1812, two centuries later

1812, two centuries later
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The War of 1812 officially began 200 years ago this Sunday, when, on July 17, 1812, the United States Senate narrowly voted 19 to 13 in favour of a declaration of war against the British Empire. It would plunge English North America into its second great period of conflict in 30 years, as British and U.S. forces once again spilled each other’s blood in an ultimately vain effort to secure total control of a divided continent.

The war’s anniversary has received relatively little attention in the United States and Britain, where the overwhelming perspective on the centuries-old conflict is one of detached indifference — even embarrassment. From the perspective of both powers, after all, the war accomplished almost nothing of practical relevance; the 1814 Treaty of Ghent that ended it, in fact quite explicitly promised a return to the “status quo ante bellum,” a sort of 19th century version of the reset button. Neither nation was defeated, conquered, or humbled, no land was exchanged, and no great tale of patriotic mythology could be pulled from its aftermath. For two nations now united in the strongest of alliances, 1812 is an awkward reminder of a their relationship’s rocky beginnings, and like most early couples’ squabbles, it’s one whose greatest value comes from being forgotten.

Canada, however, is another world entirely. Though there was nothing resembling a Canadian nation-state back in 1812, Canadians long ago learned to claim the 1812 War as their own, displacing Britain with themselves as America’s rival, and the status quo ante bellum with pure, unadulterated victory for the forces of Canadianism.

On the website his government has set up to commemorate the bicentennial, Prime Minister Harper describes the war as a “seminal event” in Canadian history that “helped define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.”

It’s a standard narrative based on the presumption that since Britain failed to lose any of her North American colonies in the 1812 War, and since those colonies would eventually form part of the territory that is now the sovereign state of Canada, the war was, ipso facto, the crucible of Canadian nationalism.

It really can’t be understated how vast the cult of 1812 is in 21st century Canada. There are 1812 stamps and 1812 coins. There are 1812 comic books and 1812 action figures. There are 1812 ballads and 1812 comedy folk songs. And of course, now there is a grand taxpayer-funded 1812 anniversary jamboree, spanning all provinces and providing some $28 million worth of merriment.

Though the surrounding atmosphere of such things is often joyous and upbeat — victory is a happy time, after all — there’s a dark and distasteful streak of particularly crass and chauvinistic anti-Americanism that’s never far behind. 1812 tchotchkes usually exist as much to demonize “Yankees” as to celebrate any positive result of the war’s end, and many Canadians are raised to understand the British torching of the White House in 1814 — an act which is almost invariably co-opted as something awesomely vindictive that “we” did in the war “we” won — as the most seminal event in the conflict. The war’s causes, justifications, battles, personalities, and legacies, are forgotten, or only remembered hazily. What matters is that United States lost, which is unto itself a good worth celebrating in a country already unduly fixated on American flaws and failure.

But early 19th century wars were rarely clean, simple things, and Canada’s one-sided fetishization of 1812 warps the history of a conflict that was vastly more nuanced than the simple “Americans invade, Canada saved” narrative spouted by the commemorative plate industry. And the reality does not always present Canada in the most flattering light.

Historian Alan Taylor recently authored a massive revisionist study of 1812, known as the Civil War of 1812, which, in the title alone, argues that the war was much more an internal conflict of a single people than a truly polarized battle between two clearly identifiable nationalities.

In 1812 Britain’s Canadian colonies were mostly inhabited by refugees of the American Revolution, for instance, many of whom had left the original 13 colonies simply to avoid the uncertainly of a post-revolutionary war zone, and not because they were the die-hard Tory monarchists Canadian lore often presupposes. The United States, for its part, contained a sizeable population of British-born citizenry, and, through the Federalist Party of George Washington and Jon Adams, an actively Anglophilic aristocracy who feared and conspired against the aggressive Francophilic Democratic-Republicanism of the Thomas Jefferson set.

In any case, in both societies, political authority was often distant and limited; the majority of the common folk simply lived lives indifferent to borders and governments, moving back and forth as opportunities unfolded, in the pursuit of work, land, and survival.

When U.S. invasion of the Canadian colonies did occur — the result of a sort of civil war within a civil war, as Federalists and Republicans feuded in Congress over the future of British-American relations — the result was, in Taylor’s words, “brother against brother in a borderland of mixed peoples.”

