Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor tells the riveting story of a war that redefined North America. In a world of double identities, slippery allegiances, and porous borders, the leaders of the American Republic and the British Empire struggled to control their own diverse peoples. Taylor’s vivid narrative of an often brutal—sometimes farcical—war reveals much about the tangled origins of the United States and Canada.
©2010 Alan Taylor (P)2010 Recorded Books, LLC
The only things missing in this book are an in-depth treatment of the burning of Washington DC, the "rockets' red glare" in Baltimore harbor, the shelling of Stonington, CT, and the Battle of New Orleans. But most of these things were minor sideshows to the real war, and of course New Orleans happened after the war had officially ended.
Otherwise I can't praise this enough as a compelling and informative history. Its thesis is that the American Revolution did not really end in 1781 or 1783; that certain British interests saw the USA as a temporary aberration, and sought to exploit its disorganization and economic slump during the 1780s-90s.
The real origins of the War of 1812 were not the usual background causes we are told about--impressment of seamen, trade with France--but rather the British government's basic failure to comply with its undertakings in the Treaty of Paris (they did not actually give up the western and Great Lakes forts they were supposed to evacuate) and their persistent harassment of American settlers on the western frontier. Added to this was the British attempt to siphon off thousands of Americans into Upper Canada by offering 200 free acres to anyone who wanted it.
This is where most of the early 19th century Ontario settlers came from, by the way: they were Americans from New England and Upstate New York who took the free-land offer. They were not Brits and they were not exiled Tories. (Very few Revolutionary War Tories went to Canada in any event; Tories had mainly gone to the Acadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which were not part of Canada.)
Most of the War of 1812 was about the Americans' attempt to take over Upper Canada, or Ontario, which then as now thrust itself like an arm into the north-central USA. The Americans had a very good case. Most of the inhabitants were actually Americans, the British had no clear claim on the land, and in fact the only real interest the British had in the region was to use it as a staging area for taking America back.
So what happened? Why was Ontario not taken? The answer is that the American forces were poorly prepared and slightly provisioned, no match for the seasoned Redcoats at Detroit and York and Niagara. That's really all it was. But this loss paid off big dividends in the development of the American forces. The new academy at West Point was quickly transformed into a serious institution of military training after 1812, as a direct result of the woeful experiences during the war.
Well, written and more balanced than usual.
Measured, well-enunciated, but with occasional mispronunciations,
Given that the author is an American historian, he is reasonably even-handed and does not portray the War of 1812 in the usual starry-eyed, "it was a glorious victory really" style of most American history. He does, however, occasionally fall into that habit Americans have of portraying the British as a mere foil against which Americans tested their fitness for greatness. He also makes some annoying mistakes which a serious historian should not make, even when talking about a foreign power - he keeps referring to the "imperial lords" (I think he means the British Government) and on one occasion refers to "Lord Wellington". Who? The real strength of the book is to point out the complexities of American motives for the war. He places front and centre the objective of breaking British power in North America, the destruction of Indian resistance (both closely interconnected) and the possible windfall outcome of those objectives, the absorption of Upper Canada. He does not sugar-coat the fiasco that was the American Army's performance on the Canadian frontier. For those looking for a general history of the war, they will be disappointed that he does not cover the naval war or British amphibious operations against American shores in any depth (for this, from a British perspective, see Latimer, "The Challenge"). Similarly, although he is excellent on the internal politics of Canada and the US, he does little to explore the economic effects of the war on the US, probably the key issue of the time.He is also very good on the conclusion to the war, and in particular the British Government's sudden switch from holding out tough terms from the Americans to essentially giving the US everything it wanted. Interestingly, he suggests this switch came after Wellington advised to give the US whatever it wanted, and concentrate on the real issues in Europe. Perhaps Mr. Taylor should have subtitled his book "How the Duke of Wellington Saved the Republic"!
The previous version of this review was overtly negative, but no one likes negative reviews, so here is the new version.
