By Roger Annis, July 3, 2012 (three items enclosed)
On this, the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812, the Canadian government is spending millions of dollars on an advertising and publicity campaign extolling that war. For example, the War of 1812 is featured front and center at all the displays of the government and the Canadian military during festivities surrounding Canada Day, July 1. The Canada Day festival on Parliament Hill, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke and lauded the War, featured period costumes and re-enactments of the War on stage, including firing of period weapons.
The government’s messaging has two bold themes. One, wars are good things because they are fought for noble principles, at least, all the wars Canada and its colonial forebear every fought. And two, the War of 1812, in particular, was a ‘founding event’ of great heroism and historical significance for Canada.
Serious historians debunk the idea that the three-year War of 1812, fought between the fledgling United States and Britain along the future Canada-U.S. border, had much to do with the future Canada. The country was not even founded until 52 years after the War’s end.
Notwithstanding this year’s propaganda blitz, there are four great themes of interest by historians in what the War of 1812 revealed about the times in which it was fought:
* The ongoing tensions and conflicts between the fledgling republic of the United States and its former colonial master, the United Kingdom, and how this shaped the emergence of the U.S. as a future world power.
* The life and death battle of the two great European powers–France and the UK–over their remaining control and influence in North America.
* Who among the young U.S. economic elite of the time supported going to war against a much more powerful adversary, and why.
* The historical aspirations of the Indigenous peoples of eastern North America and their efforts to resist the steady encroachment of Britain and the United States into their territories.
Below are three items that survey these three themes. The first is an informative radio documentary broadcast on CBC Radio on June 18, 2012. The second is an essay on the betrayal of the Indigenous peoples by Britain following the War. The third is a recent essay on James Madison, the U.S. president who led his country into war with Britain.
Note the new book by James Laxer on the War of 1812 referenced in the CBC item. He is interviewed in the aforementioned CBC program. He argues that the alliance with Britain that Indigenous leaders Tecumseh and others forged during the War was a visionary attempt to found an Indigenous territory and homeland that could strive for some kind of equal status with the U.S. and British colonizers. Like the essayist Paul Smith, below, Laxer explains Britain’s betrayal of the promises it made to its erstwhile allies.
You can read here a recent review by Derrick O’Keefe of Pierre Burton’s recommended ‘The Invasion of Canada’, published in 2001.
1. Who started the War of 1812?
A one-hour, ‘Ideas’ radio documentary on CBC Radio One
It was a war that nobody really wanted, although both sides ultimately claimed to win. IDEAS host Paul Kennedy considers the causes and the consequences of the War of 1812-14, from both sides, and includes an “Indian” perspective that is all too frequently ignored.
Almost exactly 200 years ago, the relatively new Republic of the United States of America declared war upon the well-established British Empire. All the British colonies in North America were automatically implicated and equally involved in the conflict – even though they wouldn’t begin to form the Dominion of Canada for another 55 years. The future “Canada” quickly become the major battlefield of this war, as well as the biggest potential prize.
Over the next three years, IDEAS will periodically commemorate this bicentennial with documentaries about significant battles – like Queenston Heights and Chesapeake Bay.
Today, we’ll acknowledge the American Declaration of War, through a series of conversations with three historians: Professor Donald Hickey, an American who has written several books about the war; a Canadian named Victor Suthren, who was formerly director of the National War Museum in Ottawa; and James Laxer, (also Canadian) from York University in Toronto, who recently published a book that emphasizes the devastating results of this war for native peoples on both sides of the eventual border, as well as the crucial role that native peoples played as the conflict evolved.
* Tecumseh and Brock: The War of 1812, by James Laxer, House of Anansi, 2012
* The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, by Donald Hickey, University of Illinois Press, 2012
* The War of 1812, by Victor Suthren, McLelland and Stewart, 2001
2. After 1812: betrayal
British relied on First Nations to win the war and then dumped them.
