Has the War of 1812 been overhyped? NO

Ottawa Citizen

The Dominion of Canada would never have been created if the War of 1812 had resulted in an American victory, writes J.L. Granatstein.

By J.L. Granatstein, Ottawa Citizen November 8, 2012


Wednesday night at the Canadian War Museum, in a debate hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca), sponsored by the Ottawa Citizen and moderated by Michael Bliss, the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson and Canadian historian J.L. Granatstein debated the resolution, ‘The War of 1812 has been overhyped.’ To read Jeffrey Simpson’s argument, click here .

Jeffrey Simpson is one of Canada’s most prominent columnists, but sometimes even the best of pundits get it wrong. Simpson argued in October last year that the War of 1812 was a stupid war marked by confused objectives, bad leadership and wobbly populations in both the Canadas and the United States.

He was not wrong in those comments. There is no doubt that the large numbers of American immigrants to Upper Canada — the “late Loyalists,” as some sardonically labelled them — came not to escape the Great Republic but for free land. They would have been happy if the Americans won the war, and some fought for the U.S. or supplied intelligence. In the U.S. itself, the New England states and New York were against the war wanted by the warhawks in Congress who thought it a chance to hit Britain, caught up in the Napoleonic Wars, and to smash the Indians who resisted American westward expansion (and who were helped by the British).

This year’s bicentennial commemorations, Jeffrey Simpson said, risk turning the war into contemporary nationalistic propaganda, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper “relentlessly attempts to appropriate and invent symbols of Canadian pride.” To spend millions on commemorating this war is, he says, shameful, especially when the inhabitants of the Canadas in 1812 “had no sense of being ‘Canadian.’” The important point for Simpson is that the war led to two centuries of peace.

On much of this he is correct. The objectives, certainly those of the Americans, were confused, the military leadership was terrible on both sides, with the exception of General Isaac Brock, and the populations were badly divided. Most of the fighting by our side was done by British regulars, and the Canadian militia, their successor regiments now getting largely unearned battle honours, did almost nothing and sustained very light casualties. There were a few exceptions in the Niagara units and in quasi-regular units in Lower Canada, but on the whole, the untrained militiamen wanted only to go home or to be captured and given their parole. And, as usual, the Indians on both sides got screwed.

But I would suggest that the war deserves commemoration at whatever financial cost to the Harper government. Simpson is right that the inhabitants of Upper and Lower Canada had “no sense of being Canadian.” But they were — except for the recent American immigrants — loyal to the Crown, and many had suffered for this during the American Revolution, only 30 years before. They had a sense of themselves as not being Americans, not republicans, and they hated the “mobocracy” of the United States. They did not want to be swallowed whole. Nor did the French-speaking Roman Catholic inhabitants of Lower Canada, though most were not prepared to fight for the British side.

For all its folly, therefore, the war was vitally important for British North America. Without the war’s result — in effect a stalemate that saw the U.S. defeated in its invasions of the Canadas, and Britain checked in most of its objectives on land to the south — the Canadas would have been absorbed into the United States as eventual states (unless a peace treaty gave them back to Britain, which we cannot say with certainty would ever have occurred). The rest of British North America — New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland — might have survived for a time, or perhaps not. Certainly many in Nova Scotia had far more ties to “the Boston States” than they did to the rest of the British possessions in North America.

What is certain is that the Dominion of Canada would never have been created if the War of 1812 had resulted in an American victory. For this reason alone, for the fact that Canada exists, the war deserves commemoration here. In the U.S., people may celebrate their navy’s victories at sea and on the Great Lakes, or Francis Scott Key’s writing of The Star Spangled Banner, but it was never a war for survival for the United States. It was more of a Second War of Independence, an attempt to show Britain that Americans were not to be trifled with. But in the Canadas, it was very different: a British defeat meant subjugation. How Jeffrey Simpson could neglect this is beyond me.

But let us call a spade a spade. The real thrust of the argument Simpson makes is his attack on Stephen Harper for “relentlessly attempting to appropriate and invent symbols of Canadian pride.” God forbid that a prime minister should be interested in history and that he should try to use the past to bolster Canadians’ sense of themselves. The TV commercials touting victories at sea and on land during the war do go a bit far in touting Canadian military virtues, considering that the British regiments and navy did almost all the fighting. But to me, the government deserves praise for this effort, and especially for not making it into a straight-out anti-American campaign. How would an NDP or Liberal government have handled it? We likely would have had ministers and MPs talking about “those bastards” and how we hated them then and dislike them still!

Every government in Ottawa, whatever its political stripe, would have celebrated the bicentennial, but the Harper government has done it well and suffered some mean-spirited and ahistorical criticism. Inclu

Jeffrey Simpson’s.

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