First, Professor Taylor writes what is called "micro history" gathering extremely detailed data from journals, newspaper reports, official papers, etc. The presumption is that such a collection of dubious sources will somehow bounce around the truth, and, even more important, that they are statistically representative. Neither assumption is generally true. While such an approach can sometimes help to provide an rich picture of the times, it cannot be taken to provide an accurate global picture of what happened. There is value in the minutia and a richness of detail (as seen in William Couper's Town), but all too often when the global issues must be understood, one is left uncertain whether to take the minutia as representative.
In addition, the author often mixes in sweeping unreferenced statements of generality with his mix of possibly (or even probably) unrepresentative minutia. The net is that the reader is not sure what to believe. It is not that he cannot see the forest for the trees (although that is certainly the case), he cannot determine whether he is seeing a tree or the forest.
Second, Taylor ignores many of the critical historical events in pursuit of an indefensible, by any other means, thesis that the War of 1812 was "Civil". It was not. Major, if not decisive, aspects of the war did not occur on the US/Canada border, in which locations the "civil" label cannot be remotely stretched to apply. It was a war between a massive empire and the fledgling US republic. The fact that some of the participants and one part of the war were ethnically, linguistically, and racially similar does not make it a civil war. There were clear boundaries and distinct not predominantly intermixed populations and political systems. Civil wars are between peoples of the same country. That was simply not the case in the War of 1812. Taylor repeatedly asserts, without convincing evidence, that most people on the US/Canada border were not interested in the war at all, which is hardly a sign of civil discord. In short, the "civil" adjective is at best a stretch that adds novelty, but does not constitute a useful encapsulation of the historical events.
Third, in contrast to the person-by-person minutia presented about the border war whole segments of the war are largely ignored, e.g., the sea war with warships and privateer, the war in the American south, the Battle of Bladensburg, etc. One suspects that this is more due to Taylor's familiarity with the sources relating to that region than with a conscious decision of its relative importance. Basically, Taylor has written in the style of a PhD dissertation.
Forth, contrary to the claims of other reviewers, the writing is average and not economical as one would expect from well presented popular history such as written by Tuchman and Churchill.
In short, if your expectation is a history or the War of 1812, then you will be disappointed. If you are interested in a quixotic, selective and irregular presentation of the Great Lakes theater of the War of 1812 (and accept that it was in essence "civil"), then you might find this a useful, but for me the book lacked too much to be recommended.
People may not remember but early Americans expected Canada to join the revolution. Thus the two times the U.S. Invaded Canada -- during the Revolution and the War of 1812 -- to liberate Canada from British rule. Canada declined to be liberated, expelling American forces both times. Taylor's topic is the confusing northern front in the 1812 war: A time when American loyalists filled much of North Canada, the British longed to prove their own ethical and military superiority over the greedy, hypocritical Americans,
Federalists feared the Jeffersonian hostility to commerce and the British, and Republicans longed to demonstrate the power of a citizen militia and purge the crypto-Tories of the Federalist party and Canada. By the end of the war, Canadians had built a new shared civic identity as not Americans and America had embraced the ideal of free, white manhood. Taylor is a fine writer who held my interest over the many chapters. The narrator speaks fluently and well. He also does aan amazibg job with names and words from the many different languages of the participants. I also strongly recomend The Enemy Within, the companion book which examines the war's southern front.
Hobby- Military History Occupation- Retired Commander USN; Retired Director of Quality Assurance; Graduate Liberty University, Lynchburg VA; Residence-Waverly Ohio
Although I have been reading books on American History for the past 40 years, this book showed me how little I knew about the war of 1812. Once I started listening to material presented, I found it hard to stop listening and put the book away. The author presents the material such that their is nothing booring or dry about this book. I found the intertwinning of historial facts and stories about the people and things being discussed enlightening. In my opinion, if you intersted in more than the "Burning of Washington" and the "Battle of New Orleans", this is a good book to read to follow the events of the other 3 years of war in North American.
Interesting Educational Local
The story explained so much about the area that I live in and how it came to be.
