When the guns at Yorktown went silent in 1781 and the war for American independence came to a stunning close, it was only the beginning; the American Revolution continued, to be fought among politicians and patriots in meeting houses and assemblies throughout the new nation. The loose confederation of states struggled to its feet as men who had defined themselves as rebels and generals adjusted to their new roles as legislators and executives. The very idea of America had to be defined and elaborated upon, both domestically and to the foreign powers who still viewed this unique entity as a fleeting curiosity.
Historian A.J. Langguth chronicles this exciting and uncertain period in Union 1812, a riveting account of the construction of American society, from the early deliberations which designed the U.S. Constitution to the War of 1812, whose fiery battles which proved that the country was a force to be reckoned with. Langguth’s approach to history is what makes Union 1812 such a pleasure to read. He strives to portray the events in a natural, organic way, following the advice of renowned 19th century biographer James Parton, “to be short where the interest is small, and long where the interest is great.” The result is a depiction of history that reads like a novel, helped along by a cast of colorful and complex characters who Langguth gives great depth with his research.
Union 1812 shows that the fate of the American Experiment was not decided at the end of the American Revolution; instead, the ambiguous confederacy needed to be sewn together by the Herculean efforts of men like James Madison, who gave the nation it’s backbone in the U.S. constitution, and the strength and determination of the early presidents. Even then, it took a second war with Britain to galvanize the people and truly forge the more perfect union familiar to modern readers.
While the book mainly focuses on the War of 1812, Langguth spends ample time on the formation of the Constitution. As he details the measures undertaken by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and their fellow Federalists who argued for a strong central government, it becomes apparent that this was the decisive moment in determining what the United States would become.
Still, almost as soon as the Constitution codified the legal and proper behavior of the government, presidents began to bend and break it to their will. John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts were in direct opposition to the First Amendment, and Jefferson’s unilateral purchase of the vast Louisiana territory drew from the document’s ambiguity in such matters. The founding fathers tested the limits of the Constitution’s stability. In cases like the Alien and Sedition Acts, a righteous and outraged opposition rolled back the transgression at the earliest opportunity. On the other hand, the Louisiana Purchase broadened executive power and set a valuable precedent for bold action. The common denominator between such actions was that there were always a vocal and visible opposition who made their case vigorously. Such conflict is what helped the democracy thrive.
One of the most amusing lessons to be learned from Union 1812 is that although American society may make great strides in certain respects, in the end, human nature is virtually immutable. The political campaigns of the time were marked with mudslinging and vicious partisan assaults. The press was cultivated and manipulated by shrewd politicians looking for an edge. Even Thomas Jefferson’s hands were dirtied in such activities; he provided a do-nothing job in the State Department to a man named Philip Morin Freneau in an effort to fund the man’s newspaper, the National Gazette, with the sole pursuit of haranguing the Republican Jefferson’s Federalist political enemies. Freneau’s criticisms of Hamilton and Adams weren’t erudite deconstructions of their political ideals. Instead, he took Hamilton to task for his “long nose,” and Adams for his “breadth of belly.”
The war also provoked a flurry of jingoistic bloviation that will not seem unfamiliar. On the proposed push to seize Canada from the British, proponents argued that the Canadian people were loath to support their British colonizers and would celebrate and assist the Americans. Secretary of War William Eustis went so far as to say the United States could take Canada without a significant military force. The media supported the escalation, printing the slogan that “He that is not for us must be considered against us,” and claiming that “there are but two parties, Citizen Soldiers and Enemies.”
When war does break out, Langguth does an excellent job of providing a well-balanced and comprehensive look at the action. He follows daring British leaders like Isaac Brock, who exploited the uncertainty of the American forces and became the scourge of U.S. soldiers fighting in Canada, while also giving attention to everyday infantrymen like George Glieg whose meticulous note taking provide one of the most compelling bottom-up accounts of the war. Andrew Jackson, who rose from a fierce fighter to ultimately occupy the White House, is rendered in all his stubborn, Spartan glory as Langguth shows how his harsh demeanor made him an excellent military leader and controversial president.
Union 1812 gives an exemplary account of the origins of the American national identity, when the diverse and disparate citizens of the nation finally began to think of themselves as one. It also highlights the lurking issue of slavery, and shows how the Founding Fathers desperately try to avoid dealing with it, all the while knowing that it’s a ticking time bomb waiting to tear their grand creation apart. The events of the War of 1812 had determined what the United States should be, but it would take another war, 50 years later to decide whether or not those lofty aspirations would truly come to pass.