In a recent post I raised the question of whether most Americans are as fuzzy about the origins of the War of 1812 as I was. I suspect that's so - most of us think we fought and won a defensive war (they burned Washington, after all), while actually we started the war and were lucky to come out of it intact.
Now there's a new book by respected historian Alan Taylor called "The Civil War of 1812: American citizens, British subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies." I ordered a copy from Amazon after reading a review in the latest New York Review of Books titled "The War We Lost - and Won."
By "Lost," the title refers to the fact that the U.S. achieved little but a few late naval victories that let it find an honorable peace. By "Won," the title refers to the fact that the war actually, for the first time, started to turn the citizens of the former colonies into feeling like a real nation.
Despite the murkiness of the start of the war - some historians think a combination of westerners with an eye on a Canada landgrab and southerners eyeing Spanish Florida pushed through the declaration of war - Taylor suggests a deep cause. He contends that both U.S. Republicans (most Federalist were against the war) and Loyalists in Canada felt the continent was not big enough for their two forms of government to coexist. America's rambunctious republic and an aristocratic empire were too different - one had to prevail. Taylor likens the War of 1812 to a continuation of the Revolutionary War, a "civil war between competing visions of America: one still loyal to the empire and the other still defined by its republican revolution against that empire."
That theory can be argued. But when it comes to who actually "won" the war, there's little question. Canada did. Canada, with a tiny fraction of the population of the U.S., held off the invaders. They took the American fort at the junction of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan without a fight. In August, 1812, an entire American army surrendered at Detroit without firing a shot. Did the British burn Washington? A year before, Americans burned and looted the capital of Upper Canada - now called Toronto. The war created, Taylor said, Canada's "own patriotic icons, particularly the martyr Isaac Brock and the plucky Laura Secord, their equivalent of Paul Revere." (No details about them in the review. Wait until I read the book.)
The war buoyed Canada into a feeling of nationhood, too. When the bicentennial of the war comes around in 2012, don't expect Americans to take much notice. But don't be surprised if, in Canada, there are parades and celebrations of victory against overwhelming odds.