I've been thinking recently about worldviews, conflicts, and antagonism between Canadians and Americans (both as an exercise in reflection and as a result of recent events in my life), and I think I've come to a conclusion about that most famous of Canadian-American disagreements: The War Of 1812.
For those of you who are not familiar with Canadian pride, let me tell you that this war is referred to quite a bit more often up here than it is in the States. Say 100 times to every 1. This is primarily because Canadians feel that it was a military conflict in which their side was victorious. Americans, upon hearing this pronouncement of Canadian victory, tend to become confused. In American schools, the War of 1812 is taught as a victory for the fledgling American country - not a spectacular victory, but a victory nonetheless - while in Canadian classes, the repelling of American forces (and especially the burning of the White House) are pointed to, along with the current border between the two nations, as evidence that it was, in fact, the Canadians who emerged victorious from the engagement.
It has been dismissed as an irreconcilable disagreement - the Canadians won't budge, and the Americans won't admit defeat - and it has thus been abandoned to the realms of sniping commentary (as was evidenced in my Canadian Lit class on Monday, during which the professor recalled that "Americans never seem to remember that we won the War of 1812"). But as I was thinking about it, I came to a realization. The two countries are approaching the event with two entirely different sets of assumptions and perspectives.
In America, during the lead up to the war, things were stuttering. The Constitution had been written and ratified, the Bill Of Rights had been passed and approved, and things were starting to flower for the young country. But, like all such enterprises, they were beginning to have growing pains. From a purely international point of view, America was seen as rather insignificant. True, the seeds of revolution had inspired the French to begin their own move toward democracy, but other than this kind of ideological influence, the United States had little to no play in international affairs. Britain, from which it had so recently seceded, still refused to acknowledge the country's sovereignty over its land and its people. This refusal to respect American self-governance triggered a series of events that culminated in violent conflict. British naval ships, engaged in an ongoing war with France, were pressing American sailors into military service for England. The ships that the fleet could spare would lie in wait off of the coast, and prey upon American merchants trading with the French (who did recognize, and even contributed to, American independence) and surrounding countries. The British disrupted the trade lines (harming both France and America), and added more men to their numbers (aiding them in their fight against the French, and angering Americans who didn't take too kindly to being put back under British rule). So, in order to protect its sovereignty, the American government declared war upon England, and invaded the nearest British outpost - Canada.
The Canadians, of course, were British subjects (Canada was not established as an officially separate country until 1867 - though they did have a measure of self-rule)*, and didn't take kindly to being invaded by their southern neighbors. Add to this the fact that a majority of Canadians were former colonists that had fled north during and after the American revolution - Loyalists to the British Crown who didn't want to leave the British Empire - and you certainly have the breeding ground for a great deal of animosity. Further, one can add in the land disputes that were raging between the various border states and provinces at the time (Americans thought that eventually they would have access to the entirety of the continent, and of course, those living in Canada disagreed). When the war began, and Hull invaded Canada, it led to a series of battles that resulted in the American invasion being rebuffed, and it established the border between the two nations.
This is not where the story ends, however. In 1815, some few days after the war was officially finished at the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the British tried to secure their holdings in Louisiana, being a great distance from their commanders and thus out of reach of the day's methods of communication. There was a massive battle fought at New Orleans, the most important battle of the young American nation's life thus far, and Andrew Jackson (later to become president) defeated the British invasion. This resounding victory - ironically not necessary for official purposes - became the solidfying point of American sovereignty. In proving that their armies were able to withstand the forces of the British, the American diplomats were able to make certain the demands of national sovereignty and international recognition that they so desired.
So why the difference in view, then? Because, essentially, Canadians and Americans are looking at this war in two different ways. Canadians naturally sympathize with those people living here at the time, and mistakenly (so I have experienced) view the American invasion as part-and-parcel of the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny - the belief that the whole of the continent should belong to the United States. Manifest Destiny did not exist, however, until the 1840s, and even the Monroe Doctrine, which laid the groundwork for the later declaration of Manifest Destiny, did not appear until the 1820s. That aside, the American invasion can nonetheless reasonably be seen, from the Canadian perspective, as an unacceptable encroachment. And indeed, the troops residing in Canada did drive the American forces out, and kept the Canadian border intact.
This is why Canadians can and do view the war as a victory of their own. In large part, they view the conflict as Canadian-American.
Americans, on the other hand, see the war as British-American. The Americans weren't fighting Canadians, as they saw it, they were fighting the English - and indeed, given that Canada was not officially established until the latter half of the 19th century, they were justified in this perspective. To the Americans, the war was about more than expanding the borders of their country - it was about establishing once and for all their independence from England and their own right to exist. In this, they, too, succeeded.
And there's the pivotal distinction - Canadians see themselves as always having been Canadians (certainly not an outrageous proposition) while Americans see Canadians as something relatively new, and a replacement for the British that were there before. This affects how both groups perceive the war at large (either as over a northern border dispute, or as over a national sovereignty dispute), and this in turn establishes the conditions for victory.
In a very real sense, then, both sides won - the only losers were the British.
* Thanks to JMH for the technical corrections.
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