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Canada Wins! And other Forgotten Facts about the War of 1812

by Dear Jon
January 13, 2009


Dear Jon,

Who started the war of 1812? I got so confused that it seemed I was watching an episode of Friends. That war was without a doubt very absurd like some of the fights between my friends. (They're always best friends again the next day.)

Dear Nameless,

What confused you? Was it some episode on the History Channel? Was it some Canadian, with one too many LaBatt's in his system, starting to trash-talk? Or was it my last New Year's Predictions article from December 30, 2008, which confused you?

In that article I compared western attitudes toward honor, shame, and grudge-bearing, to the attitudes of the Middle East: For Americans and Canadians the War of 1812 is such ancient history it is hardly mentioned in American schools and Canadians laugh about it. However, if the War of 1812 had been fought between Egypt and Libya, for example, they would STILL be going at it.

There were two reasons for the War of 1812. The first reason is that Americans believed in "manifest destiny," a phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson (but it doesn't appear on his nickel--I checked). The "destiny" that was "manifest" was that the United States would expand to control the entire continent from "sea to shining sea." So they bought the entire Mississippi Basin, called the "Louisiana Territory," from Napoleon. Napoleon wanted the cash to finance his conquest of Europe. Meanwhile, however, the British --who did not care for Napoleon much, by the way-- were going around being all "we're going to honor our treaties with the Red Man" and all that. So while Americans were pushing west across the Appalachians all the way into the Central Time Zone, the British were doing things like selling muskets to the Indians in Indiana and Illinois so they could defend themselves. Those dern British!

As part of manifest destiny, Thomas Jefferson also said that the conquest of Canada would be a "mere matter of marching." This, like many other things Jefferson had a hand in writing, were treated like gospel. Good thing we've moved on today. Take the Declaration of Independence, for example. Imagine, the thought that all of us are responsible to a Creator. Ha! Ha! Why, if only he had left that bit out, we could actually READ the document in our public schools. But it's a good thing we don't, since that would remind us of the uncomfortable truth that the Revolution had mostly to do with taxes, and being jailed for months without a trial, and other things that those rustic, backward colonists thought of as "tyranny."

So, with Jeffersonian wisdom, some American generals like Andrew Jackson and Winfield Scott and William Henry Harrison thought that Canada would be easy to take over. Realize that back then, Canada consisted of three parts: 1) The Maritime islands, which were under separate administrations anyway and I don't think the Americans were all that interested in them; 2) Quebec, which was French, and 3) Canada, which at the time was a bottleneck of land located between the Great Lakes across from Detroit. What we think of as Canada, that enormous empty "northwest provinces and territories" that stretch to the North Pole, is not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind. Mostly, he was talking about the English-speaking neck in the Great Lakes region.

Here is what those generals forgot. 1. Canada did not join the American colonies in the Revolution. 2. When American revolutionaries under Benedict Arnold and somebody else whom I don't have time to look up attacked Montreal, they were shot at, presumably by some folks who spoke French, too. 3. Because of the Revolution, loyalists to King George fled the United States and went to Canada. 4. There were also a bunch of Germans who had received settlements in Canada, especially in the area of New Brunswick, because they had fought on behalf of King George during the Revolution.

So, how likely is it that just 30 years after the Revolution, all these loyalists would welcome an American invasion with open arms? Answer: Not likely, eh?

But those facts did not occur to the Americans, who had within themselves the "can do" spirit of optimism. Nothing spoils that attitude like the facts, so it is around 1812 that U.S. presidents and their military command structures began to proceed in terms of ideology and optimism rather than any realities reflected on the ground--a tradition we are proud to continue for nearly 200 years.

HOWEVER, none of this STARTED the war. All of this together meant that Americans WANTED a war, and wanted it REALLY BAD. But in all truth, the War of 1812 got started due to the second reason: provocations by the Royal Navy under the executive orders of King George the Third.

King George never did appreciate the American colonists calling themselves their own nation. So he continued to have his policy of "impressing" men into the service of the navy, extended to the Americans. Remember, this is at the dawn of the industrial revolution before slavery is prohibited in the Empire. King George was one of the last truly autocratic, aristocratic monarchs on the English throne. He inherited a navy that bullied the high seas, going at least as far back as Queen Elizabeth the First, who received tribute from English privateers who preyed upon the ships of Spain.

So in this epoch of time when peasants were scum and, being 99.99% of the population there were lots to choose from, the Navy conducted "drafts." This was not done with a lottery system. This was done by either making a man drunk and hauling him onto a ship, or, buying the man a drink, hiding a coin at the bottom of the glass, and then saying that he had received his first wages as a sailor, or occasionally knocking someone upside the head and dragging him on board.

This was considered cricket. Also considered fair game, were sailors on ships flying American colors.  One simply ran the ship down on the high seas and threatened to blow it out of the water unless a few select sailors were brought over as hostages to serve a tour for the Royal Navy.

You have to admit that this is an intolerable crime against humanity and decency and that the British were dead-wrong to behave in this manner. If stuff like that went on today we would have no end of talk about "regime change" and "shock and awe." Americans got miffed at this practice. In fact they began to articulate a policy at that time about free and fair passage on the high seas, a principle over which we entered World War I. Unlike Manifest Destiny and taking Canada in a three day's march, this principle of open seas is a principled principle. All it will take is ONE American ship getting boarded by Somali pirates, and we will go back and turn Mogadishu into a shrapnel dump. I don't care who is President, that's what we will do because that's the American way.

So, what better way to force their old enemy King George to recognize American sovereignty and independence, than to take over Canada! The United States declared war. Then they discovered that to be able to take on a global empire, they actually needed, you know, an ARMY, not just a militia composed of farmers with hunting rifles. Needless to say, the campaigns to conquer Canada did not go well.

Important to note, though, is the Battle of the Great Lakes, a decisive naval victory for Commodore Perry which established American power on the Great Lakes-- including total control over Lake Michigan-- and forced cooperation on the St. Lawrence Seaway, which is something that we all take for granted today.

In terms of the objectives of the war, the British retained sovereignty over its possessions in North America which was a defeat for the Americans, however, the British were forced to respect American ships and to cooperate on the Great Lakes waterways, which was a victory for the Americans. In that sense, the War of 1812 can be considered a tie between the British and the Americans. The unprincipled goal of the Americans failed, but their principled goal prevailed. It would be nice if we took that lesson more to heart.

Instead America learned that it needed a professional army to truly manifest its destiny. Militarily, therefore, we did not make the same mistakes against Mexico, from whom we conquered two-thirds of its territory in the 1840's, with Winfield Scott in command. (I'm not looking that up. If I remember correctly, Scott's career stretched from the War of 1812 to the very first shots of the Civil War nearly fifty years later, if I'm thinking of the right person instead of three people.)

The War of 1812 was a victory for the Canadians. It is not too much to say that Canada won the War of 1812, in that in the most serious press against their separate identity, the Canadians successfully defended themselves and their dominion. The war produced at least two heroes that are household names among those Canadians who pay attention in school: Laura Secord, and Sir Isaac Brock.

About the Author:

Dear Jon is well aware that the British burned Washington D.C. However Canadians do not do a good job of remembering the naval issues or Commodore Perry.

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