If you read British history magazines, you’ve probably read Andrew Lambert. He’s an academic who writes in a style that flows so well, you don’t notice the footnotes.
This is in contrast to the man who Lambert claims is the founder of modern naval history, William James. James, according to Lambert, didn’t just write stories, he examined sources. James’ writing is exhausting because its filled with numbers and data (what James’ detractors might call “lies, more lies and statistics.”)
William James had a special motive for writing his polemical “History of the British navy.” James was a prize lawyer for the admiralty courts. His job was to make sure that British captains received as much money as they could when they captured enemy (i.e. American) ships. James was captured by the Americans and was made a prisoner of war. It would be close to impossible for James to be neutral concerning the War of 1812.
As a Lawyer, James tends to use sources to prove a point. He doesn’t give the full account, but he gives his account. And from his background, James had an informed insider’s point of view.
While James is painful to read when he’s throwing up data, many modern historians rely on him when they tell us about the Naval War of 1812.
A navy embarrassed
So, why did James publish his point of view at all?
Well, many Brits, and Europeans especially, were celebrating America’s underdog victory in the War of 1812. Captured British ships, or their replicas, were being paraded by the American Navy in the Mediterranean to ward off Barbary privateers. These ships also helped deter those who would extort America and its allies for Tribute money.
To James, these ship displays made a mockery of the British navy. He set out to defend his clients.
William James makes many interesting claims, but he also unfairly criticises a few British naval captains. According to Lambert’s introduction, James’ harsh tongue even drove one officer to suicide. So I was shocked to hear Lambert more-or-less repeat James’ diatribe on a BBC’s History Extra.
To be fair, Andrew Lambert does not rely entirely on William James for his controversial remarks on the war of 1812. He mentions American school textbooks, and American historians (although I am not sure which ones he is referring to, as he mentions the Orders in Council. When I was in school, we learned about Impressment and Tecumseh, not the Orders in Council.)
Another point Lambert brings up, which other British historians (and Canadians, and even a few ignorant Americans) also like to cite is the history of America after the war of 1812. I never really thought that what happened after an event would be used as evidence for what caused it, but let’s examine them anyway.
1) America was supposedly expansionist, because a generation later the US invaded Mexico. Will you judge one generation by the actions of another?
This “fact” is usually used by the same people who discount other more relevant facts. They will deny that the Chesapeake-Leonard affair (where a British ship attacked an American ship unprovoked) was a “cause” because five years had gone by between the attack and the declaration of war. Well, what’s longer, five years or twenty?
While Jackson invaded Florida not long after the war of 1812, this action seems to be more caused by the war of 1812 than a cause of it. After the United States created a more or less standing army to fight the war of 1812, it was more likely to fight with it.
And as far as the allegation that the United States wanted Latin America to expand slavery, I’ve never seen anyone provide a shred of evidence for this. One of the biggest proponents for war was Henry Clay, who was an abolitionist. One of the greatest opponents was Virginian Congressman William Randolph. (And no, Randolph was not a Federalist.)
2) America was supposedly doing this to fight Napoleon. Well before war broke out, British and Australian newspapers echoed the views stated by the British House of Commons that America was considering going to war with either France or Britain, they just hadn’t decided who to fight yet. So, neither British newspapers nor the British government of the day saw America as an ally of Napoleon. Only after war broke out did propagandists start making this artificial link.
3) Supposedly the Federalists were pro-English merchants and the Republicans were pro-French slave holders. Well, that’s a pretty false generalisation.
If slavery were the issue, why didn’t the US invade land where cotton could be grown? Why did slave-owner Randolph call Canada “frozen worthless wilds”? The fact is, Canada was the source of timber used by the British navy. It was also the source of the arms coming to the Indians who were attacking American forts.
While some Northern politicians objected to the war, to the point of threatening to leave the union, I haven’t found any evidence that slavery was an issue. Remember, both the United States and Britain ended the slave trade in 1807, and it wasn’t until 1833 (nearly two decades after the war) that the United Kingdom abolished slavery.
4) Supposedly the war was fought in order to steal lands from the Indians. Well, I have no doubt that some Americans at the time had a hatred of Indians, as Indians were depicted as terrorists in most American literature (the word “terrorist” didn’t exist in normal conversation then, people said savages or barbarians.)
However, as much as the Indians were hated and feared by a segment of the American population, a few tribes were American allies in the War of 1812. And if we do take the actions of later generations into consideration, we see that Canada had its own wars against its Indian population. (Canada now calls these peoples “first nations.”)
Of all the claims made by Lambert, the fourth one is the most plausible. We can look back here, to the French Indian wars, to see American generals (under British command) fighting against Indians who were allied with France.
However, the United States did not have to declare war on Britain to fight against the Indians. In fact, the United States was involved with skirmishes against its Indian neighbour long before the war broke out.
While Lambert is interesting to listen to, his story doesn’t seem to be a very reliable source of history.