The War We Lost—and Won

Chicago History Museum/Bridgeman Art Library
E.C. Watmough: Repulsion of the British at Fort Erie, 15th August 1814, 1840

The War of 1812 was the strangest war in American history. This second war by the recently established US government against the former mother country of Great Britain was, said Virginia’s John Taylor, the philosopher of Jeffersonian Republicanism, a “metaphysical war, a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport,” but rather “a war for honour, like that of the Greeks against Troy.”

In his remarkable and deeply researched book the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Alan Taylor masterfully captures the strangeness of this war. Although its bicentenary will soon be upon us, Taylor implies that Americans might not even bother to celebrate it. “The War of 1812,” he writes, “looms small in American memory, forgotten as insignificant because it apparently ended as a draw that changed no boundary and no policy.” Because of the resistance of Fort McHenry in Baltimore to British bombardment, which inspired our national anthem, and Andrew Jackson’s stunning defeat of the British invading force at New Orleans in 1815, Americans, says Taylor, tend to think of the war as “a defensive triumph against British aggression.” But this perspective “obscures the war’s origins and primacy as an American invasion of Canada.”

Indeed, Taylor suggests that the Canadians have much more reason to celebrate the war than Americans do. In resisting the US invasion, theirs was a victory of “a David over the American Goliath.” Americans remember the British burning of Washington, D.C., in 1814, but forget that the American invaders had burned the public buildings of Upper Canada’s capital, York (present-day Toronto), the previous year. The Canadians “remember what Americans forget”—that with a population that was just a tiny fraction of that of the United States, they repelled the American invaders and in the process created “their own patriotic icons, particularly the martyr Isaac Brock and the plucky Laura Secord, their equivalent of Paul Revere.”

In his account of the war, Taylor, who is one of America’s most distinguished historians, has not tried to promote the patriotism of either country. Instead, he has sought to write what he calls “a borderlands history” of the war, by which he means a focus on “the peoples on both sides of a new and artificial border, as they often defied the control of their rival governments.” His is not a comprehensive or a conventional history of the war. Instead, he concentrates on the contested border region between Montreal and Detroit where most of the fighting and destruction took place. “Conventional histories of the war,” he writes, “dwell on presidents, diplomats, and generals, and on a few decisive battles which hinged in turn on the characters and intellects of those leading men, cast as either heroes or fools.” Although he does describe battles superbly, and assesses the feats and foibles…

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