Deeply Flawed Poll on War of 1812 Awareness

10 12 2009

The Canadian newspapers have published the results of a poll that has tried to gauge the average Canadians’ level of knowledge of the War of 1812. The pollsters asked Canadians: ”

Who won the War of 1812? Canada or the United States?”

The fact many Canadians were unable to give an answer has been the occasion of some debate and angst.

This is one of the most ridiculous polls I have every heard. I’m disturbed that so many people thought that “Canada” won the war. It is anachronistic to speak of “Canada” as being a combatant in this war. One might as well speak of the Roman conquest of the “United Kingdom”. The war was fought in a variety of places, including what is now “Canada”, between British and American forces, not to mention a variety of First Nations. War was declared by the United States on Britain and was ended with an inconclusive peace treaty between those two Powers. Most of the English-speaking colonists in Upper Canada were bystanders in this conflict between two empires.  The Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867 and only gradually acquired a diplomatic personality. In suggesting that “Canada” was a combatant in this war, the creators of this poll are suggesting a gross ignorance of history.

One might say that this was the war that both sides won, but that would involve restricting our focus to just Britain and the United States. Britain’s Native allies lost this war, big time.

The War of 1812 has become something of a touchstone for left-wing anti-Americans in Canada. Part of the folklore of this war is that Canada’s army burnt down the White House. Have a look at the video for this song by the Arrogant Worms, a Canadian group. The video shows George Bush Junior being chased out of the White House by Canadian troops in 1812.

For Canadians to celebrate the alleged British victory over the US in the War of 1812 is to miss the point. Canadians should instead be asking why Britain and the United States have remained at peace since 1815. The two countries drew close to war at various points in the nineteenth century, but their diplomats were always able to work out a solution. Someone should explain the democratic peace theory to the public.


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8 responses

10 12 2009
seankheraj

Canada didn’t win the War of 1812? Canada wasn’t even a political entity in 1812? Gasp!

This poll seems to be great evidence of the tenacity of invented traditions in Canadian history. I would suggest readers take a look at Norman Knowles’ _Inventing the Loyalists_ and Colin Coates’ and Cecilia Morgan’s _Heronies & History_ to begin to understand why so many Canadians continue to believe that we “won” the War of 1812.

11 12 2009
andrewdsmith

Those are all great sources. Another good one is: Mike O’Brien, “Manhood and the Militia Myth: Masculinity, Class and Militarism in Ontario, 1902-1914,” Labour/Le Travail, 42 (Fall 1998), 115-41

10 12 2009
Hal

Who Won the War of 1812?

American History Professor Donald Hickey states in his new book (Don’t Give up the Ship: Myths of the War of 1812): Who Won the War? “there are actually five groups of participants that must be considered: The biggest winner was Canada; then came Great Britain; and then the Indians living in Canada. The biggest losers were the Indians living in the United States [98% of them were exterminated by the end of the19th Century]; after them came the United States itself, which … for the first time in its history lost a war.”

When the War of 1812 started America’s leaders thought an invasion of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching,” as Thomas Jefferson confidently predicted. How could a nation of 8 million fail to subdue a struggling colony of 300,000? Yet, when the campaign year of 1812 ended, the only Americans left on Canadian soil were prisoners of war. Three American armies had been forced to surrender, and the Canadians were in control of all of Michigan Territory and much of Indiana and Ohio.

After two more years of War and another seven invasion attempts, none of Canada was occupied by American Forces and Canadian/British/Native forces occupied large chunks of land within the U.S..

By the end of the War U.S. trade had been strangled to practically nothing, the economy was grinding to a halt, the US Navy was blockaded in port, the US Army faced increasingly hostile odds on land, and the nation’s capital city lay in ashes. … And the issue over which America had gone to war — the impressment of seamen — was tactfully ignored in the peace treaty and the captured American territory returned. Too soon, the construction of reassuring myths in the immediate aftermath helped transform a futile and humiliating adventure that aimed to conquer Canada into one of defending the republic.

These facts can all be found in books by Pierre Berton (2001), Donald Graves (1999), Jon Latimer (2007), James Elliott (2009) and Donald Hickey (2008).

11 12 2009
andrewdsmith

Hal, Thanks for listing some good sources!

11 12 2009
zig misiak

I’m the chairman of the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812 for Brantford, Six Nations, Brant County. Here in our community the “americans” came right up to the Grand River in 1814. Many here say Brantford but “no” it was Six Nations Territory…..this is the part of re educating our general population. I see in some comments that statements were made that the “Americans” did not occupy territory in Upper and Lower Canada…..well in fact they did. And yes, the First Nations came out 3rd best after the war. I would say we “won the war”…..we did not gain territory but thats not the point…….when you hold back and invader i think the conclusion is the “you won”.

11 12 2009
andrewdsmith

Interesting point. Thanks for contributing!

11 12 2009
Harry

What I find particularly interesting about this war is that historians disagree on who if anyone won the war. Wesley Turner, who taught at Brock University, wrote a book titled The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won. Andrew Duncan Campbell, a Canadian, who taught at the University of Wales at Swansea, wrote in his book Unlikely Allies on page 11 : “…the treaty signed at Ghent was an admission by both sides that neither had won the conflict….” In a recent book by British historian Jeremy Black, The War of 1812 in The Age of Napoleon, the author states on pages 239 and 240: “The failure of both powers to achieve their goals and vindicate fully their martial reputation and image encouraged in each a measure of prudence and restraint that was to be important.”

It seems that it is possible to find an historian for whatever view one finds most agreeable.

11 12 2009
andrewdsmith

Jeremy Black’s point seems right on. After 1815, GB and the US repeatedly came to the brink of war but then drew back. The real victor in the War of 1812 may have been common sense and anti-war sentiment.

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