Book: 1814 - The Year the United States Lost its Independence by Jonathan M. Nielsoncategories: Book, Historical Faction, American History, War of 1812, War and Diplomacy, British History, Madison Presidency, War Hawks, Historical Fiction
Jonathan M. Nielsonabout this book: Readers of historical fiction know there are two aspects to the genre. One, often highly entertaining and even exceedingly well crafted, is wholly imaginative and escapist by design. It might be a good yarn but the story is implausible in meeting the 'what might have been' test.
The second attempts a more complex interweaving of fact and fiction and aspires to a more serious, thoughtful purpose...to offer a substantive, instructive narrative that provides the reader with a bridge to the past and does so by creating a sense of realism, attention to antiquarian detail and historical moment, and to do so well enough to allow the reader to be in that earlier time and place when everything was in flux and possibilities rampant.
In 1814: The Year America Lost Its Independence, I have endeavored to write the latter, to bring the past to life or as historian Max Byrd as so wonderfully observed, to achieve "mimesis...imitation so complete and faithful to experience, so widely connected to the larger order of things...that imitation at its furthest point of accuracy passes over and becomes truth."...[where] "time is halted in its tracks and mortality suspended."
By interweaving the words and actions of participants as they happened with those that could well have happened to offer a history that might have been, I hope readers can indulge factual imagination enough to envision the potential for a different outcome in a familiar story.
Beyond that hope, I firmly believe that while history does not repeat itself except in broad strokes of correspondence conditioned by time, place and the unpredictable, it nevertheless instructs. Thus I find Alexis de Tocqueville's warning that "when the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness," especially relevant. For I believe that by shedding light on the range of historical possibility, we appreciate how fluid and changeable is the course of human affairs at the point of decision and action, when the moment is still unfolding, when everything is yet conceivable, and the present has not yet become the irrevocable past.
The lesson of history is not that in forgetting the past we are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana claimed in his famous aphorism. Rather, I believe it is that those unmindful of contingencies the past once offered limit themselves to unimaginative foreclosure of possibility in their own time.
Thus to the extent that readers may feel themselves standing on the smoke-shrouded fields of Bladensburg with Stricker's Maryland militia as the British advance; watch as Washington burns and the nation's capitol descends into chaos; see themselves in Castelreagh's study as the Duke of Wellington as he makes his fateful decision; walks the quarterdeck of a British First Rate in New York harbor with Admiral Codrington; marches with the 85th Foot onto Long Island from Jamaica Bay; scales the Highlands of the Hudson River with Picton's regiments as they battle for West Point; can feel the misgivings' of President James Madison over his decision for war; can agonize with Thomas Jefferson over the issue of slavery; burns with Federalist anger as they rail in dissent against an unjust and ruinous war...can smell and hear the sounds of battle and feel the passions of those on both sides of this conflict who believed they fought for principle and honor, I will have achieved in some small way what every historian and novelist aspires to do for his readers.
I've been asked by friends, students and colleagues …'why write this book?' It's a fair question. I believe I offer some insights in the proceeding comments. The lure of such fascinating speculation is the irresistible hook of 'what if' history. But this year we commemorate the 200th anniversary of those fateful events of 1814 when the nation's independence hung in the balance and a president despaired of preserving it.
Beyond historical interest, however, I believe there is a cautionary lesson to be drawn in the precipitous use of military power and committing the nation to 'wars of choice,' whether in the early 19th-century or the early 21st. In human experience, there is also ample confirmation that the politics of overheated patriotism, nationalism and extremism have led to unintended consequences, miscalculation and sometimes catastrophic outcomes.
The risks can be enormous, needlessly reckless and often, if not always, avoidable. The true test of statesmanship and diplomacy is precisely this…the avoidance of war and placing unnecessarily in jeopardy the nation's security and possibly its survival, when other deterrents are available, other choices possible to secure the nation's interests or protect its security.
In moments of sudden, unanticipated crisis, passion is the enemy of lucid, deliberative judgment and critical decision. Hubris is equally and often the enemy of objective, pragmatic, management of relations between nations, where responses to disagreements and even points of conflict of necessity must be proportional, measured, and flexible.
The War of 1812, in my view, offers precisely the cautionary lesson those who look for them can find in history. It is a lesson that transcends the specifics of time and place and offers the kind of instructive historical perspective that can inform the present, the manifest differences between then and now notwithstanding. The challenges facing Jefferson and Madison in their time, both domestic and foreign, though uniquely theirs in a world very different in many ways from the one we live in, speak to us from across two centuries in voices we ignore certainly to our jeopardy and perhaps to our peril.
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