I found the narrator, Andrew Garman, to have a tone of voice and presentation manner which held my interest and made it difficult to stop listening. Thank You.
I wanted to learn more about the war of 1812, and this book did help me understand more about it. However, it is not a end to end history of the war. The author is clear about this, and I don't mean to say this book isn't good. The focus of this book is on Canada and not the entire war theatre. I guess I was hoping for more. Oh, and can someone tell the narrator that the pronunciation of Marquis is "mar-kee" and not "mar-kwis"?
I like to read but listening is better.
It's not easy to write an interesting book on the War of 1812. It's hard to explain the reasons for going to war, and even more difficult to explain the lasting impact of the war. The actual war itself isn't very memorable.
Considering all of this I would give Taylor credit for writing a tolerably entertaining and informative book. It's interesting to hear about the US's attempts to invade Canada. If the battles had turned out differently, the borders could be very different as well.
Taylor goes into detail concerning the early political fights that took place in America, with charges of being a francophone or anglophone flying.
This is a story without heroes, but plenty of villains and fools, and the countless thousands caught in the middle. Yet underneath the day-to-day follies are some positive trends.
Taylor presents a complex story with several intertwining themes. Foremost is what Taylor describes as the conflict between the concept of a citizen and that of a subject. A citizen is one who chooses and actively affirms loyalty; a subject is one whose loyalty is forced upon him or her merely by where he or she was born. Americans are so familiar with the history of repeated waves of immigrants choosing to become Americans that it is easy to forget how radical the concept of naturalization was 200 years ago. Many of the root causes of the war stemmed from this difference, particularly the American outrage over the impressment of naturalized citizens.
Further, a citizen is a full member of a society, while a subject has duties to superiors, in return for the benevolence and protection of such social superiors. This again was a radical innovation of Americans, which the British wouldn’t fully accept till the 20th century. Taylor describes, however, how Americans were able to overcome the class distinctions of the old world only by accentuating racial differences. The British treated blacks and Indians with the same condescension they showed white Americans, but this treatment was still far better than the treatment blacks and Indians received from white Americans.
Taylor also discusses the challenges Americans had in developing the mechanisms of a functioning state apparatus. Given the emphasis on equality (at least for white males), there was a natural conflict between the rights of citizens to question their government and the discipline required of an army. The federal government also did not have the structures in place to train or supply, or select qualified officers for, its army or to enforce the demands of wartime on non-combatants, such as those against trading with the enemy.
In republican theory, strong governments were equated with hierarchical governments, which used power against the people. Such governments were separate from, and not representative of, the people. With the War of 1812, we see the agonizing first steps of republicans trying to make a representative government effective enough to deal with other countries as well as to enforce the will of the majority and at the same time protect the rights of the minority. This struggle is a constant throughout American history.
The tensions exposed by these challenges threatened to divide the country, which was especially ironic in that one of the Administration’s war aims had been to unify the country. It is yet another object lesson that war is not a sound strategy for eliminating divisions within a country; it can only exacerbate them.
The greater irony is that the peace did serve to unify the country. The war did not achieve most of its specific aims—the end to impressment of American seamen or the liberation of Canada—but it did achieve the underlying aim of winning international respect of the US. The British realized that Americans were not about to return to the empire, and, given the differences between representative and hierarchical societies, decided they were well rid of the Americans. They were therefore willing to accept America as a separate country and decided to keep them as separate as possible.
The book’s title has many meanings, in that the war not only exposed differences within the United States, but the war on the northern frontier was largely fought between Americans and those who were very recently Americans. The war not only helped solidify American independence, but it helped create a Canadian sense of identity. That, in turn, helped the British keep the Americans separate, but also eventually led to Canadian independence.
Taylor has therefore presented a story about the social and attitudinal adjustments, both within North American and in Europe, brought about by the existence of the new American state. It is thus a story about the beginnings of parts of our modern world.
Sorry but the writing just wasn't there for me. It was like reading a school report.
disappointment - could have been such a colourful story.
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