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1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism by Nicole Eustace (review)
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Long seen as a forgotten war, the War of 1812 has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years, with the publication of such works as Alan Taylor’s The Civil War of 1812 (2010). One important and provocative contribution to this trend is Nicole Eustace’s 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism. Eustace differs from Taylor in focusing on the cultural impact of the war as articulated in different forms of print media ranging from newspapers to captivity narratives and broadside ballads, rather than on the social experiences of those on the borderlands who took direct part in the conflict. Because such a small portion of the population actually fought in the war, the only experience that most Americans had of it, according to Eustace, was an imagined one created by print culture. For Eustace, what made this cultural construction of the war so powerful was its appeal to emotion.

The originality and value of Eustace’s work lies in her analysis of how supporters of the war appealed to emotion through the use of familial and romantic imagery. She places the tensions that led to the war in the context of transatlantic debates over the role of population growth in American development, prompted by the publication of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. Indignantly refuting Malthus’s claims that unrestricted American population growth was a moral blight that could only result in the extermination of the Indians, nationalist advocates like Hezekiah Niles viewed such growth as a sign of the national prospects for greatness, turning the right to unlimited reproduction into both an instrument and an expression of American liberty. Maintaining this right required the capacity for unfettered expansion, thereby justifying war against both the Indians who stood in the way of that expansion and their British abettors. The belief in the centrality of reproduction to American national greatness in turn made romantic and family feeling into essential attributes of patriotic feeling, giving women a role to play in the enhancement of national greatness simply through their reproductive capacities and their ability to confer and serve as objects of love and desire.

Proponents of the war framed both American military reverses and successes in terms of this outlook, interpreting defeats like General William Hull’s surrender at Detroit as a failure of family feeling on Hull’s part and victories like Oliver Perry’s over the British on Lake Erie as proof of the superior American capacity for such feeling. On the other side, viewing romantic love and the freedom of marital choice as fundamental to the preservation and expression of American liberty, propagandists for the war vilified the foes of the nation as menaces to this right. If British impressment of American sailors violated their right to be with their wives and families, Indians posed an even more direct threat to the sanctity of American families in their practice of taking women and children captives. Ultimately, in making romantic and family feeling the measure and means of American greatness, proponents of the war made the achievement of concrete military and diplomatic gains irrelevant to determining success or failure. By this measure, simply in surviving and maintaining their right to marry and reproduce, Americans had in a sense won the war, thereby accounting for why Americans could view the war as a great victory for the nation, even though it had been at best a military and diplomatic stalemate.

Marshaling a wide array of sources and examining both their content and their dissemination and diffusion, Eustace makes a persuasive case about the prevalence of appeals to emotion in the rhetoric for the war. What is less clear is how much this rhetoric was a reaction against social reality, and how much it shaped the actual feelings of the larger public. At times, Eustace acknowledges the former, but overall her language emphasizes the latter. Whether the wartime rhetoric really succeeded in emotionally priming the public in the way that Eustace suggests is a question for future scholars, building on her work, to address.

Eileen Ka-May Cheng  

Eileen Ka-May Cheng teaches history at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York. She...

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