Wednesday, June 02, 2004
The Canadian-American War

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.

The problem is that there is a number of factual errors coming to your conclusion.
1. It is well documented that while not an official reason for the war one of the major motives was land, there isn't any question that this was an early version of manesfest destiny. As one American congressman during the debate on the war stated if the stated reasons for the war were correct Halifax would be attacked not Upper Canada.
2. The majority of the population in Upper Canada at the time was non loyalist Americans about 60% who had come for land with no Indian disputes.
3. The impressing of seamen was not as simple as stated. naturalization was not a commonly held beleif at the time, the British to their mind were simply retreiving their citizens. There was a court system that did release American citizens. It should also be noted that Americans frequently took in deserters and declared them citizens.
3. Only in the US could this war be seen as a victory. First it has to be recognized that the US declared war based on a number of objectives, non of which were acheived. Next by the end of the war part of Maine and north West were under British control, 70% of US merchant trade was destroyed(using only 10% of the British fleet), US banks were failing, its navy was either sunk or bottled up in port and its government in poor finacial shape(soldiiers for the war were not completely paid until 1823).
4. Many Americans claim this war that somehow this earned them new international respect but was that so. British war plans for Upper Canada called on the abandonment of the province because they had too few troops to defend it. Only incredible incompetince allowed them to hold it. Wellington was quoted as saying he couldn't understand how the Americans failed. The sea battles the US frequently quote were all won against inferior opponents but often ascibed to the superior motivation and conditions on American ships. The Constitution for instance was 50% bigger than the Guerierre. In the few cases were ships of equal force and condition faced off the British won with only one exception(Wasp vs Argus)
5, So why didn't the British impose harder conditions in the peace treaty. There were two primary reasons, they had acheived their war aimes which never included control of the US in fact when you read their instructions to their commanders they often restrict how much the their army could move into the US. The east coast and New Qrleans were raids not invasions. Secondly again paraphasing Wellington the US was too primative for modern armies with poor comunications(primarily rivers), and few high value targets, and finally the British were tired of war having already fought for 20 years.
6. The US came out of the war much poorer, not a single war aim gained, their fleet destroyed or blockaded, their army regarded as incompetant and more dependent on British trade than before . Some American historians call it America's first Vietnam. You will note that America's defeat in Vietnam is now being restated.
7.So why do Americans think they won. Primarily it was propaganda/ when you read their desciptions , you would think major victories were made. Some examples
Lundy's Lane was claimed as a victory but was a tactical draw and a stratregic defeat with the Americans failing to make any of their objectives and quickly retreating the next day and dumping their stores. Even one of their victories was over stated. New Orleans was a significant victory but it is often overstated. The British did not run and the Americans stayed behind their defences. In fact the troops that ran that day were the Tennessee volunteers who were on the other side of the river and ran off abandoming their guns. The British made a controled with drawal capturing some American forts on the way.
9. Finally the assersion that those living in the Canada's were British. If you ignor the French(who incidently handed the US some of its defeats) the loyalists whose roots in North America were as old as the Americans, than you have those remaining American and British immigrants who would have as much a claim of being Canadian as any immigrant to the US would have to call themselve American. If you read the British documentation of the period the people living in the Canadas are refered to as Canadians. I think the confusion may be a result of the British subject which you interpeting as equivalent to American citizen. All citicens of the Dominions were until reletively recently called British subjects refering to the Queens position not the country they consider themselves to be. People living in Canada correctly considered themselves Canadians and saw no conflict with also being British subjects. Large numbers fought to defend their homes against an invader. Whiel British regulars provided the back bone of the forces that defeated the American nvasions, they were too few to have done it by themselves. The Americans could not have been defeated without the support of Canadian militias(there were even black companies that fought to maintain their freedom from US slavery), Indians and the Canadian Fencible regiments like the Glengaries(frequently better then US regulars). So why would the Americans beleive it was a British only war, the answer is obvious, it is a lot easier to claim the war is only against a distant colonial power than against people defending their homes. Incidently the burning of Washington is much more complicated than most Americans beleive. It goes back to early in the war when the Americans burned a town called Newark(now called Niagara on the Lake) it was done in the middle of winter driving women and children into the Canadian winter, most of the men were away with the militia. The British retaliated by burning everything from Lewiston to Buffalo. The Americans occupied York(Toronto) and burned the provincial buildings. The governor of Canada then decided this was carrying war too far and sent the Americans an offer to stop buring civilian targets. Thereafter however the Americans crossed Lake Erie and burned Port Dover and another village. Thus the British felt justified in burning Washington.
8. So unless the US started the war to have its economy destroyed, its fleet sunk, its merchant trade destroyed, all its attempts at invasion foiled and its land occupied, it not only lost but lost badly. At the time the US population was 7 million and the British 12 million. Considering the British were engaged in a major war at the time and had to support their world wide empire the idea of an American underdog was also overstated.
Interesting post on canadian investments. I was searching for information on canadian investments and your post on The Canadian-American War came up in the results. Although not exactly what I was searching for.. it was some what of an interesting read. So I bookmarked it and will return.
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