Is the War of 1812 over-hyped? If so, why?

A new visitor centre at Fort Wellington in Prescott, ON features this 1812-era gunboat. (photo by Lucy Martin)

Here’s a gentle warm-down from a long, rancorous political season in the U.S. news cycle. A nod to a small Canadian argument about a largely-forgotten war that happened 200 years ago.

When it comes historical significance – and popular memory – not all wars are created equal.

Everyone knows the U.S. would not exist without the Revolutionary War. There’s still broad interest in the Civil War and WW II. Then come second-tier conflicts – the ones you’ve probably at least heard of, like the Mexican-American War. And oh, yeah, that War of 1812 thing, which must have happened sometime around 1812, right?

More on the War of 1812 in a second, but first take a gander at two lists of wars and conflicts that took place on U.S. soil, or involved U.S. forces. Here’s one from About.com that pre-dates the American Revolution and here’s an even longer list from Wikipedia which they start from 1774 and on. (Wow! So many! Really, it’s astonishing.)

For a summary of Canadian conflicts check out this page from something called Access History Web Company’s page on Canadian History.

The last time the U.S. and Canada duked it out in a full-blown war Canada was not even a country. I’d go so far as to say it was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye as a separate country. After all, staying with mother England was sort of the whole point of who took up arms and stayed in the former Colonies verses who left/got kicked out and ended up in Upper Canada.

Which brings me back around to the War of 1812. Everything needs a media campaign these days so that war has been re-branded in Canada by the current party in power as “The Fight for Canada“.

The website’s logic runs thusly: “Canada would not exist had the American invasion of 1812-15 been successful”. (True, if viewed with 20-20 hindsight. Otherwise, that’s rather a bit of a backward projection.)

Much money has been allocated for events, organizations and programs commemorating this anniversary in Canada, $28 million and counting. Some think it’s great to advance the awareness and understanding of national history. Others smell partisan opportunism and allege a commandeering and twisting of history as self-serving narrative. Ian Austen has a useful write-up on the whole controversy in this Oct 7 article in the New York Times.

The topic will get a fulsome hearing at a debate in Ottawa at 7 pm Wed Nov 7 at the Canadian War Museum. The Macdonald-Laurier Institute (which calls itself “Canada’s only truly national public policy think tank”) has sponsored a series of debates, including this one, titled: Resolved: The War of 1812 has been over-hyped.

Globe and Mail journalist Jeffrey Simpson will argue in the affirmative, with military historian Jack Granatstein making the case that it was a war worth remembering – then and now. The moderator will be Canadian historian Michael Bliss.

Bliss highlights what attendees can expect in this Nov 5 essay in iPolitics:

The bigger issue, about the uses and abuses of cultural spending — are we politicizing the nuts and bolts of Canadian history? — will undoubtedly feature heavily in the debate, and it may cause the discussion to swing into the peacekeeping field, into future commemorations (will we go overboard about the centennial of Vimy Ridge in 2017, when we should spend most of our time on Confederation 150?), and into the role of our rebranded national museum. Nothing will be off the table during the evening, there is strong audience participation, and full coverage from CPAC and The Ottawa Citizen. The standing-room-only crowd that took in the first of the Great Canadian Debates, on the future of the CBC, was hugely enthusiastic about a format that fosters excellent argument by genuine experts.

Details on time, location and admission fees can be read here.

This argument may resonate more loudly in Canada, where there’s concern about allocating millions for War of 1812 commemorations whilst cutting funds for the Library and Archives Canada, and the recent announcement that the Museum of Civilization will be re-focused as a museum of Canadian history.

But specifics aside, questions about what history means – and who gets to shape it – are fairly universal.

For those who care, that is.

For Jane and Joe Public it’s something of a yawn. Just so much counting angels on the head of a pin!

POST SCRIPT added Nov 9:

Here is more coverage from the Ottawa Citizen on the actual debate, with the “Yes, it’s over-hyped”  argument from Jeffrey Simpson and the “No, it matters” argument from Jack Granatstein.

Video of the debate will air on CPAC on Friday, November 9th at 9 pm ET and Saturday November 10th at 8:30 am ET. More info available at  www.cpac.ca.

