Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. We have been commemorating the Civil War and tend to mark significant anniversaries of other major events in American history. But not much is being planned for this one. Except in Canada, which is planning a big celebration of how they defeated the American invaders. From a piece by David Shribman:
What is the best way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812? . . . .
How does Canada celebrate its victories over American invaders without alienating its biggest trading partner? How does the United States approach a war in which its principal adversary, Great Britain, is now one of its closest friends? And do the British pause to mark this event at all, given that for them it was but a brief, minor sideshow in the far more important Napoleonic Wars?
Along with the Korean War, the War of 1812, which most Americans remember dimly as being about impressment on the high seas and freedom of movement on the Great Lakes, is often called the Forgotten War.
It is sad that Americans are so forgetful, for this conflict, which lasted roughly two and a half years, gave the United States its national anthem and its national identity, cemented in large measure the nation’s cultural and geographical boundaries, ushered in 200 years of peace with Britain and Canada, made the White House white and provided durable heroes such as Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Oliver Hazard Perry and Tecumseh.
It ended in virtual stalemate — no side lost substantial territory except, of course, the Indians — and was a decidedly mixed experience for Americans, whose generals were execrable, whose militia didn’t fight well and whose twin theories of warfare (that the French Canadians would rush to the U.S. side and that Canada would collapse into American arms) were ludicrous.
“The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, then out of office, “and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” Maybe Jefferson wasn’t a genius after all.
At the same time, however, the American Navy excelled, forcing the British to lose whole squadrons, which had rarely happened before. American naval prowess on the Great Lakes is still the stuff of legend, as is the old warship, the USS Constitution, known then and now as Old Ironsides.
But from the viewpoint of Canada, whose War of 1812 heroes are Isaac Brock and Laura Secord, the conflict is a different matter altogether, remembered for its glorious victories over American invaders.
“Thus the war that was supposed to attach the British North American colonies to the United States accomplished exactly the opposite,” the late Canadian historian Pierre Berton wrote in his two-volume history of the conflict. “It ensured that Canada would never become a part of the Union to the south. Because of it, an alternative form of democracy grew out of the British colonial oligarchy in the northern half of the continent.”
All this was two centuries ago, but it remains potentially awkward today.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which often stresses renowned moments in Canadian history, vowed in its federal election platform to undertake a vigorous commemoration of the war. Now, however, it is trying quietly to steer the commemoration away from noisy celebrations of American defeat, an effort that may not be entirely successful.
Canadian military historian Jack Granatstein believes the commemoration will be the occasion for what he calls an anti-American festival. “The normal discourse in Canada is anti-American,” he says. “It’s a secular religion, and this is the only acceptable form of bigotry in Canada. So when we have a chance to get up on our high horse and be self-righteous and say we whipped the United States, we’ll do so. It doesn’t mean more than one Canadian in a hundred knows a thing about the war. They don’t. Usually we have a moral superiority. This time we have 200-years’-old military superiority.” . . .
The war ended in a draw, but the contest to conduct the most comprehensive commemoration isn’t even close. The Canadians have appropriated millions, the Americans hardly anything. At this rate, the Canadians will appropriate the war entirely, at least for the next several years. Which brings us to a lesson for our time: Even forgotten wars can be lost 200 years later.
HT: Jimmy, my brother, who remarks, “I was wondering if our Canadian neighbors know that when we play the Star Spangled Banner before ballgames with the Toronto Blue Jays, the ‘bombs bursting in air’ were aimed at Canadians. I just hope they don’t find out, and to commemorate the 200th’s anniversary of the war of 1812 they add another verse to Oh! Canada, which celebrates how they defeated us in our northern campaign to liberate them from the British.” Actually, Jimmy, if you would come to visit us out here, far from Oklahoma, we would take you to Ft. McHenry in Baltimore harbor where that song was written and where you would learn that these were bombs being lobbed by British mortars into American fortifications. But still, your point is well-taken. I can’t understand why these countries we are always trying to liberate, to the point of going to the great trouble and expense of invading them, just don’t want to be liberated!