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 of leaders vividly, he pays much more attention to the relationship of the soldiers with civilians on both sides. For example, he spends considerably more time describing the American troops’ looting of York than the brief battle that temporarily won the town because the plundering did far more to alienate Canadians than the victory did to impress them.

Taylor’s ultimate aim is to illuminate and contrast the societies that existed on either side of the very porous border. Indeed, it is his contention that both Republicans in the United States and Loyalists in Canada suspected that the North American continent was not big enough for their rival systems of government—a democratic republic and an aristocratic empire. One or the other would have to prevail. Hence the War of 1812 became a continuation of the Revolution that had taken place a generation earlier. It “was a civil war between competing visions of America: one still loyal to the empire and the other still defined by its republican revolution against that empire.”

Taylor’s organization is as unconventional as his focus on the borderland. Instead of a traditional narrative of the war from its beginnings in June 1812 to its end in early 1815, his book is structured topically. It is divided into sixteen chapters each dealing with a particular subject—Loyalists, United Irishmen, Deserters, Scalps, Traitors, Prisoners, Honor, and so on. Each chapter is in turn divided into six or seven labeled sections of three or four pages apiece, each dealing with an event, a person, or an anecdote that illuminates the theme of the chapter.

Such a neat and methodical organization helps Taylor bring the confused and chaotic events of the war under control. It also allows him to present an enormous amount of material—on persons, events, and stories—without overwhelming the reader. And the amount of material is enormous. In addition to reading nearly every secondary source on the war, Taylor seems to have scoured every archive in America and Canada in search of letters, memoirs, and newspaper accounts that reveal the complexity and strangeness of the war. The result is a multitude of anecdotes, quotations, and unusual characters that few have ever encountered before.


Taylor begins his account with the 38,000 or so American Loyalists who during the Revolution fled to Canada. Although most (30,000) migrated to the maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, with some two thousand settling in the French-dominated province of Quebec, it is the six thousand Loyalists who moved to the region west of Montreal as far as Detroit that Taylor is most interested in. These Loyalists formed the nucleus of what in 1791—almost ten years after American independence in 1783—would become the province of Upper Canada. Carved out of the old province of Quebec, Upper Canada comprised the upper reaches of the St. Lawrence River and the northern shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Down the St. Lawrence was Lower Canada, which retained the old capital at Quebec, from which a governor-general commanded both provinces. Upper Canada was run by his subordinate, a lieutenant governor.

The British government wanted to hold onto what remained of its North American empire, and thus it offered the Loyalists free land and other help in getting settled. This paternalism attracted a second wave of settlers that by 1791 boosted the province’s population to 14,000. Since this tiny population was supposed to protect a border of over a thousand miles, Upper Canada needed to attract people. Consequently, the British government, determined to avoid the mistakes of its first North American empire, not only presented Canadian settlers with free land but pledged never again to tax its North American colonists for revenue. Indeed, it so heavily subsidized the government of Upper Canada that by the mid-1790s the landholders there had a tax rate that was just one fifth of that borne by New York’s landholders across the border.

Colonel John Graves Simcoe, a hawkish, Loyalist veteran of the Revolutionary War, became the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. He believed that the breakup of the empire had been a terrible mistake, and he aimed to reverse it. Throughout his tenure as lieutenant governor Simcoe kept urging his superiors to go to war against America and reunite the empire. Assuming that most Americans were closet Loyalists who yearned to escape from the licentiousness of republican America, he set about attracting as many as he could, mainly by making Upper Canada as much as possible a replica of Old England. He replaced Indian and French toponyms with English names, and even picked an uninhabited site for his future capital and named it London.

By the end of his administration in 1796, four thousand more Americans, called Late Loyalists, had settled in the province; by 1812, the population of Upper Canada had swelled to 75,000. Most of these Late Loyalists came from the Mid-Atlantic states; a good proportion of them were humble Quakers and pietistic Germans who were more accepting of the hierarchical society of the empire and more willing to defer to their betters than the rambunctious Americans they had left behind. As ethnic and cultural minorities, they had felt threatened by an American republicanism that promoted majoritarian conformity. By contrast, the British officials of Upper Canada imagined society in traditional and prenational terms, as a mix of quasi-corporate communities. “Upper Canada,” writes Taylor, “was an ethnic and religious mosaic rather than a melting pot.”
Taylor suggests that from the very beginning the societies and governments of Canada and the United States were different. British officials promoted the Anglican Church at the expense of the evangelical faiths, which they associated with wild and wicked republicanism. Since democracy was their enemy, they avoided elections, suppressed expressions of opposition, restricted postal service, limited the circulation of newspapers, confined education to elites, and frowned on public gatherings beyond their control. “In contrast to American Republicans,” Taylor concludes, “British officials considered themselves the paternal rulers, rather than the friends, of the people.”

