The War of 1812 — the war everybody “won”!

Recently there has been a lot of notice commemorating the North American War of 1812. And though a historical conflict might seem an odd topic for a blog whose self-proclaimed idiom is pop culture, it’s an interesting thing to reflect on both as it relates to culture…and to propaganda. And as I’ve said before — pop culture is, in its way, propaganda.

Now I haven’t done a bunch of serious research to prep for this piece — much of what I’m drawing upon is just my memory, bits and pieces of historical trivia I’ve picked up over the years.

But the War of 1812 is a somewhat fascinating topic because I get the impression that the different participants regard it rather differently. If you ask a Canadian, they would say Canada won it. If you ask an American, they’d say America won it. And if you ask a British person…well, I suspect they don’t give it too much thought, because to them that period involved fighting Napoleon in Europe and the North American conflict was a sideline. When Tchaikovsky composed his famous 1812 Overture, he wasn’t thinking about North America (which, frankly, confused me as a kid as I wondered why this Russian guy was so interested in a Canadian war).

The war itself was a kind of muddled affair, involving the different participants, the different fronts, and so each party can focus on which ever aspect of it makes them look like the good guy.

So, as I recall the gist of the conflict (and, remember, I’m just going by memory here) the war went something like this: the British were harassing the Americans on the high seas, boarding their ships and the like. Ticked off, the Americans decided to invade and annex Canada which was a British colony. This then led to the British invading and attacking America. So the Americans say the British started it — by harassing their ships. The British and Canadians say the Americans started it by invading Canada which, after all, was minding its own business and hadn’t done anything to them. The Americans tend to remember the dastardly British invading American soil — conveniently forgetting their incursions into Canada. They sometimes recollect the burning of Washington (though sometimes not, as I suspect it’s a bit embarrassing to the ego) forgetting Americans had first set fire to Newark (later Niagara-on-the-Lake). And so on.

Even the war’s end is a muddle. Technically there was no “winner” as the Americans and British agreed to a cessation of hostilities. But Americans tend to claim they “won” because the declaration came immediately after a major American victory over the invading Brits and so they see the truce as capitulation…except the deal had already been hammered out before the battle took place, it’s just in the days before mass communication, it wasn’t until after the battle that the general public knew about it.

The stated motives for the war can very. As I say, the Americans invaded Canada supposedly as retaliation for British provocation…yet the Americans had tried — and failed — to annex the Canadian colonies earlier during their Revolution, so one can assume this was kind of on their “to do” list anyway, and they were just looking for an excuse (“Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?”)

Viewing the war in this light kind of makes you understand the complexity of foreign conflicts. I mean, Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain are all pretty pal-y today, so the War of 1812 is pretty much regarded as a minor misadventure, or is trotted out for the occasional friendly dig at one’s ally (a dig that usually gets misunderstood…since, as I say, everyone thinks they won it, or at least, that they certainly didn’t lose it). Heck, American and Canadian soldiers will stage friendly re-enacments of some of the battles. But people rarely agree upon who started it, who was the aggressor, or who even won. Now imagine if these countries weren’t allies and if this remained a bone of contention and was still cited as the justification for conflicts to this day!

Makes your head hurt, don’t it?

The importance of the War of 1812 varies in the different countries. I believe it is sort of noted in the U.K. but, as I say, kind of as a sideline to the true conflict which was Europe being over run by the Emperor Napoleon (we were kind of busy with something a wee bit more pressing, mates, the British might argue). But General Isaac Brock and others are still regarded as heroes who defended the Canadian colonies from the Yankee hordes (and all that invading Washington and New Orleans, well, crikey!, that was just retaliatory…we didn’t really mean nuthin’ by it). While the Americans also tend not to regard it as one of their keystones (not like the Revolution, or the Civil War) — probably because they do realize, once you look into it closely, it’s a bit of moral muddle. Still, they tend to see it as they won — the failed invasion of Canada was just a minor irrelevancy, and the true significance of the war was that it was the still fledgling America’s first true test of nation hood, repelling a British invasion.

How significant that was depends, of course, in part on how serious you figure the British were taking it — given as I say, they were preoccupied by that fellow Napoleon.

Some cynics have even suggested the War of 1812 was, in a way, America’s first Vietnam! That is, the Americans cockily marched into Canada, expecting a quick and easy victory over a rag tag group that they fully expected to rise up and join them, not to resist them. I think it was Thomas Jefferson who (in)famously declared the invasion of Canada would simply be a “mere matter of marching” into Canada.

I think the failure to annex Canada may actually have had later repercussions for American conflicts. Because at the time, although America had conscription to defend American soil…I believe an American citizen couldn’t be conscripted to invade a foreign land. So when the war went against them, and it was proving tougher, bloodier and, no doubt, colder than the American troops had expected…a number of them just went home. And I believe that led the U.S. government to re-write its rules on mandatory service to include foreign excursions which presumably influenced 20th Century conflicts.

