- The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812 by Troy Bickham
While scouring the records of the Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada in the late 1980s, if I had been told that, over twenty years later, I would again be reading accounts of the War of 1812, my reaction would have been—to say the least—skeptical. From being an early-twentieth-century founding narrative of the British colony of Upper Canada, the War had moved to the margins of most historians' interest. With a few exceptions, the War of 1812 seemed to hold little of the excitement that surrounded other events of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century: a footnote, at best.1
What a difference a commemorative moment makes. University-based historians increasingly are turning their attention to the War. This interest is capacious and takes a broad-based approach to the conflict, whether transnational and transatlantic, such as Allan Taylor's The Civil War of 1812: American citizens, British subjects, Irish rebels, and Indian allies, or cultural, as in the case of Nicole Eustace's 1812: War and the passions of patriotism.
Troy Bickham's The Weight of Vengeance thus joins this body of contemporary scholarship that either asks new questions about the War or poses older scholarly debates within different frameworks. A well-researched work, Bickham's book places the conflict in a transatlantic framework, comparing and contrasting British and American motivations, attitudes and perceptions. Although Bickham assesses military strategies and the importance of particular battles, his is not a military history. Instead, Bickham traces the contours of public opinion and government policy on both sides of the Atlantic, as he explores transatlantic debates in which concerns about imperial and national identities played a central role. So far as the wide-ranging, complex impulses that underlay the War are concerned, Bickham argues that America's need to demonstrate its status as a sovereign nation was key to its declaration of war. For its part, Britain had little or no desire to recoup territory lost during the American Revolution. Rather, the British government and British public were far more concerned to put America in its place and, in the process, thwart any ambitions the latter might have had to greatness, relegating it to the status of a second-tier power on the global stage. Bickham then moves on to examine the War's progress from both combatants' perspectives, dealing first with that of an American government that was deeply divided about the conflict, lacked military expertise, and ended up coming very close to bankruptcy by the time the Treaty of Ghent was signed. Although beset by many initial hardships—the invasion of Canada, a beleaguered West Indies, and privateer raids—by 1814 the British Empire was in a much stronger position than its opponent and, too, had developed a new interest in Canada. Bickham's approach also takes in opposition to the War on both sides of the ocean, arguing that its American opponents (who came from a range of positions and locations) tended to focus on the damage that the War was doing to the fledgling republic, while the War's British adversaries worried about its deleterious effect on the British economy.
The book concludes with a detailed and well-told exploration of the negotiations at Ghent; its final chapter analyses questions of victory and loss. For Bickham, the old issue of "who won" the War of 1812 can be settled by returning to the motivations that underpinned each side's entry into the conflict. Although Bickham argues that Britain met a number of its objectives, particularly military ones, he points out that the imperial power did not succeed in taking the republic down a peg. To the contrary, the War fueled Americans' national confidence and bolstered the republic's expansion in the decades following its end, albeit without resolving its internal contradictions and conflicts. To the "winners" column Bickham also adds British North Americans, whom he sees as...