On June 18, 1812, the U.S. formally declared war against Great Britain. It was the first and only time our southern neighbour has taken up arms against Canada (or what would become Canada). Two hundred years later, Scott Anderson spoke to Jan Noel, a history prof at U of T Mississauga, about the war’s impact.
A one-minute refresher, please. What was the War of 1812 about?
One of the main causes of the war was the British impressment of American sailors. The British claimed that men who had immigrated to the United States were still British subjects, and they had begun forcibly recruiting these former subjects into the Royal Navy to help fight the Napoleonic wars. There was also a lot of conflict over what the Americans thought was British encouragement of aboriginal attacks on American settlers. When the war ended there was no resounding victor, and no territory changed hands.
Did the war have a lasting impact on the relationship between Canada and the U.S.?
Not long after the war ended, there was a boundary settlement along the 49th parallel, but apart from that it’s hard to trace lasting effects. U of T historian J.M.S. Careless wrote an article around the time of Canada’s centennial celebrations, in which he affirmed that this war was the beginning of the American population in Upper Canada developing a distinct identity. There’s nothing like having homesteads burned to give people a sense of solidarity.
Did it help shape who we are as Canadians?
Many people see the First World War as a crystallizing moment in our history. Other people look to the creation of national health care in the 1960s. It’s easier to make an argument for the importance of these events because they aren’t so far in the past. However, if the British had lost the War of 1812, Upper Canada probably would have become an American state.
Does the War of 1812 rank as an important event in the larger scope of world history?
Nowadays, historians tend to take a transnational approach to their subject, so they would see this as the North American extension of the Napoleonic wars. Still, I guess European historians wouldn’t take as much interest in it as we do in Canada.
How has our view of the War of 1812 changed over time?
Compared to the two world wars, our records aren’t as complete; this fuels more imaginative interpretations. In his book The Civil War of 1812 (2010), for example, Alan Taylor proposes that Upper Canada was so heavily populated by American settlers that you could hardly describe this as a conflict between two separate peoples. There were Irish immigrants, possibly from the same village in Ireland, fighting on different sides of the war. There was also a great deal of cross-border admiration: American generals respected the discipline of the British generals, while the British foot soldiers envied American liberties and prosperity. British soldiers who were taken prisoner would sometimes prefer to stay in American jails than be sent back across the lines in a prisoner exchange.
Recently historians have taken a greater interest in the role of aboriginal peoples in the War of 1812. What have they learned?
The view of the war in mid- and late-19th-century Ontario was that it was fought by “our brave forefathers.” People at that time didn’t consider aboriginal peoples at all – except in the context of settlers’ wives being frightened of them while the men were away. In the 1960s, historians began writing about the importance of aboriginal participation in the battles. Drawing on years of research, Carl Benn argues in Iroquois in the War of 1812 (1998) that aboriginal people were largely responsible for early British victories at Fort Mackinac and Detroit. Those first battles were important because much of the population was waiting to see which way the war would go – and which side they should fight on.
Benn also points out that if it looked like a conflict was not going to be a winning proposition, aboriginal warriors would tend to fade into the woods. British generals felt that they couldn’t be counted on. But this tactic did have the merit of preserving forces for another day – and a more likely victory.
Why is Laura Secord one of the best-known names from the war?
Waves of feminism in the 1880s and the 1960s fuelled curiosity about women’s place in history. Though lost documents led to confusion about dates, historians eventually rediscovered two confirmations that Secord’s now-famous warning led to interception of the Americans by aboriginal forces friendly to Canada; those warriors proceeded to win the Battle of Beaver Dams. Cecilia Morgan, a professor at OISE and the author of Heroines and History (2002), provides a fascinating account of how Secord’s story became widely publicized by late-19th-century amateur historians who were imperialists and feminists.
What have we learned about how the war affected average people, particularly near York, now Toronto?
Dundas Street, which was built by Governor Simcoe in the 1790s, runs just to the south of U of T Mississauga. A number of our fourth-year history majors, under the direction of local historians as well as U of T advisers, have looked at settler conditions in the vicinity. They’re studying plot by plot who lived where and how many men went off to war. They’ve learned that young men and boys with ox teams carried supplies to the British army. Women and children were left at home to do the planting, but also had to carry grain bags on their backs to the Humber Mill, which is some distance! The men who joined the militia were allowed to go home to help with the farm after some months of service. So to some extent the rhythm and pace of warfare marched to the needs of the farm.
Do you think Canadians generally have a good understanding of their own history?
I don’t pontificate on this subject, but I don’t disagree with those who do. I asked some of my students recently how much Canadian history they’d had in high school and I gather that it’s only required at the Grade 10 level. Those who know more than the basics have either learned it at home or perhaps had an inspiring teacher who prompted them to go further.
Why doesn’t this war figure as largely in our collective consciousness as others?
I’m always amazed by the bottomless curiosity about the Second World War. That war and the Holocaust are a touchstone for almost everyone. Students who don’t know anything about the Reformation or Mohammad or anything else in history will know something about the Holocaust. Of course, we have newsreels and a great deal of other documentation for the Second World War. Our records aren’t nearly as complete for the War of 1812. So you have to imagine Laura Secord delivering a message across the battle lines. And that people were fighting the wilderness as much as they were fighting the war. And that some of the troops wore war paint and didn’t listen to anyone’s command. This war invites people to use their imagination.
What do you think about how the bicentennial of the war is being commemorated?
There are a lot of interesting events! I’ve read about “heritage hikes” in the Niagara region where you can visit Laura Secord’s house and William Lyon Mackenzie King’s printing shop. At Fort Henry in Kingston, they’re performing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture with cannons and fireworks. Next year at Fort York, there’s going to be a re-enactment of the fort’s capture, which is a fascinating way to make history come alive.
Are wars overly emphasized in the study of history?
I used to think that when I was a graduate student. But teaching has made me realize that a whole variety of pathways into the past are useful. Some people are drawn to historical figures of their own ethnicity, gender or beliefs. Others are more interested in how a chaotic situation finds resolution. Identifying with past experiences and pondering their significance deepens our experience of what it is to be human. History is, quite legitimately, a dialogue between the past and the present. We ask questions about the past because of things that we’re concerned with now.
A shorter version of this Q&A was published in the Summer 2012 issue
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