Taylor certainly attempted to restore a forgotten war to its rightful context within not only United States history but within the larger nineteenth century Atlantic World, and I think we can all praise him for that.