The Naval War of 1812
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About the author
Theodore Roosevelt--the naturalist, writer, historian, soldier, and politician who became twenty-sixth president of the United States--was born in
New York City on October 27, 1858, into a distinguished family. He was the second of four children of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., a wealthy
philanthropist of Dutch descent, and the former Martha ('Mittie') Bulloch, an aristocratic Southern belle. An endlessly inquisitive young man, he
was especially interested in natural history, which became the focus of his first published works, Summer Birds of the Adirondacks (1877) and
Notes on Some of the Birds of Oyster Bay (1879). Upon graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard in 1880 Roosevelt briefly studied law. The
next year he was elected to the New York State Assembly on the Republican ticket and soon made a name for himself as a historian with The
Naval War of 1812 (1882).
Following the death of his wife, Alice, in childbirth in 1884, Roosevelt sought change and headed west to ranch lands he had acquired in the
Dakota Territory. The young outdoorsman chronicled his years in the Bad Lands in Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), the first volume in the
nature trilogy that eventually included Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail (1888) and The Wilderness Hunter (1893). After failing to win the New
York City mayoral election in 1886 as a self-styled 'Cowboy Candidate,' Roosevelt married childhood sweetheart Edith Kermit Carow and retired
for a time to Sagamore Hill, his estate at Oyster Bay, Long Island. He wrote Gouveneur Morris
statesman intended as a companion to the political memoir Life of Thomas Hart Benton (1887) and conceived the masterful four-volume history
The Winning of the West (1889-1896).
Roosevelt returned to public life in 1889. Appointed Civil Service Commissioner he spent the next six years in Washington energetically pushing
for reform of the government system, all the while propelling himself into the national spotlight. In 1895 he accepted a position as member, and
later president, of the Board of Police Commissioners of New York City. Known as 'a man you can't cajole, can't frighten, can't buy,' Roosevelt
continued to enjoy growing prestige nationwide, and within two years he was named assistant secretary of the navy under President William
McKinley. Resigning this office in May 1898 at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt helped organize and train the 'Rough
Riders,' a regiment of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry whose legendary exploits he recorded in The Rough Riders (1899). A popular hero upon
returning from Cuba, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in November 1898, and two years later he became vice president of the
United States in the second administration of William McKinley.
The assassination of President McKinley in September 1901 placed Roosevelt in the White House, and he was elected president in 1904. For the
remainder of the decade he embodied the boundless confidence of the nation as it entered the American Century. He promised a square deal for the
workingman, brought about trust-busting reforms aimed at regulating big business, and instituted modern-day environmental measures. The first
American leader to play an important role in world affairs, Roosevelt guided construction of the Panama Canal, advocated a 'big stick' policy to
enforce the Monroe Doctrine, and sought to keep the Open Door course in China. In 1906 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for resolving the
After leaving office in 1909 he took an almost yearlong hunting trip to Africa and described his adventures in African Game Trails (1910). In
1912 he made a bid for reelection on the progressive Bull Moose ticket but lost to Woodrow Wilson, who became a bitter enemy. Afterward he
completed Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography (1913) and Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914), an account of his explorations in South
America. With the outbreak of World War I, Roosevelt became an outspoken advocate of United States military preparedness in books such as
America and the World War (1915). His last work, The Great Adventure, appeared in 1918. Still entertaining the idea of running again for
office, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep at Sagamore Hill on January 6, 1919.
Published when Theodore Roosevelt was only twenty-three years old, The Naval War of 1812 was immediately hailed as a literary and scholarly triumph, and it is still considered the definitive book on the subject. It caused considerable controversy for its bold refutation of earlier accounts of the war, but its brilliant analysis and balanced tone left critics floundering, changed the course of U.S. military history by renewing interest in our obsolete forces, and set the young author and political hopeful on a path to greatness. Roosevelt's inimitable style and robust narrative make The Naval War of 1812 enthralling, illuminating, and utterly essential to every armchair historian. The books in the Modern Library War series have been chosen by series editor Caleb Carr according to the significance of their subject matter, their contribution to the field
of military history, and their literary merit.
