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  • The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812 by Troy Bickham
  • R. William Weisberger
Troy Bickham. The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Pp. 336, illustrations, index, Cloth, $34.95.

This military, diplomatic, and journalistic study incisively investigates the complex War of 1812. Topically arranged into eight major chapters, this book accentuates several salient themes: Bickham reveals the military accomplishments and blunders of the British empire during this destructive war [End Page 131] and also describes the state formation policies and activities of the American republic against the British. Finally, Bickham, who teaches at Texas A&M University, well examines the declining roles of Native American empires in America and in Canada. Bickham effectively utilizes newspaper accounts to substantiate his arguments and consequently has written a most persuasive study in comparative trans-Atlantic history.

Bickham treats pertinent trans-Atlantic issues in the book’s first part: the first two chapters concentrate on the American and British cases for engaging in war against each other. He maintains that President James Madison and Republican leaders denounced the British for violating neutral and commercial rights of American ships that sailed the Atlantic; after 1802 these vessels encountered trade restrictions in shipping merchandise to European ports. To appease indignant American statesmen and shippers, the British in June of 1812 repealed the Orders in Council and other restrictive commercial laws. An ancillary issue, impressment, enraged American shippers, merchants, and political leaders. Maintaining that many sailors on American merchant and naval ships had not been properly naturalized as American citizens, the British tried to diminish the importance of impressment claims.

Bickham in the third chapter also develops convincing arguments for other major causes. Citing accounts of reporters from both sides of the Atlantic, he asserts that tensions with the Native Americans, the ambitions of expansionists, and the defense of American national sovereignty led Madison to seek congressional consent to take action against the British. On June 18, 1812, with congressional support, the reluctant Madison, who realized that American armed forces were poorly prepared, issued a war declaration against Great Britain. Despite fighting against Napoleonic troops and while realizing that Canada and the West Indies required military protection, Great Britain would develop an expanded tax base to finance wars throughout the world. This empire, whose leaders especially feared the development of a Franco-American alliance, would respond in 1812 against America to defend imperial interests in the Western Hemisphere.

In chapter 4 Bickham in detail reveals the intensity of the conflict between the young republic and the British empire. He suggests that significant military victories by both the Americans and the British did not culminate in bringing an end to this war. Bickham shows that successes and failures characterized American efforts to occupy Upper Canada. After the vacillating General William Hull scored victories in July of 1812 and the next month ceded Detroit to the British and the Canadians, American campaigns in the [End Page 132] West the next year met with success. Bickham assesses the 1813 American accomplishments: the victory of Oliver H. Perry at Put-in-Bay in September enabled America to secure control over Lake Erie. The next month, William Henry Harrison and his armies earned a significant victory at the Battle of the Thames. This battle, moreover, culminated in the death of Tecumseh and in the decline of his powerful Indian confederation. American troops failed, however, to occupy Upper Canada during later stages of the war. Vivid accounts also appear about the victories of the Constitution against the British navy and about the successful attacks of American merchant ships against British vessels.

Chapter 5 examines the powerful 1814 British response against America. The British in August did encounter some success in the Chesapeake region, deploying their forces under George Cockburn and Robert Ross to win with vengeance the Battle of Washington and to inflict great damage on the White House and on other buildings in the nation’s capital. Having moved their troops to Baltimore, the British were thwarted, failing to capture Fort McHenry in September of 1814 and thereafter...


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pp. 131-134
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