In Canada, the War of 1812 holds a somewhat more significant position. Oh, it’s still a slightly ambiguous position, Canadians not entirely sure what to do with it. Canadians tend to regard it like a medal you might wear conspicuously on your lapel, but when someone asks about it, you self-depecratingly say: “Oh, that old thing? I forgot I was even wearing it.”

But regardless of who provoked who and who was justified in doing what, Canadians can say “we were minding our own business when the Americans came a-marching.” It was, after all, the only true foreign invasion of Canadian soil. It was the time Canada stood up to the mighty power house that was America — even if, y’know, America wasn’t quite the power house itself back then, and Canada was being backed up by big brother Britain.

But it’s all in the mythology, the legends, the — yes — propaganda.

Now the naysayers — and there always those, particularly any time Canadians start to show a little self-confidence or pride — the naysayers say Canada has nothing to boast about with the War of 1812…because Canada didn’t even exist back them. It was a conflict between America and Britain, period. And though I can understand some of that thinking…it doesn’t really hold up to any serious scrutiny. No real historian would point to a date and say, okay, everything before this is irrelevant. History is a continuum. It doesn’t just start and stop where we want it to (though people try — hence why the different parties in the war will cite different incidents as the one that started it). I think it was the military historian and international affairs columnist, Gwynne Dyer, who once made the point that when countries squabble about their “traditional” territory…they always selectively cite the period, however long ago, however brief, when their borders were their widest.

The conflict in the Canadian colonies took place on Canadian soil, involving the ancestors of those who would become Canadians, defending the culture and institutions that would eventually evolve into the country we know today. Canada didn’t spring up fully grown with the signing of a document in 1867…it was shaped and formed out of everything that went before. Otherwise there’d be no point to studying about Jacques Cartier, Champlain, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Plains of Abraham, the rebellions of 1837 and so on. And that’s true of all nations. Otherwise, the British really should stop making movies about King Arthur, because the Britain over which he ruled (in myth) bears little connection to the England of today — and the Britons of his time would probably barely recognize the Norman and Anglo-Saxon descended inhabitants of their land today. I don’t suppose there are too many Americans who would reject for not being true Americana the novels of a James Fenimore Cooper, or Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”…or Thanksgiving, for that matter!

Some have suggested the War of 1812 was the defining, watershed conflict in Canadian history. And though at first glance that might seem a bit over stated (as I say, even the Americans who Canada was fighting tend not regard it as that big a deal) that’s only because we see how the war ended…with the status quo retained. But if it had gone otherwise? Well, yeah, presumably Canada today would not exist. Upper Canada and Lower Canada would’ve become States, as no doubt would the rest of the provinces and territories in time.

Other events and battles in Canada might have altered the evolution of Canada if they had had different outcomes, but the War of 1812 would’ve pulled the curtain down (or the pall over) on any future Canada. And, hey, fans of alternate history science fiction can speculate about what an American super-country that stretched from the Mexican border to the Arctic Circle would mean (or would they have gone after Mexico next, just to finish their collection?). Maybe that would’ve made a more moderate, liberal America (with more “blue” states than “red”) or maybe it would’ve created an unstoppable monstrosity, with enough natural resources and might to be a world onto itself. Would the Civil War have happened if there was not a Canada providing safe haven to runaway slaves, and so pricking the conscience of northern Americans? Who knows? But for good or ill, a different outcome to the War of 1812 would have had life altering repercussions for Canada, America and possibly the world.

So in that sense, yeah, it was a big deal. And that’s why Sir Isaac Brock’s name graces street signs and even cities (Brockville) and folk heroes like Laura Secord get chocolates named after her (okay, um, yeah, I’m not sure how that followed, but anyway…), and that’s why Lundy’s Lane and Queenston Heights are commemorated in street names on Canadian military bases.

Relating to the notion of mythology and legend, and how we shape history to suit a narrative, the very fact that the resistance to American invasion involved a mix of U.K. troops, Canadian colonists, and Native Indians far from negating it as a Canadian story actually plays into Canada’s modern vision of immigration and multi-culturalism. A monolithic horde of white guys came pouring over the border…and the many faces and peoples of Canada came together to resist them. As I say: makes a good story.

Indeed, another aspect of the war is that the Canadians and the British had Native Indians on their side. Some have suggested that the Americans had an advantage during their revolution because they had adopted Indian-style guerrilla tactics against a British army more used to open conflict. Yet then the Americans tasted their own medicine in 1812, fighting not against people who had adopted such tactics…but who had created and defined those tactics to begin with.

