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Sep 24, 2004 8:25 pm

TV Gets the War of 1812 Wrong

Dan Gardner, in the Ottawa Citizen (Sept. 14, 2004):

Popular interpretations of history are always laced with national mythology which is why they are often excellent illustrations not of the era they discuss but the time in which they are produced. The New York Times delivered a striking, and scary, example of this rule on Sunday, in the form of a four-page insert advertising a documentary called First Invasion: The War of 1812.

To be clear, I have not seen the documentary itself. It aired Sunday night in the U.S. on the History Channel, which is not available here thanks, as always, to the CRTC. But with three full pages of text, the insert is substantial enough -- even allowing for the puffery of advertising -- to warrant examination on its own.

It is a brilliant artifact, so evocative of this moment that I can see future historians poring over it to get the feel of America in 2004. It could not have been printed in the post-Vietnam years, nor the get-rich 1990s. No, it could only have been created in a time when American patriotism has swelled into the all-consuming ideology last seen during the Red Scare years -- a time when skepticism is suspicious, nuance smacks of liberal treason, and politicians are cheered for proclaiming that America, like the Blues Brothers, is on a mission from God.

Like all good advertising, the insert pounds its three themes as clearly and relentlessly as the drummer on a trireme. America is pure and righteous. The American spirit cannot be broken by the enemy. And -- just in case the title isn't quite blunt enough -- at a time of war against another alien foe that struck home, Americans should recall the first perfidious assault upon the nation.

In this version of events, the war began solely because the British were grasping imperialists who didn't accept American independence. They incited Indian attacks, seized American ships and press-ganged American sailors. Conquest and subjugation were imminent and so, driven by "duty, honour and the glory of a young country standing up for itself," President James Madison declared war.

Sadly, "America's first campaign, an attack on Canada, was a disaster." American forces were informal and ill-equipped "and even though most British forces were distracted by their war with Napoleon in France, those that were available clearly outnumbered and outclassed the Americans."

Then the British struck at the nation's heart: Washington D.C. Redcoats stood in the holy of holies, the White House, toasted the king and then torched the building. And many others.

"The burning of Washington could have broken America's will," the insert intones. But no. America "showed its character."

Brave defenders withstood a terrible bombardment in Baltimore, inspiring The Star Spangled Banner. And at the Battle of New Orleans Andrew Jackson -- "Old Hickory" -- licked the redcoats and "permanently won American's Independence."

Please note the capital "I" on Independence. This is History we're talking about. No less than God's Grand Design.

Now, this tale may not produce a lump in every throat. Some may quibble. Like Canadians, for instance. And liberals. Liberals are always quibbling. Just look at John Kerry. What a quibbler.

Historians, too, might toss in some treasonous nuance. Little things, such as the fact that the British flag prominently depicted in the insert is upside-down. And that the whole thesis -- which is a turbo-charged version of the mythology taught to American schoolchildren in generations past -- is drivel.

Britain was not "distracted" by Napoleon. It was locked in a death-struggle. North America was the distraction. And while British statesmen had contemptuously refused to treat the U.S. as a independent equal, they were not plotting to bring the colonies to heel. In fact, British forces in North America were perilously thin: At the time of the American invasion, there were just 4,500 soldiers in Upper Canada.

As for the sacking of Washington, it was explicitly carried out in retaliation for the American burning of York (Toronto) -- and even then only after the Americans refused an offer to settle the matter by paying reparations.

Napoleon's defeat strengthened the British hand, but there was still no appetite for conquest. "Half the people of England do not know that there is a war with America," a British editor told President Madison in 1814, "and those who did had forgotten it."

Historians might also quibble about the purity of American motives. "The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching,"Thomas Jefferson boasted in 1812 to Madison, "and will give us experience for the attack on Halifax next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent."

Many Americans saw Canada as the unfinished business of the revolution. War would finally clear out Britain and leave America a free hand to expand across the continent. This view was particularly popular in the South and West, the two regions which just happened to be (as political consultants would put it today) Madison's base.

The resolution of the war gave neither side cause to crow and claim victory. The Americans finally accepted a continued British presence to their north. And Britain fully acknowledged American independence....

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