This reality was so evident and so distasteful both the British and American armed forces suffered from significant recruitment problems, resulting in a war fought disproportionately by foreigners — Irish immigrants on the American side, and British imports and Indians on the Brits’ — while savage tactics of looting, pillaging, and wanton arson did little to win any converts. Stories of loyalty among the commoners — such as the famed Canadian fable of Laura Secord — had to be exaggerated and propagandized precisely because they were so rare.

From Canada’s perspective, the conclusion of the war likewise served mostly to embolden the most reactionary element of British government in the North American colonies, who proceeded to clamp down even harder on the foreign scourge of “Yankee republicanism” — as in, democratic self-rule. Already governed by a political system even more elitist and undemocratic than that in the original 13 colonies, post-Ghent Canada was a cruel, paranoid police state that pursued several decades of political oppression at the expense of any sort of population growth or economic development. The Brits’ victory was, in the words of a recent sombre essay by Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail,the worst thing that ever happened to this country,” and left a long legacy of constitutional and industrial backwardness that Canada has only recently begun to escape.

The border of Manitoba and North Dakota is home to a sprawling, 2,339 acre park known as the International Peace Garden, the largest international peace park on earth. Founded in 1932, it was established to commemorate over a century of peaceful relations between the two neighbouring nations, an achievement very few countries could claim at the time, and even fewer can claim today.

The question is not whether the War of 1812 deserves official recognition 200 years later. It’s whether or not we have learned enough from its aftermath to appreciate the legacy that’s actually worth commemorating.


  1. dee

    Well, the war of 1812 isn't TOTALLY without patriotic mythology, at least on the American side – that whole tornado-wrecking-the-British-army-in-the-middle-of-the-occupation-of-Washington business has to count for SOMETHING.

  2. rmb1987

    60% is narrow?

    Also, how can you say that no great mythology was pulled from it? It produced the Star Spangled Banner Flag poem commemorating the successful defense of Fort McHenry which spawned the US national anthem! Unless you mean for Canada. Regardless, it was the most significant war Canada was in and one of the least significant for the US or Britain–of course no one cares there.

  3. OldsVistaCruiser

    Most-significant war? Canadians joined World War I in 1914, 3 years before the U.S. They also joined World War II in 1939, two full years before the U.S. joined that war at the end of 1941. They were a major force in both wars, and although both wars weren't won until the Yanks showed up in huge force, the Canadians were definitely a major asset to the Allies and fought hard in both wars.

  4. David Liao

    James Doohan was one of those heroic Canadians who was fighting on D-Day and in one of greatest tragedies for any Canadian, his middle finger was shot off. If you ever watch the old Star Trek or that one Next Generation episode, you'll notice Doohan hiding his right hand.

  5. Zulu

    I don't think most Americans are aware the Star Spangled Banner was written during the War of 1812…I nearly forgot about that myself!

  6. AddThreeAndFive

    I live in Maryland, where the battle the poem was written about took place, so it's a pretty big deal over here.

  7. OldsVistaCruiser

    Standard-issue Maryland passenger car licence/license plates now commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. A good photo of the new MD plate can be found here:

  8. Michael

    Actually, the Treaty of Ghent was not ratified at the time of the battle, so the war was still technically "in progress". I don't believe it was ratified by the Americans until February 1815.

    I actually work at a Canadian broadcaster, and have been a studio technician on about half a dozen interviews with 1812 historians (including Alan Taylor). The general consensus? There was a lot more gray area between Americans and Canadians, winners and losers, losses and gains than most people realize. All in all, a very ambiguous conflict with each nation being able to pull positives and negatives.

  9. Kwyjor

    The War of 1812 was barely mentioned at all in my Canadian History class some sixteen years ago, actually. We spent a lot more time on the Rebellions of 1837 and the buildup thereto.

    I might not have heard about the burning of the White House at all except for a visit to one of the forts in Bermuda, and of course the legendary song by Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie (no, not the Arrogant Worms).

  10. Matthew Naylor

    We've totally gotten different things out of The Civil War of 1812. It's true that the conflict was a contest in a hinterland of mixed peoples, but it also details how the war provoked a pro-Mixed-Constitution surge of opinion that led to the Late Loyalists being cast out of office by even their own ilk, and how Canadian identity was created by American brutality and shared hardship, especially after the sacking of York. It's that choice that people on the Canadian side of the border made that was indeed the crucible of Canadian ethnogenisis.

