America’s Second War of Independence

proclamation of war by Pres. Madison from the Library of Congress website.
proclamation of war by Pres. Madison

The War of 1812 is sometimes called America’s Second war for independence. There are a few reasons why:

  • in this war, the now united states of America (formerly a federation, or mere confederation of colonial states, prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1787-89) asserted its rights as a nation on the global stage of early 19th century world politics
  • in this war, the United States of America consolidated territorial boundaries that clarified its own sovereign domain
  • in this war, the United States made clear to itself, internally, that it had an important, and independent, role to play in the larger stage of global nation-states.

This war is also important because of the way the bellicose posture of the nation toward the indigenous Americans was solidified for the next hundred years.

I learned (or re-learned) these truths after recently finishing the book: Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence by A.J. Langguth.

Another installment in my reading related to the revolutionary war period, this book helped to clarify some of the political lines of trajectory that began in the Seven Years War (concluded with the treaty of Paris in 1763) and earlier, as well as show how the transition from the revolutionary personalities of the late 18th century (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, for example) took place in the early 19th century world of emerging American politics.

Langguth’s book was helpful for three reasons.

First, it richly highlighted persons and personalities with vivid and ornate historical anecdotes which were meticulously researched.

Second, it featured the major events of the War of 1812 (and non-events, as the case may be) including the burning of the Madison White House by the British, the defeat of the British in New Orleans by Gen. Andrew Jackson (and the composition of the Star Spangled Banner by F. Scott Key).

Third, the books does a great job describing the internal political tensions created by a failed Jeffersonian foreign policy (including the near-secession of the New England states).

Where Langguth’s book fell short was in his adopted style of historical story-telling. While strong on specifics, quotes, and details, he was weak situating these details within an overarching metanarrative.

Believing, as I do, that there are no uninterpreted facts (no “brute facts” as it were), failing to supply a metanarrative is not evidence of good scholarship, but of a scholar who is in denial. Langguth, having supplied next to no story arc for the personalities he so richly describes, made it very difficult for a reader new to the story of the events surrounding the War of 1812 to locate the personalities he describes in the larger narrative.

For those readers who already come to his book with a well-formed metanarrative of this War, he didn’t adequately argue for what narrative he does hold to.

Having said that, at least Langguth doesn’t make the mistake of allowing his metanarrative to crowd out the raw research necessary to make an important contribution to the historical record of this War. So if he makes a mistake, at least he makes it in the right direction.

Here are a few other links that might be helpful for further research:

  1. reviews of Langguth’s book on Google
  2. an excellent overview of the War of 1812 from a WSJ article
  3. a book dedicated exclusively to source material from this War
  4. a little summary of the war from ushistory.org
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