Historian Alan Taylor's new take on the 'civil war' of 1812

The U.S. declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. U.S. historian Alan Taylor tells CBC News about the lead-up to what he calls the civil war of 1812.
U.S. historian Alan Taylor, visiting Toronto's Fort York, argues that the War of 1812 was a civil war in which those on opposing sides of the U.S.-Canada border were remarkably similar. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

For his latest book, renowned American historian Alan Taylor turned his attention to the War of 1812.

In The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies, he presents the international conflict as, in effect, a civil war between related members of a founding nation. 

Although the American Revolution had created a border between the U.S. and British North America, people on both sides were remarkably similar. Like most civil wars, those on opposing sides during the War of 1812 tried to persuade people on the other side to switch over. Brothers fought brothers, neighbours fought neighbours and, in the process, homes, farms and towns were plundered, changing the perceptions on both sides.

Taylor argues that the national histories of both sides "subtly distorted the war by imposing on the past the nationalism spawned after that conflict and because of it."

The first quarter of the book is devoted to the events leading up the declaration of war by the U.S. on June 18, 1812. But Taylor writes that "no single cause can explain the declaration of war."

As for the conflict itself, he says its ultimate legacy "was that the empire and the republic would share the continent along a more clearly defined border more generous to the Americans and more confining to the British — but most ominous to the Indians."

Taylor was in Toronto to speak about his book and the War of 1812 at a Toronto Reference Library event that is part of the Luminato Festival and the city’s 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration.

Below is an edited version of an interview with CBC News producer Daniel Schwartz.

CBC News: In The Civil War of 1812 you write about the creation, after the war, of national myths on both sides. Seeing 1812 as a civil war, how do we compare the Canadian and American reaction?

AlanTaylor: The American reaction is muted by the fact that the War of 1812 doesn't matter much to Americans. The Civil War of the 1860s and the American Revolution are vastly more important in American memory.

Now there are partial exceptions to that. The American national anthem was generated by a battle during the War of 1812, the defence of Baltimore. There will be a very big celebration commemorating that particular American victory.

It fits well into the American national narrative of a country that was already coherent and was fighting on the defensive in the war.

In Canada it's a different narrative that people will tell because they were at the blunt end of an invasion by the United States, which composed most of the war.

Many Canadians are still wedded to the national myth that it was already a coherent country with a coherent identity rather than one that was inchoate and in flux, I would argue, until the war compelled people to make choices that they previously hadn't had to make.

How far can we go in seeing the war as a clash of ideas, American democracy versus the mixed British system of constitutional monarchy?

For the people who were mid-level leaders on up the scale, it was a highly powerful component of the war.

At the time, the word democracy was not much used and was still something of a pejorative for many people. But they would use the term republic. Americans across the board were wedded to the concept that they lived in a republic and it was the superior form of government in the world.

There was a great deal of disagreement about how exactly the republic should be designed.  But almost everyone in America felt that their system was radically different from the British system of mixed constitution. And everyone in Britain thought there was a radical difference of systems.

You portray the U.S. as a nation divided on the eve of the war and as seriously unprepared for a war they declared. Why would you declare a war in that situation?

They had a certain set of illusions that were very dearly held, which is a byproduct of ideology and their ideology was that they didn't need a professional army, that you could simply call out these militias, who were essentially every able-bodied man from age 16 to 45, not professional soldiers. They were not well trained at all.

Call them out and their enthusiasm for the republican cause would suffice and their numbers would suffice to defeat a relatively modest number of professional British soldiers. Now they learned the hard way that that wasn't true, that these militia men were very easily spooked, they were not disciplined at all, they would run away home, they would balk at crossing the border and they would defy their officers.

So it was just a chaotic mess for the United States when they tried to invade Canada.

But that was dictated by the set of illusions that were derived from their ideology, which also insisted that a professional army might be a threat to the republic and that in any event it would be expensive. These people running the United States wanted to keep taxes low.

Which brings us to the division between Republicans and Federalists. And some states were dead set against the idea of the war. How much did domestic U.S. politics matter in the march to war?

It mattered immensely. It was a hyper-political war to the United States. The dominant party, the Republican party of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — which is not the same thing as today's Republican party — was strongly in power in both houses of Congress, controlled the presidency and controlled most of the state governments.

They had risen up and taken national power in 1801 on a platform of lowering taxes, paying down the national debt, minimizing the federal government.

Whereas the Federalist Party, which had governed before 1801, was committed to a stronger federal government, a more professional army, a substantial navy. So they saw all their positions being discredited by the Republicans. These Republicans regarded the Federalists as crypto-monarchists, who were secretly in league with the British — none of it's true but that's what people devoutly believed on the Republican side.

So the Republicans saw the war as an opportunity to win an easy victory over Canada and this would render the war very popular, so that the Federalists would lose their last remaining voters and would be utterly discredited and destroyed as a party.

With that in mind, the Republicans pushed very hard for the war. They had no Federalist support for the war because the Federalists saw it as a reckless war and they saw it as a political war that was meant for their extermination as a political movement as much as it was meant to conquer Canada.

There were many factors that would suggest that divisiveness would be greater on the Canadian side — French versus English, majority American population and so on. There was even that perception on the British side. How did this play out?

They were not able to stay united in the first two years of war. The majority of people who lived in Upper Canada, what's now Ontario, were American migrants, not the Loyalists that came out in the 1780s but they were this group called the late Loyalists who came in the 1790s and the decade before the War of 1812.

'Many Canadians are still wedded to the national myth that it was already a coherent country with a coherent identity rather than one that was inchoate and in flux, says Taylor, who is participating in a CBC TV documentary that will air this Fall. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

These people were pretty apolitical, most of them. They just wanted to stay on their farms and be left alone. They weren't very keen about turning out as militia to defend the province and to be fighting people who used to be their neighbours.

But they were also not very keen, most of them, about helping the invaders. But what happens during the course of the war is, Americans troops get in and they're so undisciplined and their officers have so little control over them, that they end up doing a lot of looting and burning.

And it's not just in York, which is now Toronto, which is the most famous episode of this, but also in the Niagara Peninsula and what is now the western parts of Ontario. American troops were quite destructive, not a conscious effort on the part of their government, in most cases, but just because these troops were not disciplined. And this alienated many people who had been on the fence.

As the war went on, people became more united in Canada against these invaders. By the last year of the war it's much harder to find anybody who is willing to help the invaders and a lot of these people who had been reluctant participants in the war become more eager participants in the defence of Canada.

At the end of the book you take a quick look at the rebellions of 1837. In some ways, in the context before 1812, this would have seemed to be a wonderful opportunity for those in the U.S. who wanted to make Canada part of the union. But the reception was dramatically different. How should we understand the different response in the U.S. to the events of 1837 compared to the expectations in 1812?

The U.S. leaders recognized that the war of 1812 had gone very badly and that any future war that would involve an invasion of Canada would be very expensive in money and lives, even if they won.

Also, they'd come to understand the importance of trade between Great Britain and the United States and British capital investment in the U.S.

So while there were a fair number of ordinary people in the U.S. who were quite keen to help these Canadian radicals in their revolt, the government and most of the American public were not enthusiastic about anything that was going to plunge the United States into another war in Canada.

This means that the government and leading folks in border towns exerted themselves to suppress this activity and managed to do so.