David Frum Jun 9, 2012
If Canadians know any history at all, they know the story of the war of 1812. (Or at least the part about the British burning the White House.) Americans usually focus their remembrance on bigger, bloodier conflicts. Yet in this bicentennial year, one American historian is urging his countrymen to appreciate that their nationhood was forged in two centuries of war up and down the bloody warpath between Albany and Montreal.
Eliot Cohen is one of America’s leading writers on military affairs. His 2002 book Supreme Command (a study of civilian leadership in wartime) featured on president Bush’s reading list that year. I traveled to Iraq with him in 2005 and had the pleasure of introducing him at a recent book event at the Canadian embassy in Washington.
Cohen’s new book, Conquered Into Liberty, offers an arresting idea. It was during their long struggle against the French and Indians that the New England colonies developed a distinctive American idea of how war should be fought.
Europe, war had been regarded as more or less the normal state of things: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” European societies developed monarchies, bureaucracies and standing armies to fight wars, and regimes of treaties and rules to regulate wars.
The New Englanders rejected this idea of managing an unending conflict. Colonial wars were too atrocious to manage: In the vast wilderness, civilians were always the target of attack, because they were often the only target available to attack. Nor were the New Englanders keen to replicate the war-fighting institutions they had left Europe in large part to escape.
Instead, New Englanders began to imagine a different kind of future: a future of absolute security obtained by the total elimination of their enemy. In Europe, such a vision would have seemed a preposterous fantasy. France could not hope to subjugate Spain; England could never possibly conquer France.
Tiny colonies, however, were much more fragile things than European monarchies. Sever their political connection to Europe, and their population could be absorbed. Deep into the 19th century, the leading families of New York bore Dutch names. But New Amsterdam once defeated was never restored.
This was the future the New Englanders hoped to impose on New France — and that, in the peace of 1763, they finally gained.
Total war for total peace proved, alas, as elusive in the 18th century as it would in the 20th. The conquest of New France opened a new chapter of conflict between the American colonies and the British metropole, leading to a revolution and two more wars: both again fought up and down the warpath. An American army besieged Montreal in 1775, a British army invaded New York from Quebec in 1777 and the two sides met again in a naval battle off Plattsburgh in 1814.
The peace signed between the United States and Great Britain in 1814 seemed at the time to settle nothing. (Except, that is, for the fate of the Great Lakes Indian nations: as Eliot Cohen notes, they were the only party that can be said wholly to have lost the war of 1812.) Both sides fully expected to fight again; in the years after 1815, both invested heavily in new fortifications to guard their frontiers and cities. (One such fort would enter history in a wholly unexpected way: Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was built against the British starting in 1829.)
Yet if total war for total peace failed, total peace did arrive all the same by a different path: by the gradual negotiation of differences, by growing mutual recognition of the advantages of peace and by the ever-closer convergence of interests and values across what would become the U.S.-Canadian border.
That’s the real meaning of the war of 1812 — and why this small war that lacks even a proper name deserves a place in the memory of all the world.