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William M. James (1780 – 28 May 1827) was a British lawyer turned naval historian who wrote important naval histories of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815.


Although little is known of his early life, William James was trained in the law and began his career as an attorney. He practised before the Supreme Court of Jamaicamarker and served as a proctor in the Vice-Admiralty Court of Jamaica from 1801 to 1813. In 1812, when war broke out between Great Britain and the United States, James was in the United States. Detained by American authorities as a British national, he escaped to Halifax, Nova Scotiamarker in 1813.

This experience interested him in the War of 1812 and he began to write about it, particularly defending the reputation of the Royal Navy and pointing out the factual errors and excessive claims that American reports made against the Royal Navy. His initial literary efforts seems to have been letters written to the editor of the Naval Chronicle under the pen name 'Boxer'. In 1816, he published his first pamphlet, An inquiry into the merits of the principal naval actions between Great Britain and the United States. This pamphlet caused a controversy in the United States, leading to much American criticism of James' views.

James went on to write his six-volume Naval History of Great Britain, 1793 - 1827 in reaction to American accounts of the War of 1812. Similar in approach, this work was highly critical of the history that his contemporary Captain Edward Brenton had written on the subject and led to controversy between them that is reflected in successive editions of their works.

James's legal background would influence his approach to obtaining evidence. He attempted, therefore, and managed to board American warships and speak to their crews, in order to verify their characteristics at first hand. In this pursuit he claimed, for example, that the USS Constitutionmarker was not only a lot bigger, but also more heavily manned and armed than - contrary to previous American claims that the ships had been equal at the time of their engagement. More alleged erroneous American assertions were dealt with. Equally, James was not shy to criticise British officers as well, where he saw fit.

James died in South Lambeth, London, in 1827, but his works continued to be published. Captain Frederick Chamier expanded the work in 1837 to included the Burmese War and the Battle of Navarinomarker. The book remained a major reference work and was so often consulted that the Navy Records Society published an index to the history in 1895, which is now available on the Internet.


Theodore Roosevelt, as a young Harvard Universitymarker student in his senior year in 1876-77, began work on a response from the American perspective. Published in 1882 as The Naval War of 1812, the book took James to task for what Roosevelt felt were glaring mistakes and outright misrepresentations of fact based on malicious anti-American bias and shabby research, despite James's painstaking research and primary sources. In places, Roosevelt becomes almost mocking in his criticism of James. The book was an immediate sensation in the United States and is still considered a source book on the subject (no less than three books on the War of 1812 written in 2006 alone quoted from Roosevelt's response).

Scholars note, however, that Roosevelt's effort did not actually refer to James's two books on the War of 1812. Instead, Roosevelt referred to James's Naval History series, which holds only a shortened version. This avoidance of James's arguments and detailed evidence of 1817 and 1818 is seen by some as largely undermining Roosevelt's critique of James's work. Moreover, Roosevelt is also accused of ignoring the earlier American claims that provoked James in the first place: claims that might be best understood to be beneficial to American morale at the time.

James's primary conclusion, that no American vessel of equal force ever captured a British ship, essentially remains unchallenged.

Published Works

  • An Inquiry into the merits of the principal naval actions between Great Britain and the United States : comprising an account of all British and American ships of war captured and destroyed since 18 June 1812 (Halifax: Holland, 1816).

  • A full and correct account of the chief naval occurrences of the late war between Great Britain and the United States of America : preceded by a cursory examination of the American accounts of their naval actions fought previous to that period (London: T. Egerton, 1817); (London: Conway Maritime Press, 2002).

  • Warden refuted; being a defence of the British navy against the misrepresentations of a work ... entitled, “A statistical ... account of the United States of North America,” by D. B. Warden, ... in a letter to the author of that work (London, 1819).

  • The naval history of Great Britain from the declaration of war by France in February 1793 to the accession of George IV in January 1820 : with an account of the origin and progressive increase of the British Navy ... Five volumes (London Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1822-24); New edition in Six volumes ... and an account of the Burmese War and the battle of Navarino. (London: R. Bentley, 1837); (London: R. Bentley, 1847); (London: R. Bentley, 1859); (London: Richard Bentley, 1860); (London: Richard Bentley, 1886); (London: Macmillan, 1902); (London: Conway Maritime Press, 2002).

References and Sources

  • Andrew Lambert, introduction to 2002 and 2004 editions of James's works, as listed above.

  • Lambert, Andrew (2004), 'Introduction', in William James, Naval Occurrences of The War of 1812: A Full and Correct Account of the Naval War between Great Britain and the United States of America, 1812-1815 (London: Conway Maritime Press), pp. I-V


  1. Lambert (2004), p. I-II
  2. Lambert (2004), p. v
  3. Lambert (2004), p. II

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