Thursday, January 3, 2013

Canada, the US and the War of 1812

I've written before (such as here and here) about Canadian prejudices against the US. The other day I ran up against this again, when I took two of my children to Canada's Museum of War. [Note: In my view, the museum is very well-done, for the most part.] We spent a good chunk of our time in an exhibit on the War of 1812.

If you are an American, you may be scratching your head at this point and wondering, "War of 1812? What did that have to do with Canada? Wasn't that the time the British burned the White House?" If your memory is especially good, you will recall that Francis Scott Key composed the Star Spangled Banner during the Battle of Baltimore, and you will again wonder what that had to do with Canada.

Canadians, on the other hand, think about the War of 1812 all the time - or so it has seemed for the past year, as the radio has run regular spots advertising information about the 200th anniversary of the war. (Americans will be forgiven for not realizing that last year was the 200th anniversary; we are arithmetically challenged, in addition to our trouble remembering our history lessons.)

All year, I heard about this war. And all year, I had no idea why this was a big deal. So when the chance arose to visit the definitive, government-approved exhibit on the war, I went for it. (Full disclosure: It was also one of the only indoor attractions open in Ottawa on January 1, and I was freezing from our snowshoeing expedition.)

The exhibit presents a view of the war composed from four different national perspectives; herewith a simplified digest:

·          United States: The British were taking sailors from American ships, to use them in their war against Napoleon. The US responded by attacking British colonies in Canada. This turned into a war in which the British, allied with Canadian colonists and Native Americans, fought the US. The US believed it won because it drove off the British attackers.

·          Britain: The British didn't want to waste their energies in a war with the US; they were focussed on battling Napoleon's forces in Europe. They never really invested in this war, and don't remember it, much less care about it, to this day.

·          Native Americans: The British promised the Native American tribes support for their needs if they would join the effort against the US. The tribes suffered great losses in the war, and did not receive meaningful compensation in return.
       Canada: The US attacked Canadians, unprovoked, and the Canadians drove them off.

You see how this plays out, then: The Americans were vicious belligerents who 1) attacked the wrong people, 2) triumphed only against a British foe who didn't care enough to fight and against the abused Native Americans, and 3) were beaten by the noble Canadians, who were only defending their homes against American invaders.

Think I'm exaggerating? Check out this official video from the Government of Canada. There is much that I admire in Canada, but this is just ridiculous:

 I'm glad to note that only 22,000 people have watched that, while 500,000 people have seen the College Humor parody:


  1. i never found American history interesting. I look on America as a machine that works where all other machines failed. It is a machine that you feed into it lots of people and out comes a just and decent society. what interests me is why does it work. for this i go to the thinkers that the Constitution is based on. This has become much more interesting tome in recent years as i watch the slow disintegration of American society. Just like i want to know what made it work in the first place i want top know what is destroying it.

  2. and what about the chocolate? that's the real reason the war of 1812 was important.

  3. I'm not sure the war has been mentioned at all in the UK this last year!

    I suspect the Canadian view has less to do with what happened in 1812 and more to do with subsequent history and politics - the need to differentiate themselves from what became a more politically, economically, militarily and culturally dominant neighbour.

  4. Adam-
    I see, I think.


    Indeed. The whole thing is rather anachronistic, given that the Americans of those days were hardly any sort of significant power on the world stage.

  5. You have to learn the important parts of Canadian history...

    The person who is most associated with the war of 1812 is Laura Secord, who, on the centennial of whatever she happened to do during the war, got a chocolate company named after her.

  6. Yes, she featured prominently in the exhibit - in the end-of-exhibit survey, she was a popular choice for "most significant figure in the war" or some similar honourific.

    But they didn't mention the chocolate.

  7. I don't think the average canadian knows more about her than I wrote in the previous comment. She did something or other in the War of 1812, and we were so happy we named our chocolate after her.

  8. In spite of my ignorance about American history I recently read a very nice book on the subject and it was amazing in given the basic overview with detail but not too much. From what I can tell it was not just the British but also France was taking American boats and men. The thing which triggered the war was that after both England and France had signed agreements to discontinue this practice, they kept on doing it.

    Besides that England was not fighting Napoleon at the time. They were involved with an economic war with France. And this was part of the reason they impounded American boats they could trade freely with France and England. This bothered both England and France.

    In the attack on Canada, America was intending to limit the ability of England to launch naval attacks against America.

    I think this is common practice for nations to try to limit the ability of their enemies to launch attacks from nearby bases. From what I understand this was part the reason the the USSR absorbed different territories after WWII and the reason they demanded that American remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey and the reason that Israel took the Golan Heights.

  9. Russell-
    I stand corrected; my son says he saw a Laura Secord box of chocolates on display at the 1812 exhibit.

    Sorry, not so; see The Peninsular War.

  10. I was depending on this small text of American history and its view of the events leading to the war of 1812. But i admit it seems that what i read was wrong. The British and France were at war constantly during the whole period leading up to the war.

  11. Which nation is the N in NHL?

  12. the original league had 4 Canadian teams...

    The same question could be asked about the NBA, and until the Expos moved, about the NL in the MLB.

  13. Missing in this analysis is the US concept of Manifest Destiny. Many leading Americans felt that the American Revolution had ended prematurely and that its ultimate goal was to remove Britain from North America. Therefore a chance to attack the remaining British colonies and conquer them fit right into their political views.

    1. Garnel-
      Do you think the idea was that prevalent in those days?

  14. From why I remember of my history it was very prevalent.

    1. That page puts the date for the idea's spread significantly after 1812...