History is the rigorous search for truth but whose truth?
History enlightens but it can also deceive because it is always someone's version of history. Everyone listens to their own voices and while these illuminate they may also distort. They may even invent accounts that are rich in patriotic propaganda, accounts of a country that fancy their soldiers "possess the prowess of demi-gods." Historical writing of this nature tends more to magnify individuals and nurse national passions than uncover facts and reveal truth.
Much of the early and not a little of the later writing about the War of 1812 is history of this nature. Some call it history hunting for heroes. Knowledge of a nation's heroic past acts as patriotic cement which helps to bind a country together. For this reason both sides in this conflict sought to enhance national pride by exaggerating their valour and their victories - the headline version of history.
The accounts of battles fought written afterwards by some historians represented not just distortion but actual invention. An example of this distortion was written in connection with the Battle of Queenston Heights. The Americans were beaten badly at this battle and surrendered unconditionally. Despite this one historian's account stated, "Both sides mutually resorted to the bayonet and after a bloody conflict the members of the famous British regiment, the 49th, yielded to the superior energy of the Americans although we were far inferior in numbers." An American officer is reported as saying, "Our whole force under arms at the time was less than 300 with but one piece of artillery, yet I am well persuaded a retreat much less a surrender was not thought of and that the troops were in as high spirits as if we had been superior." In fact, shortly after the "high spirits," these same soldiers broke and fled frantically down the heights, many dashed to death on the rocks below as they fell pell mell down the steep slope.
At the time of this war the two societies were at different stages of development. The Americans, no matter how important their states and regions were, thought of themselves first and foremost as Americans, people of a new nation. British North America comprised a set of small, separate colonial dependencies. Americans focussed on their nation. British North Americans' pride was more local in outlook. The citizens of Upper Canada celebrated not so much a country as a community. With no nation to acclaim Canadians were left to laud the monarchy and the British Empire. Until well after Confederation popular historial literature tended to be regional and local in outlook. Americans were enraptured by their nation's patriotic past. They had only recently created a new country which they celebrated as the wonder of the world. For this reason according to one American historian, they were better at boasting because they never tired of eulogizing their new nation and its leaders.
The last battle of the War of 1812 was the Battle of New Orleans. While it was clearly won by the Americans it had no bearing whatsoever on the Treaty of Ghent, whose terms had already been agreed to much to the relief of both the Canadians and the Americans.
The treaty had been signed but not ratified by the warring parties. American leaders were more than happy to settle for status quo ante bellum, terms which required that each country give up its conquests and retire to the boundary as it was before the war. This provision was a real triumph for the Americans. While they had to relinquish their sole foothold in Canada -the outpost at Amherstburg on the Detroit River - the British and Canadians had to relinquish control of the whole of the eastern part of Maine, Fort Niagara, Fort Mackinac, posts in the Illinois country, the Grand Portage at the head of Lake Superior and ultimately their exclusive possession of Oregon. This meant despite Americans having lost their war of conflict, Britain was expected to yield it military acquisitions. The conclusion was that the war had been fought for nothing.
While the United States settled none of the major conditions President Madison vowed to rectify by going to war, American historians persisted in hailing their victory at New Orleans as convincing proof that they had won the war. In so doing, said Winston Churchill, they created the "evil legend that the struggle had been a second War of Independence against British tyranny." This is exactly what the Americans considered it to be: a war to rid the continent of Britain's colony, Canada, and so ensure America's eagle-screaming declaration that it was their destiny to own North America.
"In wartime people only want to hear two things: good of themselves and evil of the enemy." It is commonplace for both countries to claim that they won the War of 1812. The United States loudly proclaimed supremacy because it won several land battles and had a number of single-vessel victories. American officers were skilful at producing under tense and testing conditions apt and memorable phrases, sometimes referred to as "golden statements." Examples of these are: "Don't give up the ship;" "We have met the enemy and they are ours;" and "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." These statements over time inspire because they are eagerly quoted and re-quoted by reporters until the public adopts them and they become a revered part of the nation's history. They are great gifts to American historians.
Canada's claim to have won the war was more muted and much simpler. The Americans attempted to conquer Canada. We fought, they failed therefore we won the war. Canadian bravado leaps from the pages of an early Ontario elementary school textbook which contains this stirring statement of our military prowess. "The land of the maple leaf had to fight her own battles and nobly indeed did she do so."
For Canada the war was a struggle for survival. The young, loosely-knit nation rose to the occasion, pulled together and fought off American attempts to take it. For Britain the conflict was a marginal struggle in a distant colony of which the British public knew little and cared less. While the British seldom mention this war, Britain's troops loomed large in every battle and really determined its outcome.
The Americans considered the British "were all rascals" the continent should be rid of and they vowed to accomplish this by quickly conquering Canada. Thomas Jefferson boasted, "The capture of Canada is a mere matter of marching." A few Kentuckians claimed they could take Canada without any difficulty.
Historical education has traditionally possessed a strong nationalistic flavour. History teaching was recruited to the service of patriotism and became a recital of the nation's heroes and their victories. Therefore, given the pride invested by Canadians and Americans in this war it is informative to read the differing accounts of the battles during it by historians of both countries. The following statements were selected at random from articles written by American and Canadian writers about three important events in the War of 1812: (a) the Battle of Fort Erie, (b) the Battle of Chippewa, and (c) the Battle of Lundy's Lane.
In some of the assertions bias is blatant. In others it is more subtle. It is well to remember that prejudice and partiality are revealled not only in what writers have chosen to mention, but also in what they have decided to omit.
"When I put the book away on the table,
The last diplomatically decisive word on the Battle of Lundy's Lane shall be Winston Churchill's.
National bias will only disappear when historians and educators cease to regard history as a vehicle for state politics.
"A historian among his books should forget his nationality."
"The first casualty of war is the truth."
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