Bad PR Move By British Embassy in Washington

25 08 2014

Bad PR Move By British Embassy in Washington 

A few days after a man with a British accent beheaded a US citizen on YouTube, the British Embassy misused Twitter in a spectacularly bad way by making a joking reference to the burning of the White House in the War of 1812. 

: Commemorating the 200th anniversary of burning the White House. Only sparklers this time!

 

The tweet generated an immediate and hostile reaction from Americans. Judging by the twitter handles and avatar images, many of the offended individuals are fans of the Tea Party and the NRA. See here, here. and here.

The British Embassy later issued a grovelling apology for the tweet.

The tasteless tweet was made at a poolside party that featured a White House cake (see above). My guess is that a British embassy employee with a smartphone in one hand and a beer in another thought it would be a funny thing to post on twitter. 

Talk about bad PR! It’s also out of character for the British diplomatic corps, which had avoided any displays of triumphalism in its recent commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War: although one individual in the British Cabinet (Education Secretary Michael Gove) spoke about the First World War as a conflict between good and evil, the UK’s Foreign Office’s commemoration depicted the outbreak of the war as a terrible tragedy caused by bumbling politicians of many different nationalities. This non-jingoistic approach to remembering 1914 doubtless helps Britain’s relations with its EU trading partners today.

I note with interest that the Canadian government has discontinued its commemorations of the War of 1812, likely out of fear of antagonizing its largest trading partner. 





War of 1812

31 01 2013

Each week, the BBC Radio 4 show “In Our Time” tackles a historical topic. The host, Melvyn Bragg, will interview three academic experts. This week, they were dealing with the Anglo-American War of 1812.

This week’s three experts were:

Kathleen Burk
Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London

Lawrence Goldman
Fellow in Modern History at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford

Frank Cogliano
Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh

You can listen here. Unlike BBC TV shows, which can only be viewed in the UK, you can listen to this programme anywhere in the world. Moreover, every single In Our Time broadcast (585 in total) is available online.

The In Our Time website provides a list of sources for every show. I’ve pasted this week’s list below.

Carl Benn, The War of 1812 (Osprey, 2002)

George Robert Gleig, A Narrative of the Campaigns of the British Army: at Washington, Baltimore, and New Orleans by an officer (John Murray, 1821)

Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (University of Illinois Press, 1989)

Reginald Horsman, The Causes of the War of 1812 (Various publishers, 1962)

Reginald Horsman, The Diplomacy of the New Republic, 1776-1815 (Harlan Davidson, 1985)

Lawrence Kaplan, Entangling Alliances with None: American Foreign Policy in theAge of Jefferson (Kent State University Press, 1987)

Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812(Faber and Faber, 2012)

Jon Latimer, 1812: War with America (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Bradford Perkins, The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Leonard Sadosky, Revolutionary Negotiations: Indians, Empires, and Diplomats in the Founding of America (University of Virginia Press, 2009)

J. C. A. Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies (Knopf, 2010)





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.





Digital History Bleg

29 03 2011

Someone with an Ontario IP address  just sent me the following message. It is clear from context that they wanted their query to be placed on my blog so that they could get as many responses as possible. So here it is:

I have just published a trail guide for Battle of Queenston Heights – October 13th 1812.  Entitled “12 Hours That Saved A Country”, by Cameron Porteous, this 60-page soft cover book details Cameron’s walk around Queenston documenting the hour by hour action with his own words and the production of 15 evocative paintings.  I would like to see this easy-to-read book as an I-Pad APP and linked with the navigational system for Niagara.  Any suggestions as to how to do?

 

Please post your answer in the comments section below.





War of 1812 iPhone App

10 01 2011

Brock

Kevin Kee, a history professor at Brock University has developed a GPS-guided interactive tour of War of 1812 sites in Ontario, including Niagara-on-the-Lake and Queenston Heights, available as an iPhone app. (see here).

