War of 1812 Bicentennial and the Great North American Peace

16 09 2011

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is rapidly approaching. I’m moderately interested in social memory (i.e., how people who aren’t trained historians think about historical events and how the memory of events are manipulated for present-day political purposes), so I’m going to make some predictions about how the anniversary of the war will be exploited by political commentators and governments in Britain, the United States, English-speaking Canada, and Quebec. Historians should rarely make predictions, but in this case I think that I can prognosticate with a reasonable degree of confidence.

Americans like to believe that their country won a clear victory in the War of 1812. In reality, the terms of the peace were  ambiguous enough to allow both sides to claim victory. I suspect that much of the American media coverage of the War and its various anniversaries over the next four years will emphasize that the United States was the clear victor.

In Britain, the War of 1812 is rarely discussed, in part because it is overshadowed by the Napoleonic Wars, and because paying attention to this particular conflict would be inconsistent with the idea of the “special relationship”, the powerful myth that Britain and the United States ought to be close and permanent allies. (Note that I am using the word myth in its original, non-pejorative sense). Of course, not all British people buy into this myth, as was illustrated most vividly during the Iraq War, when Tony Blair was routinely denounced as George Bush’s poodle.

Some British people view the special relationship in terms of a strictly bilateral relationship between the UK and the US, which leaves the smaller English-speaking countries out of the analysis. In other cases, the idea of the Anglo-American special relationship is wrapped up in a modernized version of the pan-Anglo-Saxon “race patriotism” once articulated by Andrew Carnegie and Winston Churchill. Carnegie, it will be remembered, was an enthusiastic supporter of the idea of an Anglo-Saxon union embracing the United States and the British Empire. Churchill played with similar themes of Anglo-Saxon unity and superiority in his writings on the history of the English-speaking peoples. Since 2000, the idea of Anglo-Saxon unity has been revived by such authors as Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and Walter Russell Mead. Mead, who is one of the most influential foreign policy intellectuals in the United States, makes just one brief reference to the War of 1812 is his massive tome God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.  Mead’s narative emphasizes cooperation between the two Anglo-Saxon powers. Similarly, Roberts downplays the disagreements within the Anglo-Saxon family of nations in his recent and quasi-Churchillian history of the English-speaking peoples.

In any event, I suspect that most coverage of the War of 1812’s anniversary in the British press will emphasize that the War of 1812 took place in a very distant time and that today Britain and America are best friends. The stress will be placed on the special relationship and two centuries of Anglo-American friendship.

I suspect that the French language media in Canada will pay little attention to the war’s anniversary. The Rebellions of 1837-8 against British rule loom larger in the collective memory of French Canadians than the War of 1812, which saw French- and English-speakers unite in resisting the American invaders, as was seen at the Battle of Châteauguay River.

Let me turn now to English-speaking Canada.  The War of 1812 has a very important place in the social memory of [English] Canadian nationalists because it saw the invasion of what is now Canada by the United States. In the popular Canadian narrative, the invading Americans had their asses kicked by the brave Canadian citizen-soldiers, who then went on to burn the White House. When I taught at a Canadian university I was told repeatedly by students that Canadian troops from Toronto had destroyed the White House. At times when anti-Americanism has flared up in Canada (e.g., during the Vietnam and Iraq Wars), the memory of the War of 1812 has been invoked by nationalists in [English-speaking] Canada. Although academic historians do not subscribe to this view, it has considerable purchase with the general population. The late Pierre Berton’s works on the War of 1812 continue to sell well in Canada, seven years after the death of their author.

For history professors, teaching about the War of 1812 involves a certain amount of re-education. Typically, it requires pointing out the many anachronistic concepts have crept into the popular discourse surrounding this war. For instance, I always began my lecture on the War of 1812 by quoting media reactions to a recent survey that showed that many Canadians did not know that “Canada defeated the United States in the War of 1812”. Typically, media pundits deplored this evidence of Canadians` ignorance about their own past.  I then asked my students to explain what was wrong with this survey. Usually a bright student pointed out that Canada did not exist as a nation state at the time in question: territories that later became part of Canada were among the battlegrounds on which British and American forces fought. It is therefore a mistake to speak of a Canadian victory in this war. I then want on to explain that most farmers and other people living in Upper Canada and other borderland regions were emphatically neutral during this conflict between London and Washington. I also pointed out that many of them were New Englanders who had moved to Upper Canada in search of land and really didn’t care one way or the other about which flag they lived under. I suggested in lecture that the Upper Canadians’ laregly indifferent attitude to the outcome of the war is consistent with the behaviour of peasants people in conflict zones around the world today: most peasants in Kashmir don”t really care whether they live under the flag of India or Pakistan.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail spoke about the planning for the bicentennial events. Historian Jack Granatstein was quoted— he is very concerned that the commemoration might degenerate into anti-Americanism. This is a legitimate concern, but I also expect that the social memory of this War will be twisted or spun a variety of directions.

I predict that spin placed on the War of 1812 by the Canadian media will follow a limited number of tropes or narratives, or which anti-Americanism is but one. I have listed these tropes below in ascending order of intellectual respectability.

