With good reason, the War of 1812 is often referred to as the Second War of American Independence. In what amounted to a coming-of-age for the fledgling republic, the war with Britain established once and for all that Americans were not Britain’s “colonial subjects” in any sense of the word and that Britons who ignored that fact did so at their peril. This, however, is hardly the whole story. As Alan Taylor reminds us in his thought-provoking new book, the war that secured the independence of the republic was also, like the Revolutionary War before it, a “civil war,” one that pitted neighbors and family members against each other throughout British North America and the United States. For this reason, the War of 1812 was much more than a struggle over the external question of relations with Britain. It was also a war to decide what, exactly, being a citizen of an increasingly democratic republic meant and whether republicanism was sufficiently potent to counter threats from the British Empire that still occupied nearly half of the North American land mass.
At the heart of Taylor’s analysis lies the insight that, on the eve of war in 1812, none of the main protagonists—Americans, Canadians, the Irish, and Indians—were a unified people. Instead, each group was divided by religion, ethnicity, and ideology, with differences over the American Revolution constituting a particularly bitter source of conflict. In the United States, these divisions were most evident in the epic clash between the pro-British Federalists, banished from the White House in 1801 but still an electoral force in New England, and the Democratic-Republicans of Jefferson and Madison. To the Republicans, Federalists were British agents and crypto-Tories bent [End Page 109] on repealing the Declaration of Independence. Federalists returned the favor by impugning Republicans as rabble-rousing democrats and Jacobins. When the breach with London came in 1812, the two parties seemed at least as intent on fighting each other as they were on waging war against Britain. In Baltimore, Republican and Irish crowds stormed the offices of Alexander Contee Hanson’s Federal Republican newspaper, killing Revolutionary War hero James Lingan and seriously wounding General Henry Lee. For their part, Federalist governors in New England refused to allow state militias under their control to participate in the national war effort. Not surprisingly, writes Taylor, many Federalists came to see the war as “a Republican plot against them” (p. 179).
Taylor has a keen eye for the telling detail, and his narrative of the origins and principal events of the war is masterful. Although the book deals only with the northern borderland that stretched from the Great Lakes to the St. Croix River—Andrew Jackson and the battle of New Orleans make a brief, cameo appearance in the final pages—Taylor’s discussion of the fluidity that long characterized the frontier between Canada and the United States is especially satisfying. While British officials eyed land as far south as the Ohio Valley and American adventurers fantasized about extending the boundaries of the union to Hudson’s Bay, settlers in New York and Upper Canada (modern Ontario) traded, intermarried, and moved back and forth with little regard for the governments that claimed their allegiance. Taylor also does a superb job of showing how the War of 1812 eventually brought this flux to a close. Among the more conspicuous casualties were the Indian nations who had so deftly used the shifting borders of the region to their own advantage.
This book is a major contribution to the scholarly literature on early America and the early modern British Empire. As Taylor shows, the forces that entangled people along the border between Canada and the United States were every bit as powerful as the differences that divided them. Often, those cross-border entanglements were themselves sources of division. The only way to do justice to the [End Page 110] various strands of this interconnected story is to...