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The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812.

The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812, by Troy Bickham. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012. xii, 325pp. $34.95 US (cloth).

In my introductory United States history courses, I often inform students that the War of 1812 ranks among the dumbest conflicts ever fought. The United States entered a conflict it was shockingly unprepared for. The political elements that advocated war with Great Britain also refused to adequately fund the army and the navy, while at the same time approving the disestablishment of the Bank of the United States. As a consequence, the United States was financially hobbled for the duration of the conflict. Great Britain on the other hand, could have easily avoided war. In The Weight of Vengeance, Troy Bickham examines how the two sides blundered toward war, the objectives of the belligerents, and how they changed those objectives over the course of the war. Indeed, he points out during the peace negotiations at Ghent in late 1814, neither side raised the original (purported) reasons for hostilities. Interestingly, he discusses not only how domestic politics in both Great Britain and the United States led to the outbreak of war, but also how domestic political squabbles also fueled opposition to the war within each of the belligerent nations.

The War of 1812, Bickham notes, is perhaps one of the least remembered conflicts in both the United States and Great Britain. In Canada of course, it is remembered quite differently. In the United Kingdom, the war with America was regarded very much as a sideshow, especially when compared to the threat that Napoleon posed to the British Isles. Indeed, Bickham notes many Britons seemed to be unaware that there was a war with the United States.

In Canada, where the War of 1812 assumes a great deal of historical importance, Bickham points out there is a tendency to romanticize the conflict. Canadians think of the War of 1812 as a conflict which helped establish their national identity. The overall narrative usually has loyal Canadians helping the British thwart American invaders. Bickham notes that many Canadians fought (or chose not to fight) for their own reasons. Indeed, many apolitical Americans (along with Loyalists in the wake of the American Revolution) migrated to Canada in the two decades prior to the conflict. Despite taking an oath of loyalty to the King many of these recent arrivals tended "to butter their bread on both sides," so to speak.

Of course, Canadians were not the only ones with divided loyalties. Americans in New England and along the New York-Ontario border frequently traded with the Canadians, and provided provisions for the British army. Of course for this trade to exist, this also meant there were Canadians who were willing to trade with the enemy.

The greatest strength of Bickham's book is his deft use of both British and American newspapers, which he notes, often provided the belligerents' militaries and governments with better and timelier intelligence than the field reports from their own commanders and intelligence services. However war reporting in both countries' presses was often slanted. The presses in both the United States and Great Britain were highly politicized and this obviously distorted the reporting (and editorializing) about the war. Bickham notes the political leanings of the newspapers and discusses their arguments for and against the war.

Another (much appreciated) strength of the book is Bickham's copious use of contemporaneous political cartoons, from both British and American newspapers. Bickham augments these illustrations with detailed captions which explain not only the content of the cartoon and the dialogue, but which also provides the reader with a good deal of political context.

Bickham ends the book by addressing the question of "who won the war?" The answer he points out, is complicated by the domestic politics of each of the belligerents. Opponents of President James Madison complained bitterly about the treaty, arguing the United States achieved none of its objectives. In Great Britain, there were complaints that the United States had not been sufficiently humbled, nor had the Americans been forced to surrender territory. Loyalists in Canada came the closest to being the winners in this whole affair. Bickham argues that the war allowed Canada to persuade the British of their importance and to demonstrate their willingness to serve the empire and oppose the Americans. A benefit to Canada in the post-war years was an upsurge in British immigration. Bickham also points out though, the Canadian Press complained bitterly about what they viewed as Great Britain's magnanimity toward the Americans. Bickham comes down on the side of the United States as the victor in the conflict. While he notes that Americans at the time took the battle of New Orleans as some sort of final, climactic triumph, Bickham argues United States actually won, because the war did not truncate future American plans for westward expansion.

Roger M. Carpenter

University of Louisiana at Monroe
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Author:Carpenter, Roger M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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