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The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent.

The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent, by J.C.A. Stagg. Cambridge Essential Histories Series. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012. xvii, 198 pp. $24.95 US (paper).

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 witnessed an explosion of interest in what many scholars refer to as the second war for American independence. Historians including Alan Taylor, Troy Bickham, and Nicole Eustace examined the war from new perspectives and re-established its significance in U.S., Native American, North American, and international history. Despite this renaissance in scholarship, however, the war still remains one of the least appreciated and understood in the history of America's military conflicts, which is curious indeed--particularly given its immediate and long-term ramifications for the United States, its expansion and evolution into a world power, and the relationship between North America and Europe. Thus, J.C.A. Stagg's concise synopsis of the second Anglo-American war stands as a welcome primer and reintroduction to its prelude, fighting, and conclusion.

Stagg provides a readable and lucid summary of the war, which he characterizes in the subtitle as a "conflict for a continent." He begins with a lengthy and quite useful historiographical overview of the literature that begins with early efforts at creating myths related to the conflict and recognizes elements of those myths that linger in more recent scholarship (pp. 1-17). The book then traces the major events and personalities involved in the war, from the origins of the conflict in the early 1800s through the negotiations that produced the Treaty of Ghent. While Stagg focuses primarily on the American experience, he also alludes to the global relevance of the conflict to the British, Canadians, and the ongoing Napoleonic wars; the significance of the war to the Native American tribes that were resisting the tide of westward expansion; and the implications of the conflict for control of North America after 1815. Stagg is at his best in exploring the challenges faced by James Madison--politically, militarily, and diplomatically--both before and during the war. He concludes that the experience of the war and the subsequent peace agreement paved the way for Madison and his successors to address and correct many of the problems that plagued the early Republic, arguing that the positive outcome of the War of 1812 for the United States ultimately led to American control of the continent (p. 165).

Unfortunately, Stagg exaggerates the breadth of the book's focus in the introduction and under-delivers on its potential throughout the brief narrative. There is little new interpretive ground broken here, and Stagg does not go into great depth regarding the many complexities surrounding the war. Given the brief nature of the volume and the transnational scope of a conflict that occurred and resonated within a complicated and constantly-shifting geopolitical framework, this is perhaps understandable. What results, however, is a monochromatic and unbalanced--if well-written--portrait of a seminal moment in U.S. and world history. While Stagg recognizes the continental and global nature of the conflict at the outset, the majority of the book focuses on the United States, specifically on the familiar maritime events that brought Washington and London to the brink of war during the Jefferson and Madison administrations, as well as the challenges Madison dealt with as he engaged the superior British forces and their Native American allies once war was declared. The broader scope and implications of the conflict unfurl almost exclusively within the American milieu. Yet even within that context, Sfagg leaves critical domestic political factors under-explored, most notably the pivotal role played by the War Hawks and their supporters both during and after the war. Furthermore, Stagg misses opportunities to delve more deeply into the rich continental and international diplomatic and military components of the conflict, which largely overshadowed the Anglo-American sideshow from the European perspective.

These reservations should not diminish the value of the book, however. It is a useful survey of a war that too frequently is overlooked in the evolution of the United States and North America, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, its historiographical introduction and bibliographic essay will be useful to both scholars and students, especially as a starting point to a more in-depth study of the conflict. It is recommended for those audiences.

Andrew L. Johns

Brigham Young University
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Author:Johns, Andrew L.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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