As a result of my research in the British Library I can now demonstrate there was a level of debate within the British radical community during the 1812 Anglo-American War that has been previously entirely overlooked by historians, says Peter O’Connor, recipient of the 2015 Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellowship.
In June 2015 I completed a five day research trip to the British Library after being awarded an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellowship. The primary purpose of my visit was to build on the insights offered by my PhD which examined the British understanding of American Sectionalism between 1832 and 1863 (completed at Northumbria University in 2014) with a view to developing a new project analysing British popular opinion of the 1812 Anglo-American War.
My PhD research demonstrated a level of complexity within the Anglo-American relationship which has often been ignored. As part of the background reading for my project I became increasingly aware of a considerable black-hole when it came to scholarly analysis of the connection between the two nations during the 1812 war. Studies of the Revolutionary War are relatively common, as is work on the period after the 1830s, yet little exists (beyond military and diplomatic history) examining this crucial era of active military conflict between Britain and the US. I therefore decided to undertake an analysis of British public debate over the meaning of the war and to attempt to understand how popular discourse may have affected political policy.
I had already undertaken preliminary work on a number of major newspapers and the published output of writers of the era prior to my British Library visit. As a result I already had a firm grasp of mainstream British views regarding the war. The purpose of my British Library trip was to consult a number of radical political publications to understand how a community which was usually very sympathetic to the US interpreted the conflict. I spent the majority of my time examining Drakard’s Paper, The Champion, Independent Whig and the Public Cause. Studying the content of these publications for the duration of the war has demonstrated a level of debate within the radical community previously entirely overlooked by historians. Relatively abstract discussions about the relationship between democracy, monarchy and warfare run alongside more specific disputes relating to the implications of stop and search, trade policy and the status of Canada. These debates then feed into different concepts of liberty and the ways in which Britain or the US embodied the socio-political system which particular radicals saw as desirable.
As a result of my research in the British Library I am now in a position to take my project forward having established the fractures which the 1812 war created even among those who were most sympathetic to the US in Britain. I intend to continue to work with newspapers from the period but will be extending my research in the political sphere to consider the views of cabinet members such as Lord Liverpool and Lord Eldon alongside radicals like Sir Frances Burdett and William Cobbett. I also wish to examine the correspondence these figures had with their American colleagues to begin to establish how popular opinion influenced diplomatic discussion.
Peter O’Connor completed his PhD at Northumbria University in 2014 with a thesis entitled ‘”The Inextinguishable Struggle Between North and South”: American Sectionalism in the British Mind, 1832-1863.’ He has published work on the British legacy of Thomas Jefferson and the Presidency of John Quincy Adams and is currently working on a new project examining British responses to the 1812 Anglo-American War.