By Paul Smith, published on Straight Goods, June 26, 2012
As the Harper government ramps up public events to commemorate the War of 1812, most Canadians are unaware of the full import of the role of First Nations and the pivotal role that war played in the history of Canada’s treatment of aboriginal peoples. June is Aboriginal History Month and June 21 was National Aboriginal Day. Let’s take a look.
Many historians believe that Britain would have lost the war without the aboriginal military strength. Canada’s very existence depended on First Nations and Métis co-operation.
Native peoples in the US were experiencing the brutal expansionist US manifest destiny, of which the War of 1812 was yet another expression. Terror and carnage was being unleashed on native peoples in the US that would not end for over a century, if ever.
American history is replete with “Indian Wars” to crush First Nations — along with politicians and military heroes who made their mark as brutal “Indian fighters.” Native leaders like Tecumseh hoped for an alliance with Britain to help prevent the elimination of First Nations at the hands of the US. The British proclamation of 1763 had meant British recognition and accommodation of aboriginal peoples, setting the stage for their military alliance against the Americans.
After the War of 1812, the tide turned. The aboriginal military force was no longer needed. Suddenly, British treatment of native peoples emulated the US model, where First Nations were used and then abandoned — or worse.
These themes should be highlighted during the anniversary of the War of 1812. We are all woefully ignorant of Canada’s aboriginal history and this is a chance to shed light on it. Most Canadians reduce their interest to a simple glib question of “who won?” But after the war, colonialism took a brutal turn for native people on both sides of the border.
In the United States , the aftermath included the start of forced Native removal from the east, brutal “Indian Wars” in the west, and the rise of high profile “Indian fighters” like Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone and Kit Carson. In Canada, the legacy was perhaps less dramatic but equally devastating.
After decades of treating aboriginal peoples as partners in the fur trade and then as military allies, the British and then Canadians pursued policies of containment, treaties for land, suppression of culture, assimilation, and reserves where every aspect of life was controlled by white “Indian agents.” Then there were the now well-known residential schools in both countries, aiming to “kill the Indian” in native children.
In 1812, this continent was more the aboriginal “Turtle Island” than a colonized North America. Aboriginal people still outnumbered Europeans. Colonialism had not subdued all the 500+ sovereign First Nations across Turtle Island (North America). Because relatively few treaties of land transfer had been signed in Canada, Aboriginal people controlled most of the continent.
On paper, European powers had divided up much of it North America, based on a so-called Doctrine of Discovery. This was a 13th century idea that non-Christian peoples had no rights and did not actually own their land, but only occupied the land, so it was free for the taking by Europeans upon “discovery”. Archaic as it may sound, this doctrine was a basis for some US Supreme Court decisions in aboriginal land disputes.
So aboriginal support was vital to the British in most military matters — as is now acknowledged widely by mainstream historians. Many historians believe that Britain would have lost the war without the aboriginal military strength. Canada’s very existence depended on First Nations co-operation.
But why did aboriginal peoples largely align with the British and not the Americans?
First Nations built an economic and social partnership of the French, and later the British, due to the fur trade — which played a far more dominant role in the early history of Canada than in the US. In fact, the Métis became a separate intermediary culture in Canada, born of the fur trade, bridging the two cultures with unions between European men and First Nations women.
After the British defeated the French and took over their colonial interests, the British learned hard lessons about building relationships with First Nations. Initial British policies unfavourable to natives led to fierce First Nations resistance in the Great Lakes region, headed up by the legendary Chief Pontiac.
As a result, the British issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which marked a major change in their policy toward First Nations and still plays a significant role in aboriginal law in Canada today. Great Britain recognized First Nations’ rights and established a land reserve for them in the Great Lakes basin and Ohio valley. The Proclamation constrained the growth of the 13 American colonies and contributed to the friction between colonists and Britain that led to the American Revolution.
At that point, the colonists were more aggressive toward First Nations than the British establishment, gripped by what later became known as the “Manifest Destiny” doctrine — the desire to conquer the entire continent. The same philosophy encouraged Americans to remove native peoples by whatever means necessary and to conquer Canada in 1812.
