12.30.2012

a people's history of the war of 1812

At last, this is the fourth post of the talks I attended in November and December. Allan and I organized this in Mississauga, through the Mississauga "twig" of the IS. The talk was given by our friend and comrade John Bell.

The other recent talks: noah richler, u.s. war resisters, and the militarization of canadian culture, from greece to chicago to toronto, workers fighting back against austerity, and talking radical: a history of canada through the eyes of activists.

Allan is guest-posting this one.

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This past year, Conservative MP Paul Calandra hosted a War of 1812- related "celebration of the armed forces" in Stouffville, Ontario, including a military flyover. This was one small part of a nationwide propaganda campaign by Steven Harper's Conservative Government - which is costing Canadian taxpayers at least $30 million - to prop up a myth: a sense of Canadian glory about the War of 1812.

The Conservatives claim that the War of 1812 united Canadians of all backgrounds - francophones, Anglos, First Nations, and blacks - as they all pulled together to bravely defeat the enemy from the south, the United States. However, as John Bell ably demonstrated in his presentation, "A People's History of the War of 1812" at the Central Library in Mississauga on December 13, nothing could be further from the truth.

Calandra is the Parliamentary Secretary for Canadian Heritage, but that's no guarantee that he knows anything about the history of his country. And it would appear that he does not. Bell pointed out that the town of Stouffville was established as a Mennonite community: its residents were mostly pacifists and war resisters who had fled the US to avoid military service. Stouffville's actual ties to the War of 1812 are "pacifism, objection to war, and peacemaking".

A people's war?

Bell explained that most people living in Upper Canada (what is now southern Ontario) at the time were Americans who had fled the US to escape excessive taxation, and to take advantage of Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe's offer of 200 acres of free land. Approximately 30,000 American emigrated and became, in Simcoe's term, "late loyalists". But their real loyalty was not so much to the crown as to their land and their own communities. At that time, the Canadian-US border was still very fluid. Many, maybe most, people had friends, family, and trading partners on the other side of the border. When the war began, the nationalist view of fighting a foreign country didn't work for many people in Upper Canada. Members of some local militias argued that their only duty was to their own community - and they refused to march elsewhere (such as over the border) to fight.

Both sides were plagued (or blessed) by draft dodgers, pacifists, and war resisters. Canada's militias often didn't show up for duty or didn't bring their weapons. (Guns were very valuable and the men did not want theirs damaged.) Sometimes when a soldier did report, he saw the paltry turnout, and turned around and went home. The militias were often poorly trained; many were commanded by political hacks and appointees who had little or no knowledge of military tactics or strategy , and sometimes little stomach to fight. Bell says that the idea that most Canadian militias fought admirably is "an absolute absurdity". (Some Canadians from well north of Toronto left their farms and travelled south to loot Canadian towns, sometimes even helping their fellow looters (i.e. Americans) load up their boats!)

On the other side, the American government tried to fight the war on the cheap, and had no real plans for feeding, clothing, or arming their troops. The American soldiers were so poorly cared for that they invaded the city of Buffalo - finally defeating other American citizens because of its superior cannon power - to get proper food and supplies.

Why was the war fought... and who won?

Why was the war fought? According to many historians, gaining control of Canada was never the US's goal. The US had declared war in an attempt to pressure Britain into changing its maritime practices to permit freer travel of US ships. Very early in the war, the US decided that, even with victory, it would not annex any portion of Canada, as this would upset the delicate political balance of slave and non-slave territory.

Who won? Bell says, "You could make a good case that it was a draw." You could also argue a good case that the US won, as Britain soon changed its maritime regulations in a way that was beneficial to US trade. The War of 1812 also ushered in significant changes to the US, such as a standing army and a more centralized federal government, which led to the country becoming much more powerful. And, with Britain no longer a threat to the US, the US could concentrate on expanding west.

Every war is civil war

The Harper Government's propaganda campaign around the War of 1812 must be seen in context of its ongoing attempts to militarize every aspect of Canadian society: an increase in military recruitment in schools, targetted recruitment of immigrant and racialized communities, the revisionist history of Canada's new citizenship guide to emphasize war and erase peacemaking, the ballooning military budget. The ongoing politicization of the military. The revised meaning of Remembrance Day, noted by so many Canadians: once a solemn day of "never again," now a glorification of war. In that context, the Harper Government wants us to believe that military strength was instrumental in forming Canada and in forging a united Canadian identity. And so, this militarized nationalism is being read back into Canadian history, two centuries after the fact.

The people who fought the War of 1812 were the same on both sides of the border: farmers, tradespeople, and labourers, who were pressured, lured, or conscripted into a war that had very little to do with the reality of their lives. As in all wars, the people actually doing the fighting on both sides had more in common with each other than with the ruling class who called for the war and profited from it.

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For more about this fresh perspective on the War of 1812, John Bell recommends reading The Civil War of 1812, by Alan Taylor. John compares and critiques published versions of the war here: War of 1812: myth and reality.

3 comments:

The Mound of Sound said...

Not a bad take on the war but a few inaccuracies. The War of 1812 as seen from the Canadian side was markedly different from the war as seen from the American side.

The actual impressment orders that notionally launched the war were repealed in London before hostilities broke out. It just took too long for word to cross the Atlantic in those times.

The American war was waged with vastly different objectives according to the north-south divide. You could almost see in play the conditions that would underlie the Civil War half a century later.

There was a reason the fiercest American forces were from Kentucky and why, when the natives got a chance to retaliate against them (as at Raisin River) they were massacred.

The southern states truly wanted Canada conquered and the Brits expelled. They felt that would facilitate western expansion and the clearance of the natives from the Ohio Valley. The northern states, by contrast, saw Canada as the only practical means available for waging war against Britain and always planned on using Canada as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from London. The north had little interest in annexing Canada.

You're incorrect to claim the war was waged, on both sides, by "farmers, trades people and labourers." Both sides relied primarily on standing forces of regulars. Canada was, after all, a British possession. Brock led the 49th Regiment of Foot and there were several other notable regiments including the 41st and King's 8th. The Canadian Militia actually did fight rather well in a number of battles as did the Newfoundlanders. The greatest Canadian militia was de Salaberry's Canadian Voltigeurs that, alone, repelled a superior American force attempting to conquer Quebec.

Like you, I find Harper's 200-year old triumphalism truly distasteful. Perhaps he would rather we thought of that than his own disastrous conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

laura k said...

"Not a bad take on the war but a few inaccuracies"

It's a summary of a summary, not meant to be definitive. However, when it comes to history, inaccuracies are often open to debate, depending on one's point of view.

L. said...

I appreciate the article but can't say I agree that the U.S. won. The fact is that the attempt to take over British North America and kick Great Britain out of North America was not successful. The fact that this was the plan is evident in a quote from President Thomas Jefferson: "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us the experience for the attack on Halifax, the next and final expulsion of England from the American continent".

My own ancestors were American Loyalists in the Niagara Area and defended Canada when attacked in the War of 1812. Some of them served as officers with Brock, some as privates in the militia. One was captured in one of the battles and spent the remainder of the war as a POW in the U.S. Personally I feel that their service was vital because Canada was thinly defended by the British at that point (they were at war with Napoleon in Europe) so their service was important. Just my 2 cents. :)