Some Canadians deplored the emerging difference between the two societies—“There, bustle, improvement, and animation fill every street,” noted one Canadian looking across the Niagara River to New York; “here dulness, decay, and apathy discourage enterprise and repress exertion.” But most considered the United States to be a rogue republic full of equality-happy whiskey-drinking people who cared about nothing but the making of money. When Governor Simcoe told an American guest that his proposed British reconquest of America would “destroy the mob, give honest people good government; and thereby produce peace, harmony, and good neighbourhood,” he was anticipating the famous Canadian trinity of “peace, order and good government” expressed in the British North America Act of 1867 that established the dominion of Canada—a trinity that could not be more different than that of America’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


Perhaps the strangest thing about the War of 1812 was that the Americans actually initiated it. They told the world in 1812 that they were declaring war against Great Britain solely because of British impressment of American sailors—the practice of British warships stopping American commercial vessels to seize sailors thought to be British subjects—and British violations of America’s maritime rights as a neutral to carry noncontraband goods to a belligerent port. Yet on the face of it, these grievances scarcely seemed to be sufficient justifications for a war, especially a war for which the United States was singularly unprepared.

In 1812 America had an army consisting of fewer than seven thousand regular troops and a navy composed of only sixteen vessels, not counting dozens of gunboats. With this meager force it confronted an enemy that possessed a regular army of nearly a quarter of a million men and the most powerful navy in the world with a thousand warships on the rolls and over six hundred of them in active service.

From beginning to end the war was puzzling. The British did not expect war and did not want it. In fact, just as America was declaring war in June 1812, the British government repealed the Orders-in-Council allowing impressment of American sailors that presumably had been a major cause of the war—too late, however, for the Americans to learn of the British action and reverse their decisions.

Many Americans did not want to go to war either; indeed, President James Madison and the other leaders of the Democratic-Republican Party in control of the government were devoted to the idea of creating universal peace and had spent the previous decade employing an embargo and other economic sanctions against Britain and France in desperate attempts to avoid the use of military force. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the Democratic-Republican Party hated war and all that war entailed in taxes, debt, and executive power, it was the party that took the country into the war, and some of the Republicans did so with enthusiasm.

The vote for war in Congress (in the House of Representatives seventy-nine to forty-nine and in the Senate nineteen to thirteen, the closest vote for a declaration of war in American history) was especially baffling. The congressmen who voted most overwhelmingly for the war were from the sections of the country, the South and West, that were farthest removed from ocean traffic and least involved in shipping and thus least affected by the violations of maritime rights and the impressments that were the professed reasons for declaring war. At the same time the congressmen most opposed to the war were from the section of the country, Federalist New England, that was most hurt by the British impressment of American sailors and British violations of America’s maritime rights.

This paradox of western support for a war that was ostensibly about maritime rights has led some historians to dig beneath the professed war aims in search of some hidden interests that might explain the American West’s overwhelming backing of the war. They have argued that the West supported the war because it was land-hungry and had its eyes on the annexation of Canada. Others have refined this interpretation by contending that the West was less interested in land than it was in removing the British influence over the Indians in the Northwest.

But since the West had only ten votes in the House of Representatives, it could not by itself have led the country into war. It was the South Atlantic states from Maryland to Georgia that supplied nearly half (thirty-nine) of the seventy-nine votes for war. This Southern support for war has led other historians to posit an unspoken alliance between westerners who wanted Canada and southerners who had their eyes on Florida, then under Spanish rule. Yet Pennsylvania, which presumably had little interest in the West or Florida, provided sixteen votes for the war, the most of any state.

