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Book review: The Challenge: America, Britain and the War of 1812


Andrew Lambert. The Challenge: America, Britain and the War of 1812. London: Faber & Faber, 2012. xiv + 538 pp., illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. £20.00, cloth; ISBN 978-0-571-27319-5.

In order to place this volume historiographically in the works covering the War of 1812, it must be remembered that there has been until recently a paucity of British authors and publishers on this subject. Americans have, to a great extent, dominated the written word and while bias has been shown to lesser and greater extents, detailed and well balanced history has been lacking and has led to the currently accepted "American myth of 1812."

Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History at King's College, London, wrote the introductions to the six volumes of the Conway reprint of W.M. James The Naval History of Great Britain (London, 2002) in which he wrote that William James, the first, rather lonely, proponent of factual accuracy, despite being a "careful historian ... not afraid to utilize the evidence to ... censure other historians" had led "many to complain about a xenophobic Tory bias, particularly in the sections dealing with the United States" and perhaps hinted strongly that James' reputation should be reexamined in context. With this book Lambert goes far in putting a definitive end to the American myths.

The author's aim is explicit: to explain why two centuries of "literary battlefield" have led to victory for the Americans when by 1814 their country was insolvent, its capital destroyed, and the British had achieved their goal of preventing a successful invasion of Canada. He starts with an economic and political overview of the years leading up to 1812, setting the stage of European war where Napoleon's advance on Russia was seen by the American administration as a certain defeat for Britain; of American internal political division; and of Britain's political leaders having difficulty believing that the young United States could possibly choose war when the chances of success were so slight and outstanding disputes had been settled or looked like they might be.

Lambert is clear that he is developing a British perspective, yet his detailed reasoning of the causes leading to American political strategy is solid. He examines the election of Madison, the deep differences between Federalists and Republicans and finds reasons for their aspirations and errors. He examines the complex commercial ties and embargoes that resulted from the European war, the British, French and American trading patterns, convoy systems and privateering. He develops his narrative and analysis in a clear and unequivocal manner. His annotations are numerous and meticulous; while he acknowledges assistance from archives on both sides of the Atlantic, the majority of his references are to American sources; he is particularly grateful to Dudley and Crawford for their three volumes thus far of The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History.

Lambert's naval narrative is refreshingly concise and complete. Whether he discusses single ship actions (his account of the Shannon-Chesapeake engagement is masterful) or the complexities of command experienced by Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy's North America and West Indies station, the text flows towards inevitable outcomes. He is equally magnanimous of heroism and greatness of command for both protagonists, and equally blunt in his criticism of errors. He limits his theatre almost entirely to the Atlantic, with occasional mentions of the Great Lakes, USS Essex's exploits in the Pacific and American John Jacob Astor's trading with the Far East, and it is his treatment of the blockade of the United States' eastern seaboard that receives the most attention. He describes the slow build up of British fleet strength and the increasing pressure brought by amphibious actions to explain why, by 1814, the American treasury was in desperate trouble. This ineluctably leads to the status quo at Ghent, where the originally declared casus belli of impressment of seamen from American ships by the Royal Navy was forgotten.

Lambert concludes The Challenge with intriguing insight into the literature and art of the nascent United States in the post-1812 era, examining the reasons why naval defeat turned to lasting psychological victory.

The maps and diagrams are fully sufficient to support the text, and the book includes an eight-page colour insert as well as black and white portraits of ships and naval leaders. The index is in two parts, general and ship names, a bibliography is included and there is a somewhat cryptic appendix comparing size and armament of four frigates.

The only major criticism of the work concerns the proofreading; this book gives the impression of being rushed to press in time for the bicentennial. While a surfeit of commas after the word "and" is annoying, it is outrageous that Governor General Prevost appears from the start of the book, and in the index, as Henry Prevost – it is not until page 381 that he is rightfully reborn as George.

The Challenge is a necessary addition to the libraries of all serious students of the War of 1812. Perhaps a little too detailed, too academic, for the mass market, this book will please historians for its depth and remain a major addition to the historiography of 1812.

Paul Adamthwaite
Picton, ON.

This review was first published in The Northern Mariner / le marin du nord, vol. XXII, no. 2, 2012.

Lambert Challenge


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