    The War of 1812 wasn't a fight between Canada and America. It was the fight that created Canada.

  11. TCGreen

    Why does everyone forget the Naval aspects of the war of 1812? This was the war that essentially put the American Nay on the map primarily through the victories US frigates scored against their 'superior' (by reputation and if not firepower) British Navy adversaries. This is the war where the USS Constitution got the 'Old Ironsides' nickname.

    At this point the Brits had swept every major power from the seas and had created for themselves the image of an invincible British navy. Americans naval forces were the first to score victories of any kind at sea against the British in decades and they did it in one on one frigate duels that the British were suppose to ALWAYS win.

    A good history of all of this is 'Six Frigates' by Ian W. Toll.

    But yeah you won't see that much made up about the war in the States, but then again we would never think of the war as the US vs Canada, we would see it entirely as the US vs British Empire. Then again I'm not sure any of us EVER think in terms of the US vs Canada in anything (Not even hockey. We just assume you'll win and get on with our lives). I guess the really sad part to all of this anti-Americanism in the Great White North is most Americans just don't care… which probably just ticks off the anti-American folks even more.

  12. Rabite

    TCGreen: And even if their teams don’t win our teams are mostly made of Canadians anyway, so why get worked up?

  13. David

    Most of the 1812 retrospectives I've seen are from the "other" side of the border, mainly on PBS (closest thing the US has to the CBC, which is the only Canadian broadcaster I've seen making hay about it)

    Oh, and don't forget Canadians embracing Laura Secord as one of their own (so much so they named a treat company after her – which is what we do to all our national treasures (see Tim Horton). I'm sure Terry Fox's House o' Bear Claws can't be too far off … ) Even the Complete Guide to Canada (of course, done by the same guy as this site) lists her as one of the Famous Canadians (her and Gen. Isaac Brock, another 1812-er)

  14. Jake_Ackers

    Politics. The War of 1812 was the First Forgotten War. Between the US Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Much like Korea was between WWII and Vietnam.

  15. JonasB

    Just to clarify, Tim Horton's was named BY the hockey player after himself. He owned it/founded it.

  16. Taylor

    J.J. : You have most beautifuly illustrated your favourite strawman. Well done. ;-)

  17. Guest

    Is there anything Canadian that you can show some pride in?

  18. Dan

    Surely there are uniquely Canadian things that don't involve being anti-American.

  19. Taylor

    There are, it's just that J.J. always interprets them as anti-American in some fashion.

  20. Mike

    It's most likely an internalized inferiority complex.

  21. Colin Minich

    It's been a mixed bag for me as an American. Some Canadians didn't bother mentioning and others did while in Boston (seeing how Boston has some big colonial/early 1800s history) as some sort of troll or snide attempt to one-up an American while in America. JJ might be a bit harsh in this but he's certainly not wrong in how Canadians have used this before as some halfhearted comeback.

  22. J.J. McCullough

    Come on, the 1812 War is explicitly an anti-American thing. When we talk about World War II, we usually talk about abstract things like "protecting freedom," and only the most vulgar and crass people say stuff like "or else we'd be speaking German today." With the War of 1812, however, pretty much all official commemorations quite openly state "it sure is great we won or else we'd be Americans today which we can all agree would be a fate worse than death itself."

  23. Taylor

    No, the statement isn't that it would be a fate worth than death itself (you're creating a strawman), it's that Canadians as a people/nation/country would not exist as it currently is.

    Would you get after the Irish for celebrating that they weren't integrated into Britain?

  24. virgil

    Oddly this is making me think about the change in the meaning of the words "liberal" and "conservative" over the years. At the time of 1812 America was undeniably more "liberal" and possibly quasi-Jacobin simply based upon its Republican form of government. Now (many) Canadians have prided themselves of being more "liberal" on some social issues.

    Of course this is explained in part by the fact that the old liberalism equated to individuality in its most rugged sense where the new liberalism is defined in terms of permissiveness in lifestyle choice. There is also the factor of the "great switch" that made liberals go from being anti-government libertarian types to FDR/Lloyd George types. My guess is that WWI is when perceptions began to change. My interest in this is the implication: is there then reason to doubt that conservatism and liberalism really represent a coherent evolving body of thought? Or does every generation relabel them?

