Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why 1812

Authors for some reason frequently find themselves accosted by the merest acquaintances demanding that they justify their existence, or at the very least explain why they chose to write about the things they do.

I'm always tempted to answer, "because I need to pay the light bill," but remembering how Anthony Trollope ruined his reputation for years after his death by such candid admissions about the practicalities of writing for a living, I will attempt to be more high-minded.

Here's my brief essay on why a new book about the War of 1812 is not only exciting, swashbuckling, stirring, thrilling, and altogether unputdownable — but Important.

Although the official start of the Civil War sesquicentennial is still months away, the preparatory hoopla is already deafening: State tourism councils from Connecticut to Alabama actually began years ago hiring “Civil War event coordinators,” printing glitzy brochures, and developing “comprehensive strategic marketing plans” to assist in the separation of visitors from their dollars in the coming flood of anniversary celebrations. Major newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post have been at it for months with blogs, features, and even regular “live” tweets recounting what was happening 150 years previous at each moment. I have a vision of a veritable legion of Civil War reenactors already taking to their beds each night clad in their authentic Civil War flannel long johns, authentic Civil War muskets at the ready, in barely contained anticipation of the non-stop excitement of the next four years.
By contrast, the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812 has barely penetrated the public consciousness. To give you the full sense of just how little it has penetrated, I was half way through writing my book about that war before it even occurred to me that there was a notable anniversary coming.
Many wars have been called “the forgotten war.” The War of 1812 is more like the obliterated war. Or, the war chiefly remembered as the setup for one of Groucho Marx’s “Who was buried in Grant’s tomb?” joke questions. Or, to the slightly more erudite, the war best known for its major battle having been fought after it was over.
The war didn’t even have a name for decades afterwards. It was just “the late war,” until a later war—the Mexican War of 1846—usurped that title.
But the real historical coup de grace was administered by Henry Adams in his brilliant, often amusing, and mostly disdainful account of James Madison’s administration, published at the turn of the 20th century. Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, was one of the first true professional historians in America, perhaps the very first to depart from the credulous, flag-waving hagiography that had characterized American history writing up until then.
Adams drew on primary sources—letters, congressional debates, newspaper accounts—to paint a devastating picture of a feckless president, a Congress filled with rubes and demagogues, and a futile war filled with miscalculations on both sides that sputtered on for three years, left the young republic bankrupt, and terminated in a peace treaty that was a complete return to the status quo ante. (The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, did not even mention, much less resolve, the two great issues America had ostensibly declared war with Britain over: the rights of neutral maritime trade and the British practice of forcibly impressing American seamen into their naval service).
Nearly every historian since has followed Adams’s lead, portraying the War of 1812 as a pointless and utterly avoidable conflict that settled nothing, dismissing the popular catchphrase of the time—“a second war for independence”—as rhetorical desperation by Madison’s party out to salvage something from the fiasco, and divining the real motive beneath it all as crass partisan politics, crasser territorial lust for British Canada and Spanish Florida, or the genocidal enmity of American frontiersmen toward the Indians, Britain’s ally.
 But lately, I would venture to say, the War of 1812’s stock has been rising a bit. The historian Gordon S. Wood observes in his recent book Empire of Liberty that while “historians have had difficulty appreciating Madison’s achievement, many contemporaries certainly realized what he had done.”
Simply standing up to the mightiest naval power in the world, one that outnumbered America in men, guns, and ships 100 to 1, had been a stunning display of national fortitude. Much like the United States in Vietnam a century and a half later, Britain found herself baffled and chastened trying to respond to a far weaker adversary who had mastered the art of what we would today call “asymmetric warfare.”
America’s miniscule navy had fewer guns than Britain’s Royal Navy had ships. (“Our navy is so Lilliputian,” scoffed crusty old John Adams at the outbreak of the war, “that Gulliver might bury it in the deep by making water on it.”) Three early victories by American frigates in single ship actions, though of trivial strategic significance, profoundly shook British complacency and offered a perfect illustration of the huge psychological impact that occurs when a seemingly outclassed foe gets in even one lucky blow. “I like these little events,” commented the American secretary of the navy William Jones after another single-ship victory, by an American sloop of war. “They . . . produce an effect infinitely beyond their intrinsic importance.”
But it was Jones’s shrewdly calculated strategy to avoid as much as possible such gallant warship-on-warship actions, and instead hit Britain in the soft underbelly of its oceangoing commerce in a kind of seaborne guerilla warfare, that would truly be the key to fighting the mighty Royal Navy to a standstill. 
As Jones noted with satisfaction, a single tiny American raider could tie up a hugely disproportionate enemy force vainly chasing across the ocean in futile pursuit: “Five British frigates cannot counteract the depredations of one sloop of war.” 
It is deliciously satisfying even two hundred years later to read the increasingly irate chastisements from the British Admiralty to its North American commanding admiral, and his obsequious apologies and excuses, after the American frigate President led no fewer than 25 British warships on a wild goose chase across the entire Atlantic Ocean for months before slipping past the British blockade off Rhode Island and making it safely back home (and not before snapping up the British admiral’s personal schooner as a prize on the way in).
And it was pressure from Britain’s panic-stricken merchants to stop this depredation of their trade—American warships and privateers by the summer of 1814 were operating right in British home waters, taking and burning prizes—that finally brought Britain to the bargaining table in earnest. 
William Jones is a man still far too little known or remembered today. But if anyone is a hero in my story, it's Jones, a strikingly "modern" figure in many ways.
Whatever the actual written terms spelled out in the Treaty of Ghent, something was changed forever by the war. The European powers recognized that America was now a nation to be reckoned with, and Britain never again interfered with American trade or attempted to press American sailors. During the war, Augustus Foster, Britain’s former minister to Washington, had arrogantly sniffed that Americans “were not a people we should be proud to acknowledge as our relations.” But afterward, he summed up the consequences of the war in one simple phrase: “The Americans . . . have brought us to speak of them with respect.”
At home, that same sense of new respect was palpable, too, as the war forged a sense of national identity and purpose that had been notably lacking before. As Madison’s Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin observed, the people “are more American; they feel and act more as a nation.”
But it was Virginia’s John Taylor who perhaps best explained both why the War of 1812 is worth remembering and why it has so baffled historians ever since. It was, Taylor said, a “metaphysical war, a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport, but rather a war for honour, like that of the Greeks against Troy.” Even 200 years later that’s indeed something worth remembering, and honoring.

Stephen Budiansky's new book is Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815, published by Alfred A. Knopf.