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1812: The Old History and the New

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 3, September 2013
pp. 436-444 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0081

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The War of 1812 has long been one of our forgotten conflicts. Most people know only a few of the war's details, such as Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans, the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," or the burning of the nation's capital. Why is the public memory so hazy? One reason is that the causes—the vindication of neutral rights—are difficult to understand. Another is that the outcome is unclear. Who really won the war is still disputed today. Yet another reason is the impact of the Civil War, a contest of such epic proportions that it swept both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War deep into the recesses of the public memory.

The Old History

Although Americans produced a number of histories of the war in the nineteenth century, most were one-sided patriotic attempts to show the young republic in the best possible light. The first modern treatment was in Henry Adams' history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which was published in 1889-91. Fully six of Adams' nine volumes were devoted to the causes of the war or to the conflict itself. Adams' extensive research in archives on both sides of the Atlantic set his work apart from other early histories, and, despite many weaknesses, it dominated the field for nearly a century.

Adams' foray into military history was sometimes amateurish, and his entire work was influenced by his acerbic personality and by a determination to make almost everyone look bad except those whom he imagined agreed with his ancestors. Virtually all of his 2,600 pages are filled with unflattering opinions and judgments. In his treatment of Jefferson's presidency, Adams showed a penchant for hiding his opinions behind such phrases as "Every one admitted," or "No one denied," or "No one could doubt," or "In truth . . . ." His view of the War of 1812 was at best quirky, and his judgments of the men involved were mostly unfavorable.

Adams had little real competition until after World War II. Instead of challenging his history of the war, scholars in the first half of the twentieth century debated the causes of the conflict. Maritime issues had dominated the contemporary debate in the run-up to the war. In other words, most contemporaries thought that war was undertaken to force the British to give up both the Orders-in-Council, which curtailed U.S. trade with the European continent, and impressment, which was the removal of seamen from American merchant vessels. In the language of the day, the war was fought to secure "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights." Few questioned this view until the twentieth century, when the notion took root that these issues were simply a pretext for a land grab. According to this interpretation, the real purpose of the war was to seize and annex Canada. This view was appealing because it fit into the larger framework of American expansion, but it was not supported by the evidence and it confused ends and means. After World War II, neutral rights moved back to the fore, but the land hunger thesis has never gone away. Today it is still embraced by most Canadians and even some Americans.

Although the traditional view of the causes of the war had been vindicated, scholars by the 1960s were beginning to rewrite the war's military history. Between 1965 and 1972, J. Mackay Hitsman, Reginald Horsman, and John K. Mahan produced fresh treatments of the war that superseded Adams' military history (although not his domestic and diplomatic history). These works held sway until 1990, when a new round of works, mostly treating individual battles and campaigns, challenged the standard view, at least in the details. Some of the best of this work was done by Canadians. Independent scholar Donald E. Graves headed a team of scholars that revised Hitsman's work, and this remains the standard Canadian account. Graves also produced a series of masterful battlefield narratives that shed considerable light not simply on the battles and campaigns but also on the ways that armies operated in the period. No less impressive was the work of another independent Canadian scholar...

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