Kee is the Canada Research Chair of Humanities Computing, and an Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Centre for Digital Humanities, at Brock University. Before arriving to Brock in 2005, he was a Director and Project Director at the National Film Board of Canada (1999-2002), and an Assistant Professor in the Departments of History, and Integrated Studies in Education (D.I.S.E.) (2002-2005), as well as the Director of Undergraduate Programs in D.I.S.E (2004-05), at McGill University.

Kee’s research is focused on best practices for the design, development and use of computer simulations and serious games for history. This research has been funded by the Canada Research Chairs Program, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Heritage Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, and Brock University. He directs the Simulating History Research Lab at Brock University, and lead the “Simulating History” and Playing with Technology in History projects.


I’ve had a look at the App. It is  a great project for which Dr Kee should be commended!   However, I have a few criticisms.

First, why is this app only available on iTunes? As an Android user, I would like to be able to use it.

 

Map of the Niagara Frontier, 1869 Benson J. Lossing in The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812, page 382

Second, fighting along the Niagara River took place on either side of the Canada-US border, which runs down the middle of the river. For some reason, this app only gives us information about battles on the Canadian side of the border and totally ignores battles fought a few miles away on US soil.  I think that this odd, especially since Canadian iPhones will work if taken across the border, albeit with roaming charges. The decision to entrench the Canada-US border, which is a completely arbitrary line, into the very structure of the app seems unduly parochial.

Third, wouldn’t this app be more useful if it included information on battles in other regions of the Great Lakes? Detroit, Toronto, and other places that are now major urban centres saw fighting during the war.





Alan Taylor Interviewed About War of 1812.

1 01 2011

I have posted about Alan Taylor`s new history of the War of 1812. On Christmas Eve, public radio in Southern California broadcast an interview in which Taylor talks about his book. To hear the interview, click here.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor tells the story of a war that redefined North America. Taylor presents the war not as a second war of independence (as it is conventionally understood) but rather as a complicated civil war with many parties struggling over the legacy of the American Revolution. Immigrants, Indians, soldiers and settlers fought along the undefined northern borderland to decide the fate of the continent.





Alan Taylor on the War of 1812

11 12 2010

I have just finished reading Alan Taylor’s new book The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies. It’s an important and well-written book, albeit one with one flaw I will discuss below.

As the bicentennial of the war approaches, I am certain that many people will turn to this work as a reference. This book incorporates recent scholarship, such as Carl Benn’s wonderful study of the Iroquois in the War of 1812. It is also based on extensive archival research in both Canada and the United States. Although Prof. Taylor is an American, he certainly cannot be accused of bias towards the United States in terms of his choice of archival source or overall interpretation.  Indeed, if one did not know that the identity of the author, it would be hard to guess his nationality. Patriotic Americans looking for celebratory stories will be disappointed by this volume, as will anti-American Canadian undergraduates  looking for heroes to add to the Canadian nationalist pantheon.  For instance, Taylor shows that most of the people living in what is now Ontario were essentially neutral during the war– or at the very least they tried to avoid getting involved in the conflict. Taylor destroys what remains of the militia myth, the once-common idea that the farmers of Upper Canada sprang to the defence of the Empire in 1812.

Taylor’s thesis is that the War of 1812 was less of a conventional war between nation states than a civil war — or rather a continuation of the civil war that was the American Revolution. Many of the participants in the War of 1812 had fought in the  Revolution and were spoiling to finish feuds that had been started a generation earlier. In other cases, the militiamen were the children of the Tories and Rebels of the Revolution.  Some of the family feuds that became wrapped up in the War of 1812 had their origins in upstate New York in the 1770s, the source of many of the United Empire Loyalists.

The War of 1812 was also a clash of ideologies. It was a struggle between the new and relatively egalitarian ideology of republicanism, which was represented most clearly by the Jeffersonian Republicans, and the defenders of the monarchy in North America. The two decades before the outbreak of the war saw what was effectively a Cold War between Empire and Republic in North America. In 1812, a range of factors including land hunger, American discontent with Britain’s alliance with Natives in the Old North West, and the issue of sailors’ rights caused this war to become a hot one.

