Wednesday, May 2, 2012

War of 1812 Wednesday, Part VI, The Results of the War

Continued from Part V

If one takes the American politicians at their word that the War of 1812 was about the British blockade of Europe, impressments of sailors and freedom of the seas; the conflict settled absolutely nothing. The British had stopped all of these policies when the defeat of Napoleon made them unnecessary. Nonetheless, some Americans seized on this and tried to claim the War of 1812 as an American victory, forcing the British to come to the American point of view regarding maritime rights. The fact that some made such a claim makes it no less ridiculous. The United States had not forced Britain to change a single policy and the American dream of conquering Canada had ended in ignominious failure. Against nearly impossible odds the Crown forces had held their own, repelled the American attacks and even managed to win the singular distinction of being the only enemy force to ever occupy Washington DC.

If there was one group of people though who clearly understood the significance of the war it was the Canadians. Before the American Revolution Canada had been mostly French Canada, but the exiled American loyalists had laid the foundation for English-speaking Canada and the victory of Canadian troops against massive American armies brought about a new sense of Canadian pride and national identity. Quite the opposite of the American dream of Canadians welcoming their invasion with grateful hearts and outstretched hands, the French and English Canadians had been united against a common enemy in the defense of their country as well as winning the respect of many in Britain for their loyalty and determination, which ultimately led down the road to self-government and autonomy within the British Empire and finally complete independence among the Commonwealth. More than the British or the Americans, Canadians remember the War of 1812 as the conflict which saved them as a unique country from American domination.

In the United States, reaction was somewhat mixed. American pride was so great that they refused to admit being defeated and congratulated themselves for surviving the conflict without losing any territory. "The Second War for Independence" many called it. On the surface and in public there was a great deal of pride and celebration of the American victories, no matter how important or unimportant they might have been. Underneath though, the United States had learned some hard lessons and though they might not have admitted it openly, they realized some of their arrogant attitudes about a professional military had to change. Blind faith would no longer be put in a civilian militia and the US government soon established the US Military Academy at West Point for the formal training of officers for the regular army. Men like Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor and Andrew Jackson would also go on to illustrious careers after gaining fame in the War of 1812. Nor had American zeal for expansion been entirely extinguished either. In the decades that followed Florida was added to the Union as was the Republic of Texas and after a war with Mexico all of southwest so that American power stretched to the Pacific Ocean. It is noteworthy though that all future expansion looked south and west; the idea of invading Canada never came up again and the two countries have been relatively peaceful ever since. The biggest losers were probably the Indian tribes who faced renewed aggression from the United States and this time with no support from the British to resist them.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that the United States has been somewhat selective in labeling the War of 1812 a victory at best or a stalemate at worst. Despite all of the political talk about freedom of the seas, the War of 1812 was pushed through by the War Hawks and their primary goal was the conquest and annexation of Canada. In this, the United States failed completely and only barely survived the British counterattack which followed after it. Even the expansionism that followed later was entirely to the south and west, never the north, which has been avoided ever since. The United States failed to conquer Canada, failed to forcibly alter any British plans or policies and although they removed Britain as an Indian ally, they certainly continued to have Indian wars as long as US expansion continued. The British Empire, on the other hand, successfully defended all of their territory, firmly stopped any designs the United States had on taking control of British North America and left the war still the dominant world power of the time. So, if the War of 1812 was a stalemate, it was one much closer to being a British victory than an American one by any measure of judgment.


  1. Good series to read for the uninitiated - is the war a great part of U.S. history courses? I certainly only heard of it peripherally to other world events (though we never really covered pre-WWI history in the more memorable classes I've had).

  2. No, it's one of the 'forgotten wars' and usually gets overlooked between the more significant Revolutionary War and Civil War. Some aspects are famous of course, and it is portrayed as either a draw or a victory but it becomes hard to brag about a war that included such humiliations as the capture of Detroit and the burning of Washington DC. Of course I also tell my Canadian friends that they should be grateful Texas was not part of the U.S. back then or they would have surely been conquered! ;-)

  3. There is very little mention of this war in British history books and certainly no commemoration of it`s bicenntenial this year. A Canadian acquaintance has told me that there is no official commemoration in Canada either, a truly shocking piece of national amnesia.

    1. Thankfully your acquaintance is mistaken. PM Harper has made commemorating the bicenntenial a priority -and attracted some criticism because of it due to the expense and (of course) worries over offending the United States. There has been talk of some of the British regiments involved sending bands over to play at some ceremonies but I don't know if anything had been done about it yet. Still, it is being remembered, as it should be.


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