Reviewed by Andrew Heath, University of Sheffield.
This year’s bicentennial has led to a surge of interest in the Second War of Independence. Despite the War of 1812’s role in forging American identity, though, the most influential recent account by Alan Taylor casts the struggle not simply as a battle between monarchist Britain and republican United States, but as a civil war among Americans – whites, natives, and slaves – themselves. There are few signs of this interpretation, however, in H. G. Callaway’s welcome annotated edition of Alexander James Dallas’s 1815 tract An Exposition of the Causes and Character of the War. Callaway instead follows Dallas’s line that the conflict pitted an upstart republic eager to uphold new standards of international law against a tyrannical monarchical power which retained imperial designs on the North American continent.
Callaway’s 25 page introduction provides a helpful biographical sketch of Dallas, a renowned attorney and Secretary of the Treasury in Madison’s wartime administration. Dallas, who wrote the tract in late 1814 while peace negotiations were underway at Ghent, was born in Jamaica to a Scottish father and a mother of Irish descent, spent time in London and Edinburgh in his youth, and arrived in the U.S. via the Caribbean at the end of the Revolutionary war. Callaway portrays him as the archetypal Philadelphia lawyer, possessing a keen eye for detail and a republican reverence for the rule of law. Like so many in his vocation in the Early Republic, though, Dallas participated eagerly in political battles, and helped organize the Jeffersonian Republican Party to oppose Pennsylvania’s Federalists. The author situates him ably in the turbulent politics of the time, with the aristocratic Dallas defending the radical journalist William Duane from prosecution under the notorious Alien and Sedition acts, yet resisting egalitarian calls for purging the bench of Federalists and abandoning the common law. His refusal to support the demands of the more ardent democrats in his party made him plenty of enemies, and when Madison recommended him to the Senate in 1813 as Secretary of the Treasury, his nomination was not universally welcomed. Nonetheless, Dallas’s professional standing and the dire straits the republic found itself in – British forces torched Washington that summer – ensured his confirmation. In the role, he helped to sustain the war effort, and worked to put in place a program of economic nationalism which included tariffs, internal improvements, and the Second National Bank.
Dallas therefore combined elements of the gentleman Democrat and the Clay Whig, and Callaway implies his tenure in office was a portent of the Era of Good Feelings which commenced with the peace. But when he wrote his [*401] Exposition the war was still raging, and his principal purpose seems to have been to build support for financing the conflict by showing the justice of the American cause. By the time it was ready for publication, however, news of the Treaty of Ghent had reached America, and Madison, wary of reigniting hostilities, now counseled against publication. The tract nevertheless soon leaked out – albeit anonymously and without any endorsement from the administration – and several editions were published in the U.S., Britain, and France.
At least one of the American editions of the Exposition is available for free on various digital archives, but Callaway’s introduction and instructive footnotes make this annotated version, based on a Washington text from 1815, a valuable resource for those with an interest in the foreign and domestic policy of the Early National era. Instructors will also welcome the appendices with text of the Jay Treaty and treaties of Paris and Ghent, a short chronology of Dallas’s life, and a bibliography. As Callaway points out, the focus of Dallas’s ire was on the rule of 1756, a British stipulation that neutral nations could not trade with a belligerent power. In an earlier pamphlet, Madison had tried to show this law had no basis in precedent, and Dallas took up his friend’s case, while also attacking the impressment of American sailors, which rested on the British claim that nationality was perpetual.
Callaway shows how Dallas brought his courtroom skill to the realm of international relations, and the Exposition’s frequent recourse to legal arguments supports his case that the text marked an extension of republican principles of the rule of the law to diplomacy. If in part this rested on an appeal to precedent, it also depended on moral claim about “the laws of humanity and honor” (p.93) which Britain had violated through brutal attacks on civilians. A large section of the Exposition, indeed, is devoted to condemning the British for using supposedly savage Native Americans and slaves against the Americans, but Callaway’s attempt to explain this away in the introduction presents problems. Determined to show the righteousness of Dallas’s case, he is forced to address his subject’s racism, yet in doing so tends to ignore the extent to which American republicanism in the Early National era rested on the subjugation of colonized and enslaved people. Callaway clearly sympathizes with slaves and Native Americans, but he follows Dallas in portraying both groups as dupes of British rule. The latter’s interest, though Callaway acknowledges it was not “genuinely appealing,” seems to have been best served by following “the course of Independence,” with the capitalization leaving the reader in no doubt that this was defined by the U.S., rather than by indigenous people themselves. Despite much recent work on the contingency of “manifest destiny” and the shrewd diplomacy of Native Americans, Callaway claims “[n]o one could have stopped the European and American settlement across the temperate middle of North America,” and “no one could stop the inroads of the settlers and their destruction of the Indian hunting grounds and way of life.” (p.20). The apparent impotence of the Federal government in arresting westward expansion here stands in stark contrast to Callaway’s portrayal of [*402] American pluck in taking on a Goliath-like imperial power.
Indeed Callaway’s treatment of U.S. empire-building in the West – often cited as a major cause of the War of 1812 – differs strongly in tone to his critique of British imperial policy. Reginald Horsman argued some years ago that interfering with neutral shipping was vital to the British in their struggle with Napoleon, but Callaway once more follows Dallas in seeing “arrogance” and even, he insinuates, “class warfare” as motives. Impressment, then, was not only a criminal consequence of the desperate manpower situation in the Royal Navy, but an extension of “the ancient conception of subservience to aristocracy” (p.18). Taylor’s recent study emphasizes just how much the conflict divided the U.S., but while Callaway’s discussion of the place of the pamphlet in partisan disputes is often excellent, the introduction sometimes implies the nation united as one against the old foe. Meanwhile, where British imperialism inevitably had to give way to the “vigor and vitality of the young republic,” (p.14) American empire-building in the West was not worth resisting. Callaway reminds us that Dallas’s son, George Mifflin, held the office of vice president during the Mexican War, but does not highlight the irony that the offspring of such an eloquent opponent of British aggression served in an administration that provoked a conflict with another New World republic: a struggle that would open the possibility of extending slavery over a territory from which it had been excluded for two decades. Presumably Callaway would see this as a corruption of Madison’s vision of a peaceful law of nations, but the Jeffersonians themselves abetted the extension of slavery through territorial expansion the War of 1812 helped to secure.
Callaway may be better at contextualizing Dallas’s view of the war than he is at critiquing it, but this is nevertheless a valuable addition to the recent literature on the conflict, and the editor should be commended for producing a well-annotated edition of a key text which will be of interest to legal historians. The text is an important source for making sense of the partisan and diplomatic struggles of the period, and is significantly enriched by Callaway’s additions.
Taylor, Alan. 2010. The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies. New York: Knopf.
Copyright 2012 by the Author, Andrew Heath.