The conflict gave rise to its own legends and folk heroes, and perhaps at the centre of that would be Isaac Brock and the Indian chief Tecumseh. Born in American territory, Americans tend to regard Tecumseh as an American figure…yet he died fighting for the Canadian colonies, so tends to be thought of as Canadian by Canadians. And, of course, he didn’t really think of himself as either! Part of the mythology of the War of 1812 is that Tecumseh, a powerful, charismatic, and influential chief had been promised an Indian homeland by the British. And part of the legend is that he and Brock developed a true and sincere comradeship. No Indian homeland arose out of the war, but the mythology is that if Tecumseh and Brock had not died in the battles — becoming martyrs in the name of the Canada that was to be — Tecumseh might have been powerful enough, and Brock influential enough, to see that the promise was honoured. So there is both tragedy…but a kind of “what if…?” mythology that is also attached to the war.

Granted — maybe if they had survived, the deal still would’ve fallen apart. For that matter, though a gestalt Indian homeland might have seemed like the best of a bad situation to Tecumseh, would it really have worked? I mean, the First Nations were hardly a unified culture. Imagine someone fencing off a chunk of land and telling all the European nations they can live there as one culture! Would it have preserved Native culture…or would it have seen all the weaker cultures assimilated into whoever was the most powerful?

But, as I say, it’s all speculation.

Heroes and villains and what motives we attribute to which participants is part of the game of history…and of pop culture. Sometimes we make angels out of sinners, and villains out of guys just muddling through. And sometimes we exaggerate, distort, or outright misrepresent things to suit the story.

In the Hollywood American Revolution film, The Patriot, detractors claimed they literally made up Nazi-style atrocities to blame on the British in order to make the conflict seem more black and white — presumably because they felt the reality was less stirring (and that slogans about “no taxation without representation” would hardly light up a marquee poster). I think I read that the fictional hero of The Patriot had originally been intended to be the real life Francis Marion (already featured in a 1950s TV series as The Swamp Fox starring, ironically, a Canadian: Leslie Nielsen)…until someone pointed out Marion owned slaves and it might seem incongruous to a contemporary audience to root for a hero fighting for “freedom” and “democracy” who kept other men in chains (and might then lead audiences to remember the “freedom” the revolutionaries were fighting for also didn’t include women or a whole lot of groups). George Washington is popularly seen as THE great American hero, but some cynics have suggested his revolution had less to do with freedom and taxes, and more to do with the fact that Washington and his gang wanted lands the British crown had set aside for the Indians, and the British government expected the American colonists to honour those treaties. Cue: a revolution, and suddenly those deals no longer need be respected. Hence why 35 years later, Tecumseh and the First Nations were fighting against the “free” Americans on the side of the British.

Heck, I’m just spit-balling here, but relating to my earlier point about how history is a continuum, there’s another kernel to chew on. If the Americans had been nicer to the First Nations, and not pursued “Indian Wars”, perhaps Tecumseh and his group wouldn’t have sided with the British, and maybe the invasion of Canada would’ve been successful!

As I say: popular history is all about what makes the best story.

As a kid, the popular American portrayal of Benedict Arnold was as a snivelling, cowardly weasel — a traitor second only to Judas in popular culture. As I got older, and knew more about history, I wondered why the Americans were so hung up on him. After all, the Revolution wasn’t entirely a revolution…as it was equally a civil war. Not everyone in the American colonies supported the revolutionaries (some fled to Canada, persecuted by the “free-loving” rebels) so surely there were thousands of so-called traitors to the cause (from a revolutionary’s perspective) — why pick on Arnold? And then I read that it was because Arnold, far from being a snivelling coward, was a war hero, a big deal. His defection was, at the time, seen as a major morale blow to the independence cause. But it makes a better story, years later, to depict him as weasel. (And if Arnold had been a British general who switched to the revolutionaries…well, I suspect Americans would celebrate his turncoat-ism as an act of valour and heroism).

The famous picture of George Washington bravely crossing the Delaware is a classic image of Americana…but Washington’s success at Delaware was, I believe, only because he led an attack on Christmas when the British had assumed there was a mutually respected ceasefire. In other words, it was a sneak attack! But then Brock enjoyed one of his first victories in 1812 by taking an American fort by virtue of the fact that the isolated American garrison…didn’t realize war had been declared, so didn’t get overly worried when troops marched out of the forest!

Regardless of the truth and fiction, the true heroes and villains, from a Canadian point of view, the War of 1812 makes a kind of good, clean cut story. It was, as mentioned, the only invasion of Canada — well a Canada starting to form into, and establish the borders, of the Canada we know now — and one with little moral ambiguity, unlike the Plains of Abraham, or conflicts with First Nations, in which even today the different sides can view the events with mixed feelings (obviously the Native people would say they were invaded by the French and English, the French by the English…see what I mean about this continuum thing?)

