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

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

Synopsis

In early 1815, Secretary of State James Monroe reviewed the treaty with Britain that would end the War of 1812. The United States Navy was blockaded in port; much of the army had not been paid for nearly a year; the capital had been burned. The treaty offered an unexpected escape from disaster. Yet it incensed Monroe, for the name of Great Britain and its negotiators consistently appeared before those of the United States. "The United States have acquired a certain rank amongst nations, which is due to their population and political importance," he brazenly scolded the British diplomat who conveyed the treaty, "and they do not stand in the same situation as at former periods."

Monroe had a point, writes Troy Bickham. In The Weight of Vengeance, Bickham provides a provocative new account of America's forgotten war, underscoring its significance for both sides by placing it in global context. The Napoleonic Wars profoundly disrupted the global order, from India to Haiti to New Orleans. Spain's power slipped, allowing the United States to target the Floridas; the Haitian slave revolt contributed to the Louisiana Purchase; fears that Britain would ally with Tecumseh and disrupt the American northwest led to a pre-emptive strike on his people in 1811. This shifting balance of power provided the United States with the opportunity to challenge Britain's dominance of the Atlantic world. And it was an important conflict for Britain as well. Powerful elements in the British Empire so feared the rise of its former colonies that the British government sought to use the War of 1812 to curtail America's increasing maritime power and its aggressive territorial expansion. And by late 1814, Britain had more men under arms in North America than it had in the Peninsular War against Napoleon, with the war with America costing about as much as its huge subsidies to European allies.

Troy Bickham has given us an authoritative, lucidly written global account that transforms our understanding of this pivotal war.

Excerpt

In March 1815, Anthony St. John Baker was tidying up some final business related to the treaty that brought to a close the second and final war between Britain and its former American colonies. Having been negotiated in Europe in the town of Ghent, the treaty was ratified first by Britain and then carried to the United States by this veteran British diplomat. Congress quickly approved the treaty, but James Monroe, the secretary of state and future president, castigated Baker on multiple occasions for the order in which the countries’ names and the signatures appeared on the treaty and related documents: Britain before the United States. Although Baker pleaded that no insult had been intended, Monroe remained unsatisfied. Before joining President James Madison and Congress for the annual spring exodus from the American capital, Monroe proceeded to give Baker a final stern lecture on the subject, knowing it would be conveyed verbatim to America’s former colonial masters. Ignoring the fact that the United States had barely escaped a disastrous war with the world’s foremost military power, Monroe declared that “[t]he United States have acquired a certain rank amongst nations, which is due to their population and political importance, and they do not stand in the same situation as at former periods.” Baker warned his superiors in London that Monroe was insistent: in the future, the order of the countries and the signatures must be alternated. the United States, Monroe made clear, would be the subordinate of no nation, whether in practice or in form.

Monroe’s comments demonstrated once again that what the American government lacked in bite it more than made up for in bark. Britain had tens of thousands of troops in Canada and more massing in Britain, naval supremacy in the Atlantic, and a strangling blockade of the entire American Atlantic coastline. the British government also had earlier informed the governor of Massachusetts that, if the United States rejected the treaty, Britain would agree to his request for armed support of a New England secession. Meanwhile, the United States had defaulted on its debt payments the previous November, its navy was bottled up in port, and it had not paid its army for nearly a year. Yet Monroe was not . . .

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