Although, as Taylor admits, “no single cause can explain the declaration of war,” one thing is clear: the war was very much a party issue, with most Democratic-Republicans being for it and all the Federalists against it. In fact, the war became the logical consequence of the failure of the economic sanctions against Great Britain that Republicans had been trying to enforce since 1805. As early as February 1809 President-elect Madison said as much to the American minister in London, William Pinkney. If America repealed the embargo of British goods and the British Orders-in-Council authorizing the seizure of American ships and the impressment of American sailors still remained in effect, then, said Madison, “war is inevitable.” He believed this because impressment and maritime rights had come to symbolize what he and other Republicans wanted most from Britain—unequivocal recognition of the nation’s sovereignty and independence.

Impressment struck at America’s sense of identity and nationhood. The republic believed that foreign immigrants could become American citizens through an easy process of naturalization. By contrast, the monarchy of Great Britain did not accept expatriation—once a British subject, always a British subject. The problem came from the fact that Great Britain, which saw itself not only in a life-or-death struggle with Napoleonic France but as the enforcer of international law on the high seas, needed at least 12,000 new sailors a year to man its vast naval fleet. Consequently, it relied heavily on impressing not only British subjects in its own seaports but also those British sailors who had deserted to the American merchant marine and who constituted perhaps as many as 25 percent of those employed on American ships.

The British never claimed the right to impress American-born citizens, but since British and American sailors looked and sounded so much alike, aggressive British naval officers often made mistakes that might take years to correct. Often their impressments were not mistakes. As one British captain frankly explained, “It is my duty to keep my ship manned, & I will do so wherever I find men that speak the same language with me.”

As Taylor insightfully points out, impressment was only part of the larger problem of desertions and the mingling of peoples that plagued both Great Britain and the United States in the decades following the Revolution. Indeed, the unwillingness of Great Britain to recognize its former subjects as rightful citizens of the United States was, as Taylor indicates, “the key issue of the war.”

The flood of Irish immigrants to the New World in these years aggravated that issue. Between 1783 and 1820 nearly 200,000 Irish abandoned the British Isles and came to the United States, a huge proportion of the total of 366,000 immigrants in this period. As nearly all of the Irish immigrants supported the Jeffersonian Republicans, the Federalists became alarmed and sought to limit their naturalization. British officials in Canada became alarmed too, because many of the Irish-Americans seemed to be involved in plots to turn Canada into a republic. No wonder then that the Canadian officials living “on the margins of an empire imperiled by French war, Irish unrest, and American subversion” developed a “garrison mentality.”

Because the British in Canada had so few people to defend their land, they counted on Indian allies for help. And the Indians were much more willing to aid the British than the Americans. “The British treated the Indians as autonomous peoples dwelling in their own country between the empire and the republic—and thereby free to make their own alliances.” By contrast, “Americans insisted that the natives should be their dependents living within a fixed boundary separating British from American sovereignty.” Americans found the Indian mode of war, “which sometimes killed women and children and often sacrificed prisoners” and involved “bodily mutilations,” especially horrifying and intimidating. “The fear of warriors,” says Taylor, “generated loathing, a categorical hatred of all Indians as murderous savages who deserved extermination.” This combination of fear and hatred justified the Americans’ butchering native peoples of all ages and genders, “which the vindictive called a just revenge.”

Whether or not the taking of Canada was a hidden part of the Republicans’ war aims, they knew from the outset that they would have to invade it in order to bring pressure on the British government. They thought the conquest of Canada would be easy. The Canadian frontier was so long and the population so slight that the territory would be impossible to defend. Besides, many of the Canadians were American in origin and would naturally welcome the invaders as liberators. Jefferson expressed the confidence of many Republicans in 1812 when he predicted that the acquisition of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.”

It all turned out quite differently. The promised war of liberation quickly became what a New York newspaper called “a war of plundering and of burning.” Although the Americans had initially criticized the British for employing Indian “savages” against them, they soon began enlisting their own Indians to retaliate with similar atrocities. On both sides of the border the destruction and bloodshed tended to exacerbate bitter feelings along national lines and harden the once soft and porous boundary between the two countries. Although many British subjects in Upper Canada did desert and flee to the United States, most fought for their homeland better than anyone expected. In the process they created a new Canadian nationality among people who once had “been diverse settlers from America of dubious loyalty.”

Time and again, writes Taylor, “the British proved better prepared for the war than the Americans who had declared it.” In July the British took the American fort at Michilimackinac, at the junction of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, without a struggle. Unaware that his nation had declared war the previous month, the American commander was ill-equipped to defend his post. In August 1812 General William Hull, a Revolutionary War veteran, surrendered his entire army at Detroit without firing a shot.

