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Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815, by Stephen Budiansky, Knopf, 2011, $35

Among America’s less glorious wars, 1812 was the most justified. Battling Napoléon Bonaparte for a decade, Britain had been seizing U.S. ships and impressing their crews into its navy. Unlike America’s bungled 1812 land campaign, its naval effort was led by competent, aggressive commanders who won spectacular victories.

Veteran historian Budiansky seems to have read every official record, diary, letter and contemporary newspaper. The result is an authoritative, richly entertaining political history of the early republic centered on the Navy and culminating in the war.

The founding fathers considered professional armed forces a threat to freedom, and by the end of George Washington’s administration America possessed a minus-cule Army, a few revenue cutters and no oceangoing warships. Matters improved in the mid-1790s in response to the seizure of American merchant vessels by Barbary pirates and the navy of revolutionary France, and by the end of John Adams’ administration the U.S. Navy could deploy half a dozen frigates. Progress came to a halt under Thomas Jefferson, who abolished all internal taxes and slashed the Navy’s budget. By 1805 America possessed a lone seaworthy frigate.

When the Napoleonic wars heated up, Britain announced a blockade of continental Europe and began seizing American ships trading with neutral countries, a violation of international law. This led to national outrage and indignant protests from the Jefferson administration but little change in its opposition to a strong Navy. When James Madison succeeded Jefferson he initially confined himself to fine-tuning the existing American trade embargo against Britain, but a growing conviction that diplomacy was hopeless—plus pressure from congressional “war hawks” who arrived after the 1810 election—ultimately convinced him that a credible Navy was key to America’s economic and political survival.

Budiansky delivers a lucid account of how that Navy developed and of the dynamics that shaped its size and composition. While the Royal Navy’s chronic shortage of sailors meant its ships were often undermanned or crewed by sullen conscripts, American warships were populated largely by trained seamen put out of work by Britain’s blockade of commercial shipping. American warships also tended to be sturdier, heavier and better armed, with better-trained gun crews. These factors helped produce several notable victories for the United States early in the naval war (Constitution over Guerriere, United States over Macedonia), which produced chagrin in Britain and acclaim across America.

However, in an effort to husband the nascent American fleet, Secretary of the Navy William Jones ordered his captains to concentrate on commerce raiding, an effective strategy that ultimately helped turned British popular opinion against the war. Commerce raiding works both ways, though, and by 1815 American trade had been crippled. Congress stubbornly refused to raise taxes, and the United States defaulted on its bonds, thereby admitting insolvency. Madison informed his peace negotiators they could drop free trade and the end of impressment from their demands, so the resulting peace treaty returned matters to the status quo ante.

Budiansky’s wit, knowledge and lively prose make this account of America’s occasionally stirring and modestly effectual battle with the Royal Navy a delight.

—Mike Oppenheim