  25. Yannick

    Conservativeness has always represented the side of institutions and the status quo – the churches, the nobility, the army, the political institution (be it the presidency or the monarchy). This is as true in the 19th century as it is now.

    In contrast, liberalism has always represented the side of change – the intellectuals, the secular, the atheists, the universities, the teachers. This is as true in the 19th century as it is now.

    In a time of oppressive economic regime where arbitrary laws prevented one from succeeding in the world if one was not nobly born, the merchant caste was on the side of liberalism. Now that the side for change wants to shackle the Merchant caste to prevent its excesses and provide a more meritocratic society (where one's money does not ensure academic success, for instance), then of course the merchant caste will be on the side of the status quo.

    The reason why the great shift happened around WW1, is that is when Communism really took off in the world. As demands for labour for economic and political changes increased, what one fought for on the side of change, well, changed. Liberals who formerly advocated for reducing government oversight in order to increase freedom started to increase regulations relating to wage, safety, etc… This had the effect of taking the wind out of the sails of the communist movement.

    Those opposed naturally became conservatives. Elemental really.

  26. Virgil

    Only partially satisfying, for this reason: once the switch happened lots of areas that were previously considered the most liberal (like the US) became considered the most conservative. Many of those who were previously considered conservative became Liberal. The labels changed though the people involved did not necessarily change their views. I am, for example, reminded of many of the conservatives in Europe…notably in Germany that supported a welfare state and were considered conservatives in 1870, but whose positions would become Liberal by 1910. Also, socialism for example is pretty static. Liberalism used to be static as well and represent a fixed body of beliefs centered on separation of economics and politics. It appears to me that Liberalism and Conservatism became more flexible when, for a variety of reasons, socialists were not able to call themselves that as such and so took the Liberal label. Those who had their label taken away from them became Libertarians in this neck of the woods, though they are still called Liberals on the European continent and in Australia. Ultimately, the differences between the Canadian and Australian Liberal parties illustrate the difficulty in merely identifying Liberalism as in favor of "change." Besides all this and not being a Marxist, we are always "changing" and none of it seems inevitable. To pursue change without more guidelines is to take away all meaning of the term.

  27. Jorge

    “(…)known as the International Peace Garden, the largest international peace park on earth.”

    I wonder how many noteworthy international peace parks are there so this one deserves such a pompous mention…

  28. ThePsudo

    Depends on what you mean by "noteworthy," I imagine.

  29. Kipeci

    I wouldn't say it left a status quo. While territory didn't change hands, the British Empire had been attempting to make a large sort of state of Native Americans to the west, which they would heavily arm as a counterweight to American expansion. The result of the war of 1812 was that the supplies to most of the pro-British Native Americans were cut off and they were mostly destroyed by Americans so that the British decided that the scheme was no longer possible and gave up on the idea; this presented significantly less in the way of obstacles for westward expansion for the USA… which was great for the USA, of course, but was, uh, pretty bad for the Native Americans. It may be that no one really won that war, but you could easily say that the Native Americans lost.

  30. Beppo

    I went to Niagara Falls with my girlfriend a couple of years ago. We had a fantastic time (Jet Boat!) and we learned two essential facts:

    1) “Your purchases help great things happen! Every dollar you spend with us helps preserve the nature and heritage of the Falls and the Niagara River Parkway. Niagara Parks has operated without tax dollars since 1885.” This mantra was slathered everywhere, from sugar packets to the sides of buses.

    2) Sir Isaac Brock KICKED YANKEE ASS during the War of 1812. Every tour guide brought it up. It was mentioned during the pre-recorded Jet Boat safety lecture. Every pamphlet mentioned it. It became a running joke for us.

  31. Colin Minich

    Heh…I do remember my time in Vermont several years ago and running into a nice group of Canadians my age. If anything this was more a joke that they "won" their part of the War of 1812 than any real fomenting of anti-Americanism. You'll really see this more in the extreme elements, in my opinion.

  32. Kadin

    Reading Margaret Atwood apparently means you hate America.

  33. @SideshowJon36

    Baltimore Harbor was pretty psyched about the bicentennial. Norfolk, VA briefly pretended to care

  34. Tweeg

    And interesting view from the walking contradiction that is JJ