Random House Publishing Group
; November 2000
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Title: The Naval War of 1812
Author: Theodore Roosevelt
Causes of the War of 1812 · Conflicting views of America and Britain as regards neutral rights · Those of the former power right · Impossibility of avoiding hostilities · Declaration of war · General features of the contest · Racial identity of the contestants · The treaty of peace nominally leaves the situation unchanged · But practically settles the dispute in our favor in respect to maritime rights · The British navy and its reputation prior to 1812 · Comparison with other European navies · British and American authorities consulted in the present work
The view professed by Great Britain in 1812 respecting the rights of belligerents and neutrals was diametrically opposite to that held by the United States. 'Between England and the United States of America,' writes a British author, 'a spirit of animosity, caused chiefly by the impressment of British seamen, or of seamen asserted to be such, from on board of American merchant vessels, had unhappily subsisted for a long time' prior to the war. 'It is, we believe,' he continues, 'an acknowledged maxim of public law, as well that no nation but the one he belongs to can release a subject from his natural allegiance, as that, provided the jurisdiction of another independent state be not infringed, every nation has a right to enforce the services of her subjects wherever they may be found. Nor has any neutral nation such a jurisdiction over her merchant vessels upon the high seas as to exclude a belligerent nation from the right of searching them for contraband of war or for the property or persons of her enemies. And if, in the exercise of that right, the belligerent should discover on board of the neutral vessel a subject who has withdrawn himself from his lawful allegiance, the neutral can have no fair ground for refusing to deliver him up; more especially if that subject is proved to be a deserter from the sea or land service of the former.'
Great Britain's doctrine was 'once a subject always a subject.' On the other hand, the United States maintained that any foreigner, after five years' residence within her territory, and after having complied with certain forms, became one of her citizens as completely as if he was native born. Great Britain contended that her war ships possessed the right of searching all neutral vessels for the property and persons of her foes. The United States, resisting this claim, asserted that 'free bottoms made free goods,' and that consequently her ships when on the high seas should not be molested on any pretext whatever. Finally, Great Britain's system of impressment, by which men could be forcibly seized and made to serve in her navy, no matter at what cost to themselves, was repugnant to every American idea.
Such wide differences in the views of the two nations produced endless difficulties. To escape the press-gang, or for other reasons, many British seamen took service under the American flag; and if they were demanded back, it is not likely that they or their American shipmates had much hesitation in swearing either that they were not British at all, or else that they had been naturalized as Americans. Equally probable is it that the American blockade-runners were guilty of a great deal of fraud and more or less thinly veiled perjury. But the wrongs done by the Americans were insignificant compared with those they received. Any innocent merchant vessel was liable to seizure at any moment; and when overhauled by a British cruiser short of men was sure to be stripped of most of her crew. The British officers were themselves the judges as to whether a seaman should be pronounced a native of America or of Britain, and there was no appeal from their judgment. If a captain lacked his full complement there was little doubt as to the view he would take of any man's nationality. The wrongs inflicted on our seafaring countrymen by their impressment into foreign ships formed the main cause of the war.