1)     a) Crude Anti-Americanism. This trope goes as follows: Canadians in 1812 united to fight the evil American invaders. Canadians in 1812 were anti-American, ergo, present-day Canadians should also be hostile to the United States, American mass culture, etc.

b) The memory of the War of 1812 will also be used to try to justify the mindlessly pro-American attitude typical of much of the political right in present-day Canada. We will hear it said that the War of 1812 shows that Canada and the United States have always been and always should be allies. In other words, present-day Canada should therefore support American wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever the next country might be. This somewhat absurd historical argument in favour of a pro-American position has been articulated in the past.

For instance, in the second week of April 2003, a group called “Canadians for Bush” organized a rally at Queenston, the site of a famous War of 1812 battle where an American invasion force was defeated. The battlefield is now marked by a monument to Sir Isaac Brock, who died there. The people at this rally celebrated the fact that Americans、Britons, and Canadians had fought alongside each other in the War of 1812 and about that it was unfortunate that Canada did not participate in the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.

Brock Monument

It appears that the organizers of this rally were operating on the assumption that the American, Canadian, and British troops at Queenston had been fighting against some common enemy, perhaps the Germans or someone like that. I thought that this rally especially curious, as there are blue plaques at the site clearly explaining that the British regulars and colonial militiamen were fighting the forces of the United States.  This rally was organized by an American-educated  pastor who had previously been a candidate for the Christian  Heritage Party and who had once protested against the dinosaur skeletons in the Royal Ontario Museum. The really interesting thing about this rally was  that it was attended by Tim Hudak, now the PC leader in Ontario,  and Jim Flaherty, who is now Canada’s Minister of Finance, which shows that the idea of Anglo-Saxon race patriotism has infected relatively mainstream politicians as well.

2) We can also expect to hear something about North American/Western moral superiority and two centuries of peace. Some commentators will use the anniversary of the war to point out that there hasn’t been a major war along the Canadian-American border since 1815. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was common for commentators in North American to contrast the rationality and peacefulness of the North Americans with the warlike disposition of the Europeans, who were constantly slaughtering each other over Alsace-Lorraine and other territories. Of course, the proponents of this self-congratulatory view were overlooking all sorts of evidence of the warlike propensities of North Americans, such as the Civil War in the United States, the massacres of Native Americans,  or the now notorious plans by Canadian army officers to invade the United States. Nevertheless, some good scholarly research on why Canada and the United States had refrained from fighting each other for so long was produced in the 1920s and 1930s, much of it sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Anyway, we can expect to see this sort of rhetoric revived as 1812 approaches, although I suspect that North America will no longer be contrasted with Europe. After all, the French and the Germans now share a currency and have turned their swords into ploughshares. I suspect that the pacific North Americans of the last two centuries will be contrasted by commentators with the inherently violent and warlike races of the Middle East.

3) The role of the First Nations in the conflict will also be highlighted, quite legitimately. We will also hear it said that without the support of First Nations warriors, Canada would have been conquered by the United States. Of course, we won’t hear much about the subsequent transformation of the First Nations from warriors to wards of the state, nor will the public hear about how the Canadian and American governments subsequently cooperated in assaulting the sovereignty of native peoples. I predict that the following Heritage Minute video will be broadcast ad naseum in the next few years.

4) a) The proponents of the theory of the democratic peace will also use the War of 1812 bicentennial as a vehicle for disseminating their pet theory. They will be able to do so since the long period of peace between the United States and the British Empire that followed the end of this conflict is an important data point that supports this theory of international relations. Democratic peace theory holds that democracies never go to war with each other and that as nations move from non-democratic regimes (e.g., monarchy or dictatorship or rule by tiny elites) to universal suffrage, the chances of wars breaking out will decrease. Establishing when exactly Britain and the United States became truly democratic countries is tricky, especially since a large proportion of US households (i.e., Blacks) were massively underrepresented in legislatures until the 1960s, but it is clear that both countries experienced democratization in the decades after 1815. Subsequently, there were diplomatic incidents in which Britian and the United States pulled back from the brink of war.  There are serious limits to the explanatory power of democratic peace theory, but it is a theory that deserves to be exposed to the wider public. One hopes that the references to “two centuries of peace” one will hear in the media in the next few years will be coupled with some attempt to provide an explanation for why there has been peace between the United States and the British Empire. There will probably be references in the press to a book called The North American Democratic Peace: Absence of War and Security Institutions Building in Canadians-U.S. Relations (1867-1958) by Stéphane Roussel.

b) The theory of the commercial peace is one of the major rivals of the theory of the democratic peace. Basically, it holds that the way to prevent countries from going to war with their neighbours is to promote economic integration. In other words, cross-border trade promotes peace. The history of Canada-US relations would appear to support this idea. The merits of the theory of the commercial peace were debated a few months ago in the Cato Unbound forum devoted to explain why today’s world is relatively peaceful. There are, of course, problems with the theory of the commercial peace. After all, Germany and Britain went to war in 1914 despite being each other’s best customers. Nevertheless, it is a theory that is worth being aired in newspapers. One expects that Erik Garztze and the other proponents of commercial peace theory will use the 1812 bicentennial as a teachable moment for communicating their ideas to the general public. The journalist Tom Friedman has tried to popularize this theory with his famous quip that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants have ever gone to war with each other. This statement was true until 2008, when Russia and Georgia fought a very brief war.

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