Oh, Canada.

Canada 1812 Kensett
A map of Canada in 1812. “Upper” Canada is the Great Lakes Region, while “Lower” Canada is further east and north. Credit: Kensett Maps

On the other end of the spectrum from legitimate grievance rested a major drive for most wars, naked opportunity and territorial hunger. Since the days of the Revolution, the Thirteen Colonies had regarded Canadian annexation as something of an inevitability. The hat of North America was currently holding roughly half a million inhabitants to the US’ 7.5 million (including 1.5 million slaves). Of those, many were French Quebecois, and others were of American descent who might flip their loyalties. Holding that thought in mind, it’s easy to see why many American leaders, including Kentucky’s Grand Vizier Henry Clay and South Carolina’s resident proto secessionist John C. Calhoun, were excited by the prospect of Canadian annexation. Clay in particular was bullish, claiming in a speech that “The conquest of Canada is within your power. I trust I shall not be deemed presumptuous when I state that I verily believe the militiamen of Kentucky are alone competent enough to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet”.[1] Needless to say, Kentucky, like the other Hawkish states in the west and in the south, had little to none of their commerce impacted by the nominal impressment’s grievance that was supposed to be the source of besmirched American honor.

Gerry Elkanah Tisdale
Congressman Gerry’s legacy is better cemented by his creative ability to pick his constituents, the root of our modern problem of “Gerrymandering”. Credit: Elkanah Tisdale.

Instead it was telling that the minority Federalist party in the northeast was fiercely opposed to opening hostilities. If anything the war party viewed that as another reason to go for a second round against the British. As one outlying northern warhawk Elbridge Gerry put it, “by war, we should be purified, as by fire”.[2] To men like Gerry, the war was a chance to bang out the impure differences between the formerly confederate states, and unify them behind a common cause.

However, many in the northeast could point to other reasons that the prospect of war was an atrocious idea. For a start, there was the fact that the chickenhawkish southerners had seemingly no idea how big Canada was, or in fact any idea what state the American army was in for that matter. Clay’s hypothetical Kentucky militia would have to compensate for years of downsizing, as the pre war Federal army was just 15,000 men.[3] While Jefferson had finally sunk funds into building a new series of strengