Atlantic History War of 1812
by
Troy Bickham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0060

Introduction

The Anglo-America War of 1812 has traditionally been a much-neglected subject for American historical inquiry, leading to the commonly applied label “America’s forgotten war.” As for the British, the historian William Kingsford’s remark at the end of the 19th century that the war had not been forgotten, “for they have never known it there,” held true for the following century. Sandwiched between the American Revolution and the rise of Andrew Jackson in American history and overshadowed in British history by the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812 typically merited a quiet mention in larger studies. Canada is an important exception, as historians have long battled over the legitimacy of the national myth that the War of 1812 was a kind of Canadian war of independence from its larger, aggressive southern neighbor. Another exception are the American military and naval historians who have acutely detailed the operational history of the war and through it established the foundational myth of the modern US Navy and, to a lesser extent, the US Army. To this can be added several acute studies of US national politics, diplomatic histories, biographies of major actors, and Donald R. Hickey’s efforts to synthesize this material into a comprehensive study. The bicentennial of the conflict has fundamentally altered the course of scholarship on the War of 1812. No longer a forgotten war or the stomping ground of a small circle of historians, the War of 1812 has drawn the attention of a wide range of scholars hailing from a variety of nations and scholarly perspectives. Although the majority of the new scholarship consists of fresh operational and national political studies from a predominately US perspective, there are an increasing number of works that also examine the conflict from transcontinental, international, cultural, and social perspectives. In consequence, the experiences of American Indians, Britons, Canadians, African slaves, and women are all now part of the broader historical narrative, albeit one that remains incomplete and open to new contributions. Overwhelmingly, this scholarship asserts in concert the importance of the conflict for the various participating nations and communities both at the time and for their respective historical trajectories.

General Overviews

Modern scholarship of the War of 1812 began with Adams 1999 (originally published 1891), a multivolume study of the period at the end of the 19th century. As part of the old patrician family and true to the scholarship of his time, Adams focuses his study on the elite politics of the period. This set the tone for a century of scholarship in which general histories of the conflict leaned strongly in favor of a US perspective and primarily focused on the military and elite political aspects of the war. Hickey 1989 marked the highpoint of this interpretation and remains a standard work. Within this framework came a number of works, both academic and popular, most notably Borneman 2004, that portrayed the conflict as a founding element of the United States, in which the military exploits are secondary to the wider narrative that focuses on the consequences of near defeat and perceived victory in forming an American national identity. Throughout most of the 20th century, general surveys of American history largely ignored or underplayed the significant of the War of 1812. Wood 2009, a volume in the landmark Oxford History of the United States series, included substantial discussions of the conflict, its origins, and its consequences and formally marked the end of the War of 1812’s relegation to the footnotes of the broader narrative of American history. The bicentennial of the War of 1812 not surprisingly attracted a large number of revised and new accounts, including Stagg 2012, a brief but comprehensive narrative summary of the conflict from an American perspective. The bicentennial also attracted broader attention from a range of historians seeking to provide more balanced accounts by considering the transatlantic and broader North American perspectives as well as the social and cultural elements of the war. The results have included reinterpretations of the United States–Canada element of the conflict as a civil war (Taylor 2010) and a rehabilitation of the importance of the war from a transatlantic perspective (Bickham 2012).

  • Adams, Henry. The War of 1812. New York: Cooper Square, 1999.

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    Originally published in 1891 and available in multiple reprinted editions since then, this volume is part of Adams’s multivolume study of this period from the late-19th century. While somewhat dated in both approach and source selection, its attention to detail remains impressive, and it set the standard for scholarship on the subject for over a century.

  • Bickham, Troy. The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    A broad study of the conflict from a transatlantic perspective. Particularly useful for its balanced consideration of the US and British imperial strategic dimensions as well as its examination of the popular press in North America, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean.

  • Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War that Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

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    Well-written and accessible popular account of the conflict from a predominately US perspective.

  • Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

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    Available in multiple editions, this was the standard scholarly account for two decades. Strong focus on US political and military aspects of the conflict.

  • Stagg, J. C. A. The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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    Part of the Cambridge Essential Histories series, this is a comprehensive study of the conflict that judiciously summarizes Stagg’s considerable scholarship on the United States during this period.

  • Taylor, Alan. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

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    Well-written, balanced study of the political, social, and cultural aspects of the conflict that focuses particularly on the divisions along the United States–Canadian borderlands.

  • Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Part of the Oxford History of the United States series. A lengthy and comprehensive study of the early republican period in American history that includes several chapters that closely examine the War of 1812.

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