Egalitarian-minded American citizens balked at the regimentation of military life and rejected the hierarchy of command. Discipline was impossible to enforce, and the soldiers too often wasted ammunition by randomly firing off their muskets. Sometimes the battles turned comic. In December 1813 at Black Rock, New York, the American militia, spooked by the “savage yells coming from all sides,” broke and ran in a “general stampede,” throwing away their muskets without even a parting shot. As a witness recalled, “they could no more be stopped than a flock of sheep.”

When an American army did occupy enemy territory, it preferred looting to fighting. So did the Canadians. When the Americans plundered the Canadian capital York in April 1813, British subjects from the countryside joined in. Along the border the war became a series of retaliatory raids and burnings of forts and towns by both sides.

In this civil war along a permeable border where one’s neighborhood and not some abstract nation was one’s country, allegiance was always conditional. Soldiers deserted to the other side, but then switched back again, sometimes more than once. Even families were divided. An American soldier David Harvey, who had a brother in Upper Canada, became fed up with the “rascality and tyranny” of the American army and deserted across the border, declaring his “preference to be shot by the British rather than return to the United States.” In another incident a Canadian soldier killed an American rifleman and began plundering his corpse, when, according to a British officer, “he discovered that it was his own brother.”

In the United States the war provoked another war—a political war that sometimes turned violent between the Republicans and the Federalists. The Federalists, such as Harrison Gray Otis and Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, feeling their English heritage as never before, thought the Republicans, led by Jefferson and Madison, were out to destroy American society and make it over in French Jacobin fashion. The zealous “Blue Light” Federalists, so called because they were thought to have alerted British warships of American sailings by flashing blue lights, mocked the war as a Republican folly, discouraged enlistments in the army, thwarted subscriptions to the war loans, urged the withholding of federal taxes, smuggled goods, helped British prisoners to escape, and plotted secession from the Union.

The Federalist governors in New England even refused to honor the War Department’s requisition of their state militias. The governor of Massachusetts actually entered into secret negotiations with the British, offering part of Maine in return for an end to the war. Naturally, the Republicans considered the Federalists to be traitors. Jefferson suggested that their leaders ought to be hanged and their property confiscated. Other Republicans came to view the war as a wonderful opportunity to destroy the Federalist Party once and for all.

In the end that’s what happened. Following American naval victories on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, British officials in London, including the Duke of Wellington, concluded that America could not be easily conquered; they thus became willing to settle with the republic on the basis of the status quo ante bellum. A peace treaty was signed at Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814. Since news of the treaty did not arrive in America until February 1815, a month after the overwhelming defeat on January 8, 1815, that Andrew Jackson inflicted on a British invading force at New Orleans, Americans naturally concluded that they had won the war and had dictated the peace terms. Jackson’s victory did in fact clinch ratification of the treaty; and news of it thoroughly discredited the ill-timed January 5, 1815, report of the Federalists’ Hartford Convention that sought to condemn the Republicans for taking the country into a foolish and needless war. The Federalists were scorned and ridiculed and accused of trying to break up the Union; and they never recovered politically.

Like the Federalists, the Indians were unfortunate losers in the war. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) had fought on both sides, and this division made it easier for the British and Americans in subsequent years to pressure them to cede even more lands in New York and Upper Canada. In effect, the war and the peace treaty allowed the Americans to isolate the Indians from their former British allies and to consolidate their hold over the continent.

At the same time the once fragile republic, which in 1812 many had thought might fall apart, emerged from the war with a new sense of strength and unity. The people, observed Albert Gallatin in 1815, “are more American; they feel and act more as a nation; and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured.” As Taylor has brilliantly demonstrated in his extraordinary book, the War of 1812 turned the borderlands that were once occupied by kindred peoples into two nations each with a new consciousness of its separate identity. With the demilitarization of the Great Lakes in 1817, the border became not only safer but more distinctly drawn and less porous. The British abandoned their older vision of recovering the lost thirteen colonies, and by discouraging American immigration recast Upper Canada as a stable defensive bastion against the dynamic and disorderly democracy to its south. For the United States the war seemed to be a vindication of its bold experiment in democracy. Although the war had exposed the republic’s weaknesses, in the end it had proven its strength.

This Issue

October 28, 2010