Tecumseh, the remarkable Shawnee hero of the War of 1812, and his brother Tenskwatawa, emerged as leaders seeking to create a pan-Indian confederacy to establish a First Nations territory, separate and sovereign from both British and American governance — a dream that would have transformed the history of the continent.
Under the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812, Britain abandoned the First Nations allies who had helped them immeasurably in the war. Initially, Britain sought a sovereign aboriginal territory between what is now Canada and the US. But the US adamantly opposed such a territory and Britain acquiesced to the status quo before the war, selling out their allies.
In the US, not long after the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, an “Indian fighter” and major player in the Battle of New Orleans against the British, became President. He passed the Indian Removal Act that began the forced removal of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations from the southeast to west of the Mississippi River — a long and brutal confrontation between the US government and society and indigenous peoples.
Looking back, it is abundantly clear why aboriginal people would have supported the British in the War of 1812 to attempt to preserve their way of life, cultures, families, communities and spiritual traditions from the ravages of the Manifest Destiny. But the British — and the French — were not reliable allies, just colonialists with a slightly different stripe.
These are themes that should be highlighted during the anniversary of the War of 1812. Stephen Harper has said Canada has “no history of colonialism.” He is wrong. Canada does have a long and nasty history of colonialism and the War of 1812 is smack in the middle of it.
Paul Smith is a Guelph-based writer and a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario.
3. Mr. Madison’s weird war
Essay by Gordon S. Wood, New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012
Books considered for this essay:
- 1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan Basic Books, 491 pp., $32.50
- James Madison by Richard Brookhiser Basic Books, 287 pp., $26.99
- James Madison: Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation by Jeff Broadwater University of North Carolina Press, 266 pp., $30.00
- Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War: America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence by Hugh Howard Bloomsbury, 365 pp., $30.00
Pictured: Allyn Cox: British Burn the Capitol, 1814, a 1974 mural on the ceiling of the Hall of Capitols in the US Capitol, Washington, D.C.
(Text available online only to subscribers, excerpt below)
The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is now upon us and most Americans don’t know what to do with the occasion, whether to celebrate it or simply disregard it. The war that began two hundred years ago was such a strange and partisan war and one that was waged so ineptly that the country may want to forget that it was ever fought. But historians are not going to allow us to ignore it completely. They are turning out a spate of studies of the war and of James Madison, the president who led the country into it.
Like so many of America’s wars, it was a “war of choice.” We initiated it. It was in fact the first time under the new federal Constitution that Congress formally issued a declaration of war. Unfortunately, since World War II we have fought five significant wars without any of them being formally declared.
From the outset the War of 1812 was peculiar. First of all, it was a small war within a larger one, a sideshow for the British, who were engaged in a titanic two-decade-long struggle with France for supremacy in the Atlantic world. When the US Congress declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812, the British were dismayed and bewildered, for at that moment they were desperately trying to head off a war they did not want.
In retrospect many historians have been equally bewildered. The country’s professed reasons for going to war seemed to bear little relation to the interests of the states and the parts of the country that most eagerly wanted it. In his war message of June 1, 1812, President Madison declared that war was necessary because Great Britain was seizing American ships in violation of the right of a neutral nation to trade noncontraband goods with belligerents and more important, was stopping American ships and impressing American seamen, claiming they were deserters from the Royal Navy.
But if these were indeed the major reasons for going to war, why was it that the majority in Congress that voted for the war (79–49 in the House of Representatives and 19–13 in the Senate, the closest vote for a declaration of war in American history) came almost entirely from the sections of the country—the South and West—that owned few ships and were supposedly least affected by British impressment and the violations of America’s maritime rights? And why too did most of the congressional opponents of the war come from the section of the country, New England, that was most involved in overseas shipping and thus presumably most hurt by the British naval oppression? Representatives from Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee cast more votes for the war than those from the New England states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In fact, New England congressmen voted 20–12 against the war, and most of the twelve votes in New England in favor of the war came from congressmen representing the frontier areas of New Hampshire and Vermont.
