Title Reviewed:
A Nation on Trial: America and The War of 1812

Author Reviewed:
Patrick C. T. White

Robert H. Ferrell


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 62, Issue 2, pp 163-164

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Nation on Trial: America and The War of 1812. By Patrick C. T. White. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1965. Pp. ix, 177. Notes, maps, suggested reading, index. Cloth, $4.95; paperbound, $1.95.)

American historical scholarship has, so it seems, exhausted the Revolution and its aftermath and has turned to the War of 1812, and the book under review is only one of perhaps a dozen volumes to appear in the past few years. Where it differs from the others is its attempt at synthesis—a short, general account of the causes of the war and the diplomacy of the peace. The author, Patrick C. T. White, cites to documents in the Public Record Office of Great Britain and to numerous writings of contemporary Americans, public and private. He contends that the Americans faced in the British Government an enemy that was almost implacable, that the British had decided that their European problems came first and that American interests had to work themselves out within the larger arrangements—such as the Orders in Council—for British national security. The author does not hold a brief for the diplomacy of Jefferson and Madison, which he remarks contained too much hope and not enough practicality. But he believes that the War of 1812 had a good result because it showed the British they could not step on the Americans, and that "the new freedom from the Old World provided the United States with an impetus for growth that might otherwise not have existed" (p. 167).

The above quotation, part of the book's penultimate sentence, points to one of the difficulties of this volume—for White has written the book as collateral reading for college undergraduates, and no undergraduate will go through this sort of prose with any feeling of interest not to mention enjoyment. For all its outdatedness Henry Adams is far more interesting, a much more likely source of collateral reading. None of the figures in this book comes to life: Madison, Jefferson, J. Q. Adams, Calhoun, Clay. One recalls the lament of Theodore Roosevelt before he gave his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1912, that he was going to tell the historians that history was literature and, he added, they were not going to believe it. After fifty-four years has that message still failed to get through?

The reviewer must make one other observation, in regard to sources. White has a curious method of citing only to Foreign Office documents or to collections of letters or documents or, if he cites a secondary work, it almost always is to that work as the source of a quotation. On two or three occasions he remarks the books of Adams, Burt, Horsman, Bradford Perkins, Pratt, et al., but does not use his footnotes to credit their findings. This is improper, for the notes should show White's sources; it is unbelievable that he ignored the secondary works or used them only as mines for quotations.

Indiana University Robert H. Ferrell

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.