If you ask the average American about the War of 1812, you’ll probably hear about Fort McHenry, the Star Spangled Banner and maybe the Battle of New Orleans. But ask your average Brit and you may get a blank stare. The war we call our “second war of independence,” the one in which we threw off the British for good, doesn’t even register in the United Kingdom.
Andrew Lambert, a professor of Naval History at Kings College, the University of London, says the British were in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars at the time, trying to hold off one of the greatest generals ever. And they were quite proud of having defeated Napoleon, the ultimate modern warrior, at Trafalgar and Waterloo. "James Madison,” he says, “really doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to heroes we’ve beaten. You don’t feel big about yourself by beating up James Madison. He’s not, you know, it doesn’t register.”
In fact, President Madison and the U.S. were the aggressors, says Don Graves, a Canadian historian. “Come on, we weren’t doing anything. What were Canadians doing? We were 600,000 people, one tenth the population of the United States. We had really nothing to do with the origins of the war,” Graves says.
Lambert and Graves are among nearly 50 scholars presenting papers this week at “From Enemies to Allies,” a conference on the War of 1812 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Graves argues that part of the US war aim was to wrest Canada from the British. He says American historians contest the idea that Canada was the object of the war. But whether it was or not, it was “the only place the United States could fight a war against Great Britain.” With a navy a tenth the size of the Royal Navy, the U.S. certainly couldn’t take on the British on the high seas.
But Don Hickey, a professor of history at Wayne State College in Nebraska, says that’s one of many myths surrounding the War of 1812. The U.S. went to war over British maritime policies, he argues; the Orders in Council, which restricted U.S. trade with countries under the dominion of Napoleon, and the British practice of impressing American merchant seamen into the Royal Navy. “Canada was the means to achieve concessions on the maritime issues,” he says, “not an end in and of itself. Although if we had conquered Canada it’s possible we would not have given it up.” Because the Canadians weren’t part of the run-up to the war, it looks to them as if the United States “simply invaded Canada, hoping to conquer and annex it,” he says.
Despite their disagreements about the start of the war, they agree about the end. The British won, despite what Americans may think. The British kept Canada, as well as the maritime policies that Americans say were the reason for the war. Still, almost everyone involved walked off happy. The Americans are happy because they think they won. The Canadians were happier because they know they won--they remained part of the British Empire. And the British are happiest because they’ve forgotten all about it.
The only losers were the native peoples living east of the Mississippi River. They were pushed off their lands, driven west of the river and in some cases forced onto reservations.
This story is part of our series “Rockets’ Red Glare: The War, the Song and Their Legacies,” made possible by a grant from Star Spangled 200, a national bicentennial in Maryland.
Check out this War of 1812 ditty by The Arrogant Worms, a Canadian comedy troupe that specializes in making you laugh when you kind of don't want to.