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7 Responses to “Is the War of 1812 over-hyped? If so, why?”

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  1. Peter Hahn says:

    I dont know much about that war. In the US history classes in school, it isnt treated in great depth. Certainly we dont get much of the Canadian perspective. – Especially since it was a US Britain war. There was also the Napoleonic wars going on then that overshadowed Europe but didnt really make it into the US history books.

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  2. The period of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 is of family history interest to me because my twice great grandfather fought in it (VT Militia) and my wife was born as a Canadian because some of her forebears were Loyalists who moved to Quebec from VT after the Revolution. I recently discovered that at the time my GG Grandfather was in the Militia his unit was sent to Niagara and to get there he would have had to travel the only road through this part of NNY at the time which just happens to go past the front of the house we recently bought. What goes around comes around and history is far more interesting than our high school classes ever hinted at.

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  3. Marlo says:

    I don’t know about the Canadian perspective, but in the U.S. it’s taught as having mostly been triggered by the British stopping our ships and impressing our sailors. It reinforced that we’re a real, independent country you can’t mess with, cementing the results of the Revolution. So I think it was pretty important for us.

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  4. Pete Klein says:

    There has never been a war with Canada but we have had two with England.
    If the Canadians want to celebrate the War of 1812, I say go for it but do pause to think how it would be like the USA celebrating the French and Indian War which took place before the USA was a country and was a war between England and France, and with the Indians being screwed by all sides as usual.

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  5. newt says:

    Oh, I was traveling when this post came up, and missed commenting. Can’t help myself, and will do so now.. I do know a lot, for an American, about the War of 1812. My 10th or 11th favorite subject to bloviate upon, as some readers here may already know.

    I can’t comment on whether money spent is more important than that taken from other Canadian cultural programs, but I’m pretty sure it was your war for national survival. It’s kind of hard for me to see how we actually could have pulled it off, since in battle after battle your courageous and well led regulars and militia, though vastly outnumbered, crushed the ill-trained, half-hearted, Americans, led, as they were by fools and knaves. Had we gained a foothold in the later stages when Gen. Brown, Scott, and other competent leaders appeared and began winning, the arrival of 15,000 of Wellington’s regulars (possibly with Wellington, had the situation been grave), would have quickly sent my ancestors scurrying south again.

    But had we actually seized, and held, what is now Canada, it would not have been pretty . Look what we did to the Indians in what is now the US Midwest, or trans-Appalachian South (see “Trail of Tears’), where we extirpated the highly civilized 5 tribes (at the direction of 1812 Hero Andrew Jackson) Or the Mexican Cession, where we cheerfully dispossessed thousands of former citizens of Mexico. Upper Canadians being white, Protestant, Anglos, it would probably not been treated that bad. But where fortunes from land-grabbing was concerned, 19th Century Americans would have put locusts to shame (look what happen to Colonial loyalists). Mother England might have stood up for you, but her record in these matters is not flawless.
    Important War, good thing you won. For us too. (e.g., no Canada, no underground railroad)

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  6. Lucy Martin says:

    Updating the original pre-debate post, if anyone wants to catch up on Wednesday’s actual event, the Ottawa Citizen wrote it up in two sections:

    “Yes, it’s over-hyped” argument from Jeffrey Simpson

    “No, it matters” argument from Jack Granatstein.

    Video of the debate will air on CPAC on Friday, November 9th at 9 pm ET and Saturday November 10th at 8:30 am ET. More info available at http://www.cpac.ca.

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  7. Michael Whittaker says:

    The US may have declared war on England, but the most direct way to strike was at the Canadian colonies, particularly Upper Canada (Ontario). In short much of the war was fought here, primarily in the Niagara region. The successive US invasions resulted in no territorial gain and many of the issues that precipitated the war had been resolved prior to the 18 June 1813 declaration. The Treaty of Ghent resulted in status quo anti bellum. The only losers being the Native peoples. In the popular imagination, the stalwart Canadian militia was victorious over the Yankee invaders. Briefly, this planted the nascent seeds of a national identity, helped precipitate the rebellions of 1837 that led to responsible government a decade later and this in face of the crises engendered by the American Civil War spawned the confederation of colonies into Canada as a nation.

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