In 1812 Canada was the innocent victim. Canada was attacked. There was a hero. There was a villain. Given just a light dressing of ethical ambiguity since, obviously, the Americans saw themselves as bringing democracy to Canada…and Canada would soon chart its own course away from Great Britain. But it was democracy…at the barrel of a gun. It was freedom…as dictated by American terms, shaped by American interests. It was not a people rising up against oppressors…it was oppressors marching in, killing and burning, insisting everyone must be like them. And I’m not sure that’s freedom…or democracy.

Yet despite this, despite Laura Secord being a household name in Canada, and Brock’s name immortalized, I think there has only been one Canadian movie about the war…called, appropriately, The Chronicles of 1812. It was made by a 1980 production company that specialized in ultra cheap (filmed, literally, on video tape) movies for the Hamilton TV station, CHCH. They were certainly ambitious, populist movies — thrillers, horror or, in the case of Chronicles of 1812, historical adventure…but I can’t honestly say they were that good.

But that’s about it.

So why no others? Well, budget, for one — historical dramas are rare in Canada, anyway. Let alone a historical drama that would require stunts and action scenes. And I suspect the very nature of the adversary make it seem impolitic to producers — and certainly with little chance of a U.S. sale! Which kind of ties back into a recurring theme here about pop culture. I mean, if we really are saying a pivotal, seminal event in Canadian history is a verboten topic when it comes to Canadian movies or TV because producers are afraid it would cause controversy in another country — that’s a sad comment on the independence of Canadian entertainment. After all, though hardly a ubiquitous topic in American pop culture, it does crop up occasionally, presenting the American version of the story (how they were invaded by the British, and how they “won” the war — heck, the American national anthem was penned during the War of 1812).

But a Canadian take could be the stuff of great drama.

Whether as a historically authentic tale about real personalities — perhaps a kind of buddy bro-mance about the relationship between Brock and Tecumseh (a few years ago there was a kind of dramatized documentary — a documentary but with a few re-enacted scenes — with Karl Pruner as Brock and Raoul Trujillo as Tecumseh). Or perhaps the Laura Secord story starring, say, Rachel McAdams (okay, sure, I think the real Secord was middle aged and probably built like a tank — one story has her dragging her wounded husband many kilometres to safety) but, hey, we’re talking story telling. There’s at least one war time folk hero I could name who could be used as the source, not for a movie, but a freaking weekly TV series of swashbuckling adventure! But I won’t name him because my late brother wrote an entire, never produced rock opera about him — a good opera, certainly people who have heard the tunes continued to hum them months later. And though I don’t have the resources, or show biz know how, currently to do anything with it — I’d hate to see the story get over-exposed and cliched before, and if, I ever did.

Or what about as just pure pop corn escapism? Swashbuckling espionage about a Scarlet Pimpernel-esque Canadian ferreting out American plans. Or dastardly Americans developing some Steam Punk super weapon that will win the war and our plucky Canadian heroes must stop them (and Laura Secord’s famous cow could be a robot — like Transformers only, y’know, with more moo-ing). Or a commando group of Canadian defenders come upon some dead Americans who had accidentally unearthed an ancient supernatural evil…

Heck, I think I read a comment from Canadian actor Colm Feore, one of the stars of The Borgias, who said given Canada had been involved with a number of this new genre of R-rated made-for-cable historical soap operas of sex and profanity (including The Borgias, The Tudors, and Camelot) maybe it was time to do one about Canadian history. Maybe 1812 (well, the Canadian front) would be a great setting…precisely because of the various nations involved making it an ideal co-production. Think of the characters that could be invented! A fanatical American general who is really just seeking revenge on Canada for his having lost a foot to frost bite during an aborted invasion of Canada during the Revolution — paired with an aide who is acting from sincere motives, of course (and has a star crossed affair with a Canadian lass). A British soldier transferred to North America from the European front, but still suffering from shell shock. A Canadian who fights for Canada because he can see in it a future of pluralism and justice if not strangled in its infancy. And so on. Colm Feore could play Brock, the men could use lots of cable-approved four letter words, and the women could be impossibly beautiful and prone to dropping their petticoats at the oddest times. It practically writes itself.

And it’s all propaganda, baby.

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2 Responses to The War of 1812 — the war everybody “won”!

  1. cindy says:

    “like Transformers only, y’know, with more moo-ing”!


  2. Eh? says:

    I’m very interested in the War of 1812, but thanks to the sheer amount of propaganda and confusion over who won I really know nothing about it. Thanks for shedding a bit of light on the actual history.