The Weight of Vengeance by Troy Bickham

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The Weight of Vengeance : The United States, the British Empire, and The War of 1812 by Troy Bickham (Oxford University Press, 2017) is a scholarly look at the “forgotten war.” Throughout my life, I have known very little about the War of 1812, so I was eager to learn more about this war that occurred at an important crossroads for the United States of America. As I learned, the War of 1812 almost certainly helped propel the United States into a greater global prominence. Some of it was a result of circumstance, but in The Weight of Vengeance, Troy Bickham gives context to why the United States and Great Britain again came to blows, how it affected both countries, and what the end result was for both nations.

The United States before the war had been group of states that were united together in purpose. By the end of the War of 1812, they had become one country. In Bickham’s book, he gives a full chapter each to Britain’s reasons and then the United States’ reasons for the war, chapters for what the war looked like for each nation, chapters about the opposition for the war in each nation, and finally the end results for each nation. I loved seeing the reasons and progression of the war for each nation, because it put this era into better focus in terms of world events.

Starting a War

Just as with the American Revolutionary War, there is no reason the United States should have been successful at a war with a major world power. It was a very silly decision to continue a fight with Britain. The United States had a minimal standing army and a handful of naval vessels. The premise of the War of 1812 is that Britain was trying to tell the U.S. what to do, and the United States resented being treated as a subject of the Empire. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, in which Napoleon was attempting to conquer Europe with some actual success, the British Empire ceased trading with France and declared that all its trading partners likewise avoid trade with France. America intended to remain neutral and so continued its maritime trade, circumventing the British Empire as much as possible.

Further, two other matters of sovereignty were part of the rational for war with Britain. British sailors impressed American seamen into service for the Empire. This meant that if a British vessel intercepted an American one, it could take the seaman, declare them deserters from Britain’s armed forces, and enlist them in the British service. To be fair, many British men did desert by fleeing to America. Whether a sailor was British or American was certainly hard to ascertain since they didn’t have passports and papers to prove citizenship. Accents all would have been the same, and even those previously living in England could now be an American if they had emigrated to America. Despite this being named a cause for the war, probably less than 2,000 sailors had been subject to impressment.

Finally, within Canada, the British Empire had developed alliances with Native Americans and began dictating to the United States which lands in the west were to be set apart for Native settlements. America, with a vested interest in the nation, again did not want to be told what to do by its former oppressor. After war with Tecumseh, America worried about further violence if Britain aligned with the Native Americans. Although it would be a few more decades before the concept of “Manifest Destiny” was iterated by America, by 1812 it was certainly clear that many would be traveling past the Appalachian Mountains to settle in what would become Illinois, Iowa, and beyond.

A Nation at War

Thus, the War of 1812 was, for the United States, a war for vengeance on Britain for treating it like a colonial power instead of a sovereign nation. The United States was acting like a kid tired of being told what to do. They were not happy. From Britain’s perspective, the United States was perpetuating violence in Europe and American settlements, ostracising Natives, and as well as supporting the dictator Napoleon. It was not okay to let the American’s claims of “neutrality” continue in the world order.

While most Americans probably had no idea what the warmongers wanted, from the leadership’s perspective the war was necessary. The war was somewhat pointless in the end. The U.S. and Canadians battled in some places along the border. British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House. But after decades of fighting in Europe, Great Britain had no motivation to continue war in a distant land. The issues of the war (sovereign maritime rights, impressment, and United States expansion) faded into insignificance to both nations once Napoleon was defeated for good at Waterloo.

After the War: My Conclusions about the Book

In the end, no U.S. and British property changed hands. The treaty did not specify and changes to the issues that were the premise of the war. But, as Bickham points out, for the first times the States in America worked together, almost in unison, in purpose as they stood up for themselves and declared their rights to the world. Who won the war of 1812? From all the evidence, stories, politics, and explanation that Bickham gave, it seems to me that amazingly America came out ahead as it became recognized as a sovereign nation, even by its previous colonizers. Britain held its own and kept America in check, but the “forgotten war” provided a catalyst for a different world order.

Bickham’s book doesn’t go into the battles of the war or the feet on the ground fighting it, either for Britain or the Americans. But it does give context to the world-effects of the Napoleonic wars that I never understood, as well as context for America’s growing identity as a truly united nation, not just states. And it does so in a relatively short (300-page) and readable volume.

Reviewed on May 22, 2024

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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