Friday, January 20, 2012

Alan Taylor

Born and raised in Maine, Alan Taylor teaches American and Canadian history at the University of California, Davis. His books include The Divided Ground, Writing Early American History, American Colonies, and William Cooper’s Town, which won the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes for American history.

From a Q & A at his publisher's website about his latest book, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies:

Q: Why did you decide to use the phrase “civil war” in the title of your new book? Most people think of the War of 1812 as a fight between the United States and England, not as a civil conflict.

A: I came to see the War of 1812 as a civil war between kindred peoples, recently and incompletely divided by the revolution. To call the War of 1812 a “civil war,” now seems jarring because hindsight distorts our perspective on the past. We underestimate the fluid uncertainty of the post-revolutionary generation, when the new republic was so precarious and so embattled. We imagine that the revolution effected a clean break between Americans and Britons as distinct peoples. In fact, the republic and the empire competed for the allegiance of the peoples in North America: native, settler, and immigrant. On both sides, the people thought of the war as continuing the revolutionary struggle between Loyalists and rebels. And the war divided the British Empire as Irish refugees fought for the United States but faced trial for treason if captured."

Q: In your opinion, why has the War of 1812 become a relatively forgotten piece of U.S. history (aside from inspiring the “Star Spangled Banner”)?

A: The War of 1812 looms small in American memory: forgotten as insignificant because it apparently ended as a draw that changed no boundary and no policy. At best, Americans barely recall the war as a handful of patriotic symbols: for inspiring the national anthem; for the victories of the warship dubbed “Old Ironsides”; for the British perfidy in burning the White House and the Capitol; and for the pay-back taken by Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee riflemen at the Battle of New Orleans. This highly selective memory recasts the war as a defense of the United States against British attacks—and screens out the many defeats suffered by American invaders in Canada.

Q: Would it be fair to say that Canadian memory of the conflict is much sharper?

A: The war...[read on]
Read Taylor's list of five books about America at war in 1812.

--Marshal Zeringue