War of 1812 Bicentennial

War of 1812 History: Outcomes

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The opening paragraph of the Treaty of Ghent, the treaty bringing an end to the War of 1812, described the peace as a "firm and universal" peace. The use of such lofty terms was pretty much standard boilerplate on peace treaties. In 533 A.D., the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire signed an "eternal" peace treaty, yet the two sides were at each other's throats in seven years. A mere twelve years prior to the Treaty of Ghent, Britain, France, and some other nations signed the Treaty of Amiens, which described itself as a "definitive" peace treaty. Two years later, they all were back at war. Even the peace described as "perpetual" by the 1783 Treaty of Paris between Great Britain and the United States lasted only 29 years. However, as it turns out, the peace made at Ghent between the United States and Great Britain has in fact lasted for almost 200 years, up to the present day.

The rest of the treaty doesn't have much to say about the causes of the war or anything like that. The Orders-in-Council had been repealed around the beginning of the war, and the British continued to maintain the right of search (although with Napoleon on Elba the need to exercise it was no longer there). The treaty stipulated a restoration of all territory to whichever country owned it before the war, provides for a resolution to the various border disputes between the United States and the Canadas, provides that the two sides were to cease hostilities with Indian nations with whom they were at war during the War of 1812, and stipulates that both countries were to work towards ending the slave trade. Certain privileges listed in the Treaty of Paris, allowing American citizens to fish in various British waters and allowing British subjects free navigation of the entire Mississippi River, were not renewed.

[Battle of New Orleans stamp] Battle of New Orleans stamp.
More information about War of 1812 stamps

Another thing about which the treaty says nothing is: Who won? Throughout history, there has never been a shortage of countries looking to put a good spin on a less-than-positive military result. About 3100 years before the War of 1812, at the Battle of Kadesh, which took place around 1274 B.C., Pharaoh Rameses II was trounced by the Hittites, narrowly escaping only because the Hittites didn't press their attack. Undaunted, he went back to Egypt and erected a memorial commemorating his magnificent "victory" (Incidentally, in this case, the memorial survived while other records didn't, so until recently we thought that the Egyptians had won this battle). Similarly, both sides in the War of 1812 were looking to spin the result in their favour. The Americans were quite happy to conflate the outcome of the last major battle, the Battle of New Orleans, with that of the entire war, and to point to other victories. Plus, they would eventually get a national anthem out of the deal. The British had lots to brag about as well.

Between the two sides, possibly the British might have the best argument for having won the war. After all, they managed to meet their objectives (they were successfully able to resist American invasions of Canada, and the Treaty of Ghent says nothing about the right of search) while the Americans didn't. This argument is readily accepted by many Canadians today. On the other hand, if you accept that the main cause of the war was American expansionism, the Americans did quite well for themselves; they managed to acquire significant amounts of Creek Indian lands as well as part of West Florida, and avoided ceding territory to the British. However, among modern historians of all nations, the majority opinion is that the war ended in a stalemate between the two sides, with neither side being the victor. For much of the war, a common thread that runs through much of this narrative is that of one side or the other making small gains, but not being able to build on them or, often enough, to hold them. The war as a whole was militarily inconclusive, and with Napoleon out of the way, the main reasons for the war in the first place were no longer there.

[Death of Tecumseh]

The big losers in this war were the native Indian tribes, particularly those residing in the way of the Americans. While there had been lobbying for a autonomous or semi-autonomous Indian state to the west of the United States, the British weren't able to get that in the Treaty of Ghent, and with Tecumseh having been killed and the American army no longer preoccupied with fighting Great Britain, it was inevitable that the Indians would continue to lose ground to the United States.

Another loser in this war was the Federalist party in the United States. Due to a stroke of bad timing, the Hartford Convention folks came to Washington with their list of demands around the time that the news of the Battle of New Orleans and the Treaty of Ghent were arriving. This made them look a teeny bit unpatriotic, and they faded quickly after that. The last presidential election the party would contest was in 1816, where they lost by a wide margin, and they disintegrated a few years after that.

Ignoring the question of who won and who lost, there were several benefits for both sides. One of them is that it enabled each of the two nascent North American nations to see itself more as a united whole rather than a bunch of disjoint parts having nothing in common. It would take a while for this idea to mature. This process would only be completed some fifty years hence; in the United States, it required a civil war. In Canada, rebellions in the 1830s followed by Confederation in 1867 brought the process to fruition. It also produced several national heroes on both sides. In Canada, Brock and Tecumseh are well-respected, even though neither was Canadian. Laura Secord is also quite well-known, even though her contribution was of minor significance. In the United States, generals such as Jackson, Harrison, and Scott were celebrated. All three would also go on to greater military successes and would also run for president, the first two successfully (although, at Harrison's inauguration, he gave a really long speech in the pouring rain, caught pneumonia, and died only a month into his term of office).

Postcard captioned "Second Fort Dearborn, built in 1816, abandoned in 1821, Chicago". Second Fort Dearborn, built in 1816.

Also as a result of the War of 1812, there was a bit of a building boom in the Canadas over the next few decades with regard to military works; several towers, forts, canals, and other works were built in order to make the Canadas more defensible. The United States also built several forts and other works as well, including one, nicknamed "Fort Blunder", which was actually in Canadian territory. Despite this military buildup, Great Britain and the United States also signed the Rush-Bagot Treaty, a very short treaty restricting the number of war vessels that each side would maintain on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain.

The War of 1812 marked the third, and the last, attempted invasion of Canada by Americans. Never again would the United States attempt to invade Canada. One reason for that is that the Treaty of Ghent laid the foundation for resolving issues between the two sides by means of international arbitration. Let's face it, if you share the longest border in the world, there are going to be lots of disputes, and international arbitration turned out to be a really good way of resolving these without having to resort to war.

Two hundred years later, the War of 1812 has been mostly forgotten about in the United States and Canada, except in the Niagara Peninsula and a few other areas (it was forgotten about in Britain long before that). The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 gives us an opportunity to re-remember this conflict and to appreciate it as part of our past.