Reviewed by Francis P. Sempa
Alexander James Dallas, An Exposition of the Causes and Character of the War. Edinburgh, Scotland: Dunedin Academic Press. ISBN-13: 978-1906716288 2011. 169pp., $54.00
Why did the United States declare war against Great Britain in 1812? In purely geopolitical terms, Napoleon’s France posed a greater long-term threat to U.S. security. Just five years before, Napoleon had concluded the Treaty of Tilsit with Tsar Alexander of Russia and was attempting to economically strangle the British by enforcement of the Continental System. By 1812, Napoleon had nearly achieved the effective political control of the power centers of Eurasia that Sir Halford Mackinder later considered the necessary and sufficient condition for a world empire.
What is more, it is arguable that the British navy–what Alfred Thayer Mahan called “those far distant, storm-beaten ships”– is all that stood between France and the possible invasion of the United States. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton in the late 1790s had warned in a series of newspaper articles that the French empire had “swelled to a gigantic size” and was threatening “to become the Tyrant both of Sea and Land.” It was the British navy, Hamilton argued, that “has repeatedly upheld the balance of power in opposition to the grasping ambition of France.” Fisher Ames in 1806 similarly warned that “a peace . . . that should humble England, and withdraw her navy from any further opposition to [France’s] aims, would give the civilized world a master.” Congressman John Randolph in an effort to dissuade his colleagues from voting for war in 1812, asked rhetorically, “Suppose France in possession of British naval power, what would be your condition? What could you expect if [the French] were the uncontrolled lords of the ocean?”
But emotion and “honor” trumped geopolitics in Washington in 1812. A woefully unprepared United States declared war against the British Empire, suffered humiliating defeats and destruction (including the burning of the White House and Capitol), and still emerged “victorious” at the end of the war. Near the end of that war, the American Treasury Secretary, Alexander James Dallas, wrote An Exposition of the Causes and Character of the War, a book-length justification for the decision to go to war. Dunedin Academic Press has published a new edition of Dallas’ book, with a useful introduction by H.G. Callaway which summarizes the life and work of this little remembered but significant early American statesman.
Dallas, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1759, participated in the crushing of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, served as Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the first reporter of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Acting Secretary of State, and Secretary of the Treasury in the Madison administration. He was an early and vocal critic of the Jay Treaty and a strong proponent of an independent federal judiciary.
Dallas wrote this book in response to the British Prince Regent’s accusation of U.S. aggression. Dallas’ book is best described as a lengthy legal brief in support of the U.S. decision to declare war. He examined in great detail British attacks on U.S. commerce; repeated British violations of the Jay Treaty; their “systematic scheme of maritime aggrandizement;” the unlawful British blockade of U.S. ports; British violation of American territory; and the impressment of U.S. citizens to work on British ships of war.
The United States, Dallas repeatedly noted, demonstrated “patient forbearance under the pressure of accumulating wrongs,” and “could no longer, with honor, permit its flag to be insulted, its citizens to be enslaved, and its property to be plundered, on the highway of nations.” He compared British tyranny on the sea to France’s tyranny on land.
Dallas also cited the manner in which the British waged war as further justification for the U.S. decision to go to war. The British, he noted, incited treason among the U.S. citizenry; formed alliances with “savages” (Indians); plundered private property; committed “outrages” against females; and burned U.S. towns. He termed British actions “repeated instances of . . . violence, pillage, and conflagration, in defiance of the laws of civilized hostilities.” Declaring war, Dallas claimed, was necessary to uphold the honor of the nation.
The book’s appendices contain the Treaty of Paris, the Jay Treaty, and the Treaty of Ghent, the latter which ended the War of 1812.
The United States “won” the war in large part because Britain was distracted by events on the Continent. The War of 1812 was always a sideshow to the much more significant (to Britain) Napoleonic Wars. This was not the first time, and would not be the last time, that the United States benefited from the rivalry among the European great powers.
[Editor’s Note: While this book is beautifully printed, annotated and proofed, there are older editions of the original book avaialble on line at lower prices. For example, readers can download a free scanned copy of the original rare book from one publisher’s website (GeneralBooksClub.com). You can also preview excerpts of the book there. The original publisher was Washington City: Printed by Roger Chew Weightman; Publication date: 1815.]
Francis P. Sempa is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University. He is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and has published articles in Strategic Review, Presidential Studies Quarterly, American Diplomacy, The National Interest, National Review, Human Rights Review, and The Washington Times.