The Magazine

On to Canada?

The other side’s view of ‘the struggle for mastery in North America.’

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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Francis Scott Key and the rockets’ red glare at Fort McHenry. Dolley Madison rescuing Washington’s portrait from the sack of the White House. Andrew Jackson’s lopsided victory at New Orleans after the Treaty of Ghent. These are colorful episodes that people at least hazily associate with the unfortunately named first war declared by the young American republic. But if incidents from the War of 1812 nurtured a sense of national identity, few Americans realize that the same could be said for Canada. J. C. A. Stagg describes the conflict as “a civil war among the fragments of the first British Empire whose constituent groups were not yet reconciled to the settlement that had been made in 1783.” For that matter, it was, in fact, the third panel in a triptych of the struggle for mastery in North America. The first was the great war for empire between Britain and France, which we know as the French and Indian War (1754-63).  

The USS constitution

British warships in pursuit of USS Constitution

Few historians are better placed than the accomplished long-term editor of the Papers of James Madison to write about this conflict, which Stagg ruefully describes as having “long been regarded as the most unsatisfying and least well understood of all the wars of the United States.” After all, it was, as others have said, “Mr. Madison’s War.” Stagg begins with a short introduction—a bit slow in patches—relating the historiography of his subject. The reader leaves this overture understanding how commentators from the outset viewed the evolution of the American nation as reflected in the mirror of the war. 

The disjoined series of clashes that made up the War of 1812 stemmed from America’s frustrated effort to find its place in the international arena. Caught between the dominant powers of the Napoleonic era, the United States struggled to maintain neutrality. The Royal Navy’s impressment of sailors on American-flagged ships stoked a long-running grievance. No policy—from Jefferson’s embargo, to nonintercourse proclamations, to completely unrestricted trade—could force belligerents to respect American sovereignty.  

In the end, Madison opted for war with Great Britain. In fact, he also contemplated fighting France because both powers preyed with equal ferocity on American shipping. When Congress finally deliberated Madison’s war bill, the House gave solid, but not overwhelming, approval. The measure only squeaked by in the Senate, 19-13, on June 17, 1812. Ominously, all the Federalists, as well as a few disgruntled Republicans, opposed the bill.  America found itself at war once again with its imperial nemesis. 

Stagg describes the first year of conflict as “marked on the American side more by military fiascoes than successes .  .  . with occasional naval victories at sea.” Because United States citizens outnumbered Canadians by a factor of 15, American strategy focused on conquest to the north, with disappointing results. Revolutionary War veteran William Hull botched his invasion of Upper Canada. He retreated to Detroit, “where he was then trapped, paralyzed by his fear of the Indians and his lack of confidence in his own men.” They reciprocated the sentiment, and their commander surrendered to the British. The more competent William Henry Harrison fared little better. To the east, Henry Dearborn failed in a feeble thrust toward Montreal late in the year. So ended the efforts of 1812, wrote a congressman: “in a miscarriage without even the heroism of disaster.” 

At sea, the United States Navy acquitted itself well, despite being shortchanged in the runup to war. Some in Congress favored having privateers attack British merchantmen rather than directly confront the Royal Navy. The House Foreign Relations chairman demanded “a public war on land and a war by private enterprise at sea.” Eventually, the administration realized it needed the Navy to protect the seaborne commerce that generated customs revenue. America’s sailors put to good use their recent experience in the quasi-war with France and against the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Their superior frigates bested the British in a dramatic series of single-ship engagements. Chagrined, the Royal Navy whined that it had been beaten in unfair contests by “a few fir-built frigates, manned by a handful of bastards and outlaws.” Despite the boost to American morale, such victories were (in Stagg’s opinion) “inconsequential.”