To explain these apparent anomalies historians have tried to find some hidden western and southern interests that lay beneath the professed war aims. Some have argued that westerners supported the war because they wanted land and had their eye on conquering British Canada. Others have argued that the westerners were less interested in land than they were in eliminating British influence over the Indians in the Northwest.
But with only ten votes in the House of Representatives, western congressmen could not by themselves have led the country into war. In fact, it was the representatives from Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia that supplied nearly half (thirty-nine) of the seventy-nine votes for the war. To explain why these southern states would back a war on behalf of maritime rights, other historians have suggested that the South actually hoped that a war would help in the seizing of Florida from Spain. Yet none of these explanations of hidden western and southern interests can make sense of the sixteen votes that Pennsylvania provided for the war, the most votes by any state.
What does make sense among all these seeming oddities is the fact that support for the war was entirely a party issue, with most Jeffersonian Republicans being for the war and all the Federalists against it. But this too is strange, for it was the Jeffersonian Republicans who from the very beginning of America’s national history had been most opposed to military establishments and the use of military force in international affairs. By contrast, it was the Federalists who had been the most fervent advocates for a robust European-type state and for building a formidable military establishment that they hoped would enable the country sooner or later to take on the European powers on their own terms.
Both Democratic-Republican presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and their Republican colleagues in Congress had strenuously sought to prevent any augmentation of the country’s military establishment. In January 1812 the Republicans in Congress actually voted down any increase in the size of the navy that was to fight the war they voted for six months later. The Republican Party feared military establishments and war-making because these were the means by which governments had traditionally enhanced executive power at the expense of liberty. Indeed, the Republicans seemed to believe that America’s military posed a greater threat to the United States than it did to Great Britain. Armies and navies, declared John Taylor of Caroline, the conscience of the Republican Party, “only serve to excite wars, squander money, and extend corruption.” Even a strong navy, warned a Republican congressman from Philadelphia, might become “a powerful engine in the hands of an ambitious Executive.”
As Britain and France struggled for supremacy and repeatedly violated American neutral rights, with Britain the much greater violator because of its control of the seas, both Presidents Jefferson and Madison sought desperately to find some peaceful alternative to the use of military force. Ever since the Revolution, Americans had used nonimportation and nonexportation movements in order to bring pressure on Great Britain. Hence it was natural for the Republicans to try to impose economic sanctions on the two belligerents during the Napoleonic Wars; it is still a device we cling to as a substitute for military action. In 1807–1808, President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison even resorted to the drastic step of prohibiting all Americans from engaging in any form of international trade. This embargo, said Jefferson, was a grand liberal experiment in “peaceful coercion” that if effective might do away with the instrument of war altogether and usher in an enlightened era of universal peace. With the exception of Prohibition, Jefferson and Madison’s embargo is the greatest example in American history of utopian thinking brought to bear on a matter of public policy.
Although the embargo destroyed America’s overseas trade and devastated the country’s seaports, Jefferson and Madison persisted in its enforcement for fifteen months, even to the point of virtually warring against their own citizens. Indeed, both would have extended the embargo longer if they could. The Republican administration, which professed a belief in minimizing executive authority, gave the army and navy sweeping powers to suppress smuggling along the Canadian border, powers that were blatantly contrary to the search and seizure provisions of the Fourth Amendment.
Since the embargo and the various other economic sanctions that the Republicans tried were forms of warfare, when they failed to stop the British violations of American neutrality the Republicans thought they had no alternative but an actual declaration of war. Popular historian George C. Daughan agrees. In his book, 1812: The Navy’s War, he ignores all the various supposedly hidden causes of the war and instead takes President Madison at his word that the major reason for America’s going to war was the British impressment of American sailors. “Impressment,” Daughan concludes “was at the heart of the dispute between the two governments.”