Pulitzer Prize Winning Historian Explores War of 1812 in Public Forum at NU
June 15, 2012 by Michael J. Freedman
It’s not often that organizers of the Conference on New York State History have to take the schedule of a tightrope walker into consideration when planning their annual event. However, with daredevil Nik Wallenda set to draw an estimated 120,000 people to Niagara Falls on Friday night, the conference’s keynote address by Pulitzer Prize winning historian Alan Taylor, Ph.D., was moved to Thursday evening.
“Dr. Taylor will be making a number of appearances this year, but this is probably the only one where he had to worry about a tightrope act (stealing some of his thunder),” joked Sara Ogger, executive director of the New York Council for the Humanities, one of the conference’s co-sponsors. “We’d like to thank Nik Wallenda for letting us have Thursday!”
Rescheduling the lecture proved to be a sound move, as more than 200 history enthusiasts filled NU’s Castellani Art Museum to hear Dr. Taylor speak about the War of 1812 and fighting on the Niagara Frontier. Most of his presentation focused on the Battle of Queenston Heights, using it as a “prism from which to view the entire War of 1812.”
Dr. Taylor, a 1977 graduate of Colby College in Waterville, ME, earned his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He is currently a history professor at the University of California, Davis.
Dr. Taylor earned his Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for William Cooper’s Town: Power, Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995). Other works by the acclaimed historian include Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: the Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier 1760-1820 (University of North Carolina Press, 1990); America Colonies (Viking/Penguin, 2001); Writing Early American History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); and The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
In Dr. Taylor’s most recent work, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), Dr. Taylor tells of the struggles by similar but disparate peoples that would define national identities.
In an interview released by Knopf Doubleday, Dr. Taylor commented on why the War of 1812 is frequently overlooked in the American consciousness.
“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,” he said. “At best, Americans barely recall the war as a handful of patriotic symbols: for inspiring the national anthem, for the victories of a warship dubbed ‘Old Ironsides,’ for the British perfidy in burning the White House and the Capitol, and for the payback 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.”
For Niagara University, host of the lecture, this was a unique opportunity for American and Canadian residents of the Niagara Frontier to challenge conventional beliefs on a war that helped define the character of the place they call home.
“I hope that we can use this opportunity not only to learn more about this important time in our area’s history, but also to reflect on the 200 years of peace that the U.S. and Canada have enjoyed since,” commented Dr. Bonnie Rose, a dual citizen and Niagara University’s executive vice president.
The lecture by Dr. Taylor was a principal part of the June 14-16 Conference on New York State History, sponsored by the New York State Historical Association in collaboration with the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. The conference is additionally co-sponsored by the New York Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Niagara University.