The ideological nature of the war placed the Federalists, the conservative faction who had lost power to the Jeffersonians in 1801, in an awkward position. The Federalists’ anglophilia and admiration for the British aristocracy led them to oppose President Madison’s war against the British Empire. Indeed, some Federalists engaged in behaviour that was tantamount to treason: in late 1814, when politicians from Federalist-dominated New England seriously considered secession from the United States. Many Federalists and others in border communities arrange a sort of modus vivendi or local peace with the nearby British forces, which helps to explain why there was relatively little fighting along the St Lawrence River. The War of 1812 also exacerbated  the existing political divisions within Upper Canada between Loyalists and “late Loyalists” and the various shades of Reformers: some anti-establishment politicians in Upper Canada actually sided with the invading Americans. Most people in Upper Canada, however, were economic migrants from the United States who had come north seeking cheap land. Their attitude towards the conflict between the distant governments in London and Washington was essentially one of neutrality– they sought to avoid military service or indeed getting tangled up in the struggle. Taylor points out that US war aims were ambiguous– some of the military and civilian leaders of the US favoured the permanent occupation of Upper Canada, but others were opposed to the idea of joining this territory to the union. The ambiguity of the Americans’ public statements on this issue likely served to discourage some in Upper Canada from throwing in their lot with the American invaders.  Why risk a postwar prosecution for treason by helping an enemy that may or may return the conquered territory to the British at the bargaining table?

The War of 1812 was fought between two peoples speaking the same language and connected by close family ties. In some cases, it was literally a war of brother against brother.  First Nations warriors fought on both sides of the conflict. French Canadian habitants had their farms devastated by both nation’s armies. The Irish in North America were also divided by this conflict: many rebels of the 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule fought in the US army in this war. At the same time, most of the British regiments in Upper Canada were Irish.

The thing I liked best about this book was Taylor’s explanation for why the US did not do the obvious thing and try harder to seize control of the St Lawrence River, the supply line linking Lower Canada to the British armies in Upper Canada. I have always been baffled by the decision of the Americans to have devoted resources to repeated attempt to attack Upper Canada along the Detroit and Niagara Rivers rather than simply seizing control of the St Lawrence at, say, Prescott, Brockville, or Gananonque.

Taylor provides us with a plausible explanation for this curious decision: much of the land on the American side of the St Lawrence River was being developed by a financier who wanted to keep the actual fighting away from the properties he was attempting to sell to settlers. This financier had political clout in Washington because he was also the source of many of the loans the Republican administration was using to fight the war. Taylor shows that the low-tax ideology of the Republicans caused them to try to fight this war on the cheap, which severely hampered the US war effort.

This book gives us a very good account of the major campaigns and battles that took place along the northern frontier of the United States.  It also outlines the political history of Upper Canada from 1783 to 1812 in crystal-clear terms. As such, it will be essential reading for future generations of Canadian historians, not to mention scholars interested in the history of the Great Lakes States. However, this book’s coverage of military events in other parts of the continent is noticeably weak. For instance, we learn almost nothing about the burning of Washington and the Battle of New Orleans, important events mentioned only in passing by Taylor. Similarly, the decision of the Creek First Nation in Mississippi  to seize the opportunities created by the War of 1812 and launch their own campaign against the United States goes unexamined. Perhaps Taylor’s decision to focus on the northern US stems from the fact he is originally from Maine.

Taylor proves that the War of 1812 in the Great Lakes region had the characteristics of a civil war. However, one suspects that had he expanded his coverage to include the British amphibious landing at Washington or, so, the war in Louisiana, this thesis might have been undermined.

Overall, this is an excellent book. It reads well and would be suitable for undergraduates and members of the general public interested in this war.