It was the Canadian writer and humorist Will Ferguson who once wrote ‘The Americans are our best friends – whether we like it or not.’ It’s a reference to the 49th parallel, which makes up for most of the frontier between Canada and the United States, being the longest undefended border in the world (although the same distinction also applies to the northern frontier with Alaska). It wasn’t always like this. Exactly 205 years ago a war broke out between the two countries – though it would be more accurate to call it a war between America and Britain, since Canada at the time was still a British colony and not an independent sovereign state. Maddeningly, it was a war in which there was no clear victor – though there has been ongoing historiographical controversy as to which side could more plausibly claim to have “won”.
The War of 1812 lasted a lot longer than 366 days – indeed, it lasted for exactly two years and eight months. America’s then president James Madison – one of the Founding Fathers – declared war on the UK on 18 June 1812. It’s the only time in history in which the two powers have been at war on opposite sides as independent sovereign states. Madison’s declaration came after around three years of “impressment” by the British, whereby Royal Navy sailors boarded American and neutral ships and dragged off both real and suspected deserters – even if they had become, or already were, US citizens. The RN had suffered from desertion, as some sailors would disappear to the States in search of better pay and conditions than they had been experiencing on the high seas. Controversy continues to rage as to whether the RN was within its rights to board American ships in this way, with most Canadian and British historians arguing that international law did not forbid this, and most American historians not mentioning international law at all. Whatever the legal basis for the actions of the British, the policy of impressment, pursued most enthusiastically by the then British prime minister Spencer Perceval (see previous Harold Rex article here), was undoubtedly a slap in the face for the Americans and a bruise to their national pride. With the British hell-bent on pursuing whatever extreme measures it deemed to be necessary to defeat Napoleonic France, and the government in Washington DC determined to protect US sovereignty and neutrality at all costs, war between the two states was probably inevitable. Perhaps it is a wonder why it took Madison three years to get round to declaring it – but he maybe deserves some credit here for having exhausted all diplomatic avenues first. By June 1812, however, Perceval was dead (q.v. Harold Rex‘s article on him), and the new government, lead by Lord Liverpool, had rescinded his controversial “Orders-in-Council”, but Madison declared war anyway. Why?
Put simply, the real reason Madison wanted war with the British was the all-too-tempting-to-miss opportunity of taking over the rest of North America: with the British preoccupied with fighting the French in Spain and on the high seas (or so the thinking went) they wouldn’t have nearly enough manpower to protect Canada. Madison’s predecessor (and fellow Founding Father) Thomas Jefferson supported his successor’s policy, confidently predicting in an August 1812 letter to a friend…
The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching; & will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, & the final expulsion of England from the American continent.
A “mere matter of marching”…? The fact that it wasn’t, and that the invasion failed, has understandably been instrumental in fuelling Canadian patriotism, and even some British patriotism among those few Brits who have heard of the War of 1812. The Americans were repeatedly repulsed in a number of attacks on south-west Ontario, but the British forces in turn failed to achieve any kind of decisive knock-out blow – although they did have the satisfaction of entering Washington DC and setting fire to most government buildings, including the Capitol and the White House (the only time the US capital city has ever been militarily attacked) in August 1814, in direct retaliation for the American forces’ burning of Canada’s (at the time) second-biggest city of York (present-day Toronto) the previous year.
With both sides tiring of the conflict by the late summer of 1814 – Napoleon had abdicated in April, so the British were geared toward making peace, and there was public pressure in both countries to resume the trade that the war had interrupted – delegates from the two sides met in the Flemish city of Ghent to discuss ending the war. Eventually, a Treaty was signed, on Christmas Eve, but the news of the Treaty didn’t reach North America until February – this being before the age of telegraphy, never mind the internet – and in the meantime the Americans had utterly thrashed the British forces in what turned out to the War’s last major battle at New Orleans on 8 January 1815. Such a result lends credence to the American belief that they had been the victors in the War – but the truth, as has already been noted, is that neither side “won”. The Americans had failed to achieve their objective of taking over Canada, and the British had been forced militarily to treat the US with considerably more respect than they had done so before the War. The Treaty of Ghent had contained some guarantees that the rights of indigenous American nations, most of whom had supported the British, would be respected after the War, but in practice the American authorities simply disregarded this part of the Treaty, and continued their expansion farther and farther West.
Perhaps the clearest evidence that the War ended in a “draw” is the fact that the frontier between the US and British North America was left exactly as it had been in 1812. At least those who took part in it hadn’t suffered the kind of losses that had afflicted Europe during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: in two years and eight months of combat, the Americans had suffered over 2,000 dead and 4,500 injured, while the respective British figures were over 1,000 and more than 3,500. Both sides could claim effective leadership: despite the opposition to the War from most of the population of New England, Madison nonetheless kept the nation together, and at the War’s end gained an added boost when the opposition Federalist Party (the party, incidentally, of Washington and Adams) collapsed, ultimately paying the price for never offering the President more than lukewarm support during a national emergency. Over in London, Lord Liverpool skilfully navigated his way through sharply divided cabinet- and public opinion, and kept both the nation and his government united at a time when Britain had effectively to fight on two fronts. Such an effective manager was Liverpool that he stayed in No 10 for fifteen years – longer than any other British prime minister at any time since the beginning of the 19th Century. If leadership is all that is needed to keep the two centuries of peace between America and Britain going, then we’d better hope and pray the quality of leadership in both Washington and London stays high…