There were still other grievances which are thus presented by the British Admiral Cochrane. 'Our treatment of its (America's) citizens was scarcely in accordance with the national privileges to which the young Republic had become entitled. There were no doubt many individuals among the American people who, caring little for the Federal Government, considered it more profitable to break than to keep the laws of nations by aiding and supporting our enemy (France), and it was against such that the efforts of the squadron had chiefly been directed; but the way the object was carried out was scarcely less an infraction of those national laws which we were professedly enforcing. The practice of taking English (and American) seamen out of American ships without regard to the safety of navigating them when thus deprived of their hands has been already mentioned. To this may be added the detention of vessels against which nothing contrary to international neutrality could be established, whereby their cargoes became damaged compelling them, on suspicion only, to proceed to ports other than those to which they were destined; and generally treating them as though they were engaged in contraband trade. *--*--*-- American ships were not permitted to quit English ports without giving security for the discharge of their cargoes in some other British or neutral port.' On the same subject James writes: 'When, by the maritime supremacy of England, France could no longer trade for herself, America proffered her services, as a neutral, to trade for her; and American merchants and their agents, in the gains that flowed in, soon found a compensation for all the perjury and fraud necessary to cheat the former out of her belligerent rights. The high commercial importance of the United States thus obtained, coupled with a similarity of language and, to a superficial observer, a resemblance in person between the natives of America and Great Britain, has caused the former to be the chief, if not the only sufferers by the exercise of the right of search. Chiefly indebted for their growth and prosperity to emigration from Europe, the United States hold out every allurement to foreigners, particularly to British seamen, whom, by a process peculiarly their own, they can naturalize as quickly as a dollar can exchange masters and a blank form, ready signed and sworn to, can be filled up. It is the knowledge of this fact that makes British naval officers when searching for deserters from their service, so harsh in their scrutiny, and so sceptical of American oaths and asseverations.'
The last sentence of the foregoing from James is an euphemistic way of saying that whenever a British commander short of men came across an American vessel he impressed all of her crew that he wanted, whether they were citizens of the United States or not. It must be remembered, however, that the only reason why Great Britain did us more injury than any other power was because she was better able to do so. None of her acts were more offensive than Napoleon's Milan decree, by which it was declared that any neutral vessel which permitted itself to be searched by a British cruiser should be considered as British, and as the lawful prize of any French vessel. French frigates and privateers were very apt to snap up any American vessel they came across, and were only withheld at all by the memory of the sharp dressing they had received in the West Indies during the quasi-war of 1799-1800. What we undoubtedly ought to have done was to have adopted the measure actually proposed in Congress, and declared war on both France and England. As it was, we chose as a foe the one that had done, and could still do, us the greatest injury.
The principles for which the United States contended in 1812 are now universally accepted, and those so tenaciously maintained by Great Britain find no advocates in the civilized world. That England herself was afterward completely reconciled to our views was amply shown by her intense indignation when Commodore Wilkes, in the exercise of the right of search for the persons of the foes of his country, stopped the neutral British ship Trent; while the applause with which the act was greeted in America proves pretty clearly another fact, that we had warred for the right, not because it was the right, but because it agreed with our self-interest to do so. We were contending for 'Free Trade and Sailors' Rights': meaning by the former expression, freedom to trade wherever we chose without hindrance save from the power with whom we were trading; and by the latter, that a man who happened to be on the sea should have the same protection accorded to a man who remained on land. Nominally, neither of these questions was settled by, or even alluded to, in the treaty of peace; but the immense increase of reputation that the navy acquired during the war practically decided both points in our favor. Our sailors had gained too great a name for any one to molest them with impunity again.
Holding views on these maritime subjects so radically different from each other, the two nations could not but be continually dealing with causes of quarrel. Not only did British cruisers molest our merchant-men, but at length one of them, the 50-gun ship Leopard, attacked an American frigate, the Chesapeake, when the latter was so lumbered up that she could not return a shot, killed or disabled some twenty of her men and took away four others, one Briton and three Americans, who were claimed as deserters. For this act an apology was offered, but it failed to restore harmony between the two nations. Soon afterward another action was fought. The American frigate President, Commodore Rodgers, attacked the British sloop Little Belt, Captain Bingham, and exchanged one or two broadsides with her,--the frigate escaping scot-free while the sloop was nearly knocked to pieces. Mutual recriminations followed, each side insisting that the other was the assailant.
In the press
"A classic of naval history." --Edmund Morris
"An excellent book in every respect, and shows in so young an author the best promises for a good historian."
--The New York Times
From the Trade Paperback edition.