The Diplomacy of the War of 1812

The Diplomacy of the War of 1812

Bibliographic Details

Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. 1915

Book Review

The diplomatic events connected with the War of 1812 with Great Britain have been quite fully reviewed and discussed by a number of American writers, among whom may be mentioned Henry Adams, Admiral Mahan, McMaster, Schouler, Woodrow Wilson, Goldwin Smith, and Albert Bushnell Hart; but Professor Updyke is entitled to the credit of having produced the most complete and detailed narrative extant of these events, supported with a voluminous citation of official documents and authorities, which will prove invaluable to the students of this important portion of American history.

Introduction to The Diplomacy of the War of 1812

The two leading causes which brought on the war-impressment of seamen and neutral trade-are the subjects of the first two chapters. They are treated with a necessary length of detail, which will prove tedious to the general reader, but useful to the student. The chapter which relates to the American peace commissioners will be found more interesting, as it gives a sketch of the character and services of five of the most prominent of the statesmen of their day. An extract from the sketch of John Quincy Adams, the chairman of the American commision, will indicate the author's style of treatment: Adams's talents and education, no less than his remarkable experience, fitted him admirably for his position upon the peace commission.

Context of The Diplomacy of the War of 1812

His thorough knowledge of constitutional and international law; his conscientious devotion to high ideals; his indefatigable industry; and his ability as a writer of forceful English rendered him particularly fitted for his work. While possessing these excellent characteristics, Adams had others which were less commendable. He was easily provoked; rather ungracious in manner; lacking in sympathy with men of different character and training from himself; and utterly devoid of a sense of humor. These qualities, added to his cold intellectuality, isolated him from the fellowship of other men. * * * It was due to the characteristics which have been mentioned that during the period of the peace negotiations Adams rarely appeared upon friendly terms with the other commissioners (p. 171).

Thesis Statement

After a sketch of the others, the author concludes that “the only common tie that existed between the members of the commission was that of loyalty to their country. * * * Every member of the mission save Bayard was personally disliked by one or more of the others ” (p. 175). Their dissensions continued not only through the negotiations, but were revived by some of them years after their return to the United States. Russell, then a member of the Congress, attacked Adams, then Secretary of State, regarding events during the negotiations, and Clay came to the latter's defense (p. 379).

More about The Diplomacy of the War of 1812

But notwithstanding the personal defects of the American commissioners, the author accredits them as far superior to their British colleagues, whom he characterizes as “second rate men”; and quotes the historian Henry Adams as asserting that “probably the whole British public service, including Lords and Commons, could not at that day have produced four men competent to meet Gallatin, J. Q. Adams, Bayard, and Clay ” (p. 195). The review of the instructions given the American commissioners is given quite in detail. Among them is one not generally known, and which impresses us as quite surprising in view of the little success gained by our armies during the war.

Analysis of the Text

A confidential article by the Secretary of State, not found in the public instructions, called the attention of the commissioners to the present and prospective evils growing out of a British possession on our northern frontier, and instructed them to propose a cession of Canada to the United States. It does not appear, however, that any serious attempt was made during the negotiations in that direction. On the other hand, it is seen that the British commissioners strongly urged during the negotiations that a large section, amounting to more than 3,000,000 acres, now included in the State of Maine, be ceded to Canada, in order to secure in British territory a direct route between Halifax and Quebec.

Other Aspects

The author makes clear what is so often noticed in connection with the negotiations for peace, that the two irritating subjects of neutral trade and impressment, which had brought on the war, were passed over almost without discussion, and that the topics which caused the most consideration and violent debate in the conferences were those which had little or no influence in bringing on the conflict, among which were the territory of and trade with the Indians, the restitution of Louisiana, the rearrangement of the boundaries in accordance with the wishes of Canada, the exclusive military control by Great Britain of the Great Lakes, the recognition of the principle of uti possidetis or the status quo ante bellum, and the attempted exclusion of the Americans from the northeast fisheries.

More on this Book Review

Probably the chief occasion for criticism in the book is the author's treatment of the alleged cause for the declaration of war against Great Britain. He says: “Impressment, one of the principal causes for which war was declared,” (p. 60); and again: “Impressment, which was the principal cause of the war ” (p. 437). There is no doubt that impressment was one of the most irritating questions between the two governments, and that when, after war was declared, it was found that the British Orders in Council had been repealed, impressment became the question about which the war was continued.

More Aspects of the Book

But it is clear from an examination of the President's war message that the chief, if not the only, reason for the declaration of war was the supposed maintenance of the Orders in Council, and if it had been known that they were already repealed there would not have been a declaration of war. This is the general judgment of the historians who have treated of the subject. When a few years earlier a British Minister arrived in Washington and it was understood that he was authorized to give assurance that the Orders in Council would be removed, Henry Adams records this assurance as the harbinger of reconciliation with England and adds: “Not a voice was raised about impressment,” and he cites the report of the British Minister to his home government “that the Secretary of State was disposed to settle every other difference in the most amicable manner, provided his Majesty's Orders in Council are revoked.” And referring to the President's declaration of war, Adams asserts that “no one could explain the reasoning which led to a war with England, on the ground selected by Madison, without a simultaneous declaration against France.” Admiral Mahan's comment is that the government was precipitated “into a step for which, on the grounds taken, no justification existed,” and that it “had been dragged at the wheels of Napoleon's chariot.”


Woodrow Wilson states that “Mr. Jefferson had let impressment go almost without protest. It was now clearly an afterthought as a ground for war. * * * The cause of the war was taken away on the very eve of its outbreak.” 1 I Henry Adams, History of the United States, ed. 1889, vol. 6; Mahan's Sea Power in its Relation to the War of 1812, ed. 1905, pp. 270-8; Woodrow Wilson, History of the American People, ed. 1902, vol. 3, p. 214.

Last Remarks

No one can read Professor Updyke's book without being struck by the similarity of the controversy which brought on the War of 1812 with the present controversy in which the United States is engaged with the belligerent Powers of Europe over their interference with neutral trade. If we substitute the Kaiser for Napoleon, we have an almost exact parallel. The Berlin and Milan decrees, it was alleged, were occasioned by the violation by Great Britain of the principles of international law respecting neutral trade; and Napoleon is quoted as announcing that ” the provisions of the present decree shall be abrogated and null in fact, as soon as the English abide again by the principles of justice and honor ” (p. 86).

So also we have the Kaiser informing President Wilson that the relentless submarine warfare will cease when Great Britain ceases to -violate the laws of neutral trade in her effort to starve the women and children of Germany. The author justly remarks in the conclusion of his useful work, in referring to the agreement for mutual disarmament on the Great Lakes, that this “has undoubtedly been the greatest single factor in the continuance of peaceful relations between the United States and Great Britain during the last one hundred years” (p. 465), which he styles a happy sequel to the insistence by the British commissioners in the peace negotiations that the United States alone dismantle its forts and withdraw its vessels from the lakes.

Book Review Details

This legal book review was published in:

The American Journal of International Law,Vol. 9, No. 3 (Jul., 1915), pp. 762-765

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