Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Perilous Fight in Baltimore (where else?)

Neither snow, nor rain, nor cold, nor dark of night shall keep an author from flogging his new book, so please join me in Baltimore Thursday evening at the Maryland Historical Society for a lecture/booksigning for Perilous Fight.

Here's a teaser of my talk:

Many historians over the years have tended to dismiss the War of 1812 as an inconsequential, avoidable and unnecessary conflict, the misstep of a hesitant and weak president that accomplished nothing.

The first professional historians who came on the scene in the late 19th century, beginning with the likes of Henry Adams, planted the even more disparaging idea that the war could not have really been about what Americans said it was about; it could not really have been a fight for American rights, much less a “second war of independence” from Britain, as James Madison's partisans claimed.

In fairness, Henry Adams and his fellow historians were in part reacting to the fact that American history up until then had been remarkably uncritical and unprofessional, full of flag-waving heroism and little objective reflection — but they and their followers since I think almost went to the other extreme, almost cynically dismissing the stated reasons statesmen gave for their actions as obviously nonsense and making it their job to discover and uncover the real motivations and explanations. And so they concluded that the War of 1812 was really all about crass party politics; or it was really all about  crass territorial lust for British Canada and Spanish Florida; or it was really about wiping out the Indians on the western frontier.

And for that matter I’m not sure Madison has yet recovered from Henry Adams’s treatment of him. Adams’s books on the Madison administration were and I should say are brilliant, often wickedly funny, based on a real scrutiny of primary sources – so unlike his unprofessional predecessors — but also, when it gets right down to it, a hatchet job of the first order.

But recently I’d hazard to say, the stock of the War of 1812 has been rising a bit, and I very much hope my book will help that process along in its own small way. As the historian Gordon Wood recently observed, even though historians have long been baffled by this war, Americans at the time understood perfectly well what Madison had accomplished, and celebrated it, and rightly so.

As John Taylor of Virginia, the philosopher of Jeffersonian Republicanism put it, this war was almost a metaphysical war; a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport, but for honor – like that of the Greeks against Troy. And I agree with that – it was a remarkable war in that way, in that it was fought over very basic principles of national honor. That doesn’t mean it was fought over airy vanity. National honor, as Madison realized, was something no country could survive without, either at home or abroad. Showing the world that we were prepared to fight for our rights had effects that went far beyond the de jure terms of the treaty that ended the war. For the fact was that Britain never again after the war attempted to press a single American seaman; none of the European powers ever again attempted to seriously interfere with neutral American trade. 

Before the war even many sympathetic Britons thought America’s democratic experiment was doomed to failure; democracy, they thought, was a fatal weakness that made both the government of America and its people and society unable ever to achieve the grandeur and greatness of an aristocratic society like Great Britain. But after the war those attitudes had profoundly changed. “The Americans,” said Augustus Foster, Britain’s former ambassador to Washington, “have taught us to speak of them with respect.” Those were words with huge meaning, especially in the early 19th century when notions of respect and honor, as intangible as they may seem to us today, had very tangible consequences.