Fort Erie, Ontario The deficit remains a threat to the United States, economic crises persist in Europe, two wars rage halfway around the world, the Republicans are beginning to focus on their nomination fight and even the Russians are planning an election for next March. So you have ample reason not to feel guilty about not having focused on this urgent question that the United States, Canada and Great Britain face next year:
What is the best way to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812?
This may not be the best time to plan a war commemorative. The United States is marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which will consume five years and already has attracted considerable attention. Seven years ago the attempt to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War was a dud. There’s not a huge appetite for yet another set of commemorative books, historical novels, re-enactments and school dioramas.
But this landmark will not go away, even if most people’s memories of the War of 1812 disappeared the last time they picked up a Kenneth Roberts novel. And embedded in this anniversary are several sticky questions, such as:
How does Canada celebrate its victories over American invaders without alienating its biggest trading partner? How does the United States approach a war in which its principal adversary, Great Britain, is now one of its closest friends? And do the British pause to mark this event at all, given that for them it was but a brief, minor sideshow in the far more important Napoleonic Wars?
Along with the Korean War, the War of 1812, which most Americans remember dimly as being about impressment on the high seas and freedom of movement on the Great Lakes, is often called the Forgotten War.
It is sad that Americans are so forgetful, for this conflict, which lasted roughly two and a half years, gave the United States its national anthem and its national identity, cemented in large measure the nation’s cultural and geographical boundaries, ushered in 200 years of peace with Britain and Canada, made the White House white and provided durable heroes such as Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Oliver Hazard Perry and Tecumseh.
It ended in virtual stalemate — no side lost substantial territory except, of course, the Indians — and was a decidedly mixed experience for Americans, whose generals were execrable, whose militia didn’t fight well and whose twin theories of warfare (that the French Canadians would rush to the U.S. side and that Canada would collapse into American arms) were ludicrous.
“The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, then out of office, “and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” Maybe Jefferson wasn’t a genius after all.
At the same time, however, the American Navy excelled, forcing the British to lose whole squadrons, which had rarely happened before. American naval prowess on the Great Lakes is still the stuff of legend, as is the old warship, the USS Constitution, known then and now as Old Ironsides.
But from the viewpoint of Canada, whose War of 1812 heroes are Isaac Brock and Laura Secord, the conflict is a different matter altogether, remembered for its glorious victories over American invaders.
“Thus the war that was supposed to attach the British North American colonies to the United States accomplished exactly the opposite,” the late Canadian historian Pierre Berton wrote in his two-volume history of the conflict. “It ensured that Canada would never become a part of the Union to the south. Because of it, an alternative form of democracy grew out of the British colonial oligarchy in the northern half of the continent.”
All this was two centuries ago, but it remains potentially awkward today.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which often stresses renowned moments in Canadian history, vowed in its federal election platform to undertake a vigorous commemoration of the war. Now, however, it is trying quietly to steer the commemoration away from noisy celebrations of American defeat, an effort that may not be entirely successful.
Canadian military historian Jack Granatstein believes the commemoration will be the occasion for what he calls an anti-American festival. “The normal discourse in Canada is anti-American,” he says. “It’s a secular religion, and this is the only acceptable form of bigotry in Canada. So when we have a chance to get up on our high horse and be self-righteous and say we whipped the United States, we’ll do so. It doesn’t mean more than one Canadian in a hundred knows a thing about the war. They don’t. Usually we have a moral superiority. This time we have 200-years’-old military superiority.”
But few people on this side of the 49th parallel are likely to notice.
“Americans are not exactly fascinated with the War of 1812,” says Richard J. Finch, director of the Fort Meigs State Memorial in Perrysburg, Ohio, the largest reconstructed War of 1812 site in the country. “It’s sandwiched between the American Revolution and the Civil War, so it tends to get neglected.”
The war ended in a draw, but the contest to conduct the most comprehensive commemoration isn’t even close. The Canadians have appropriated millions, the Americans hardly anything. At this rate, the Canadians will appropriate the war entirely, at least for the next several years. Which brings us to a lesson for our time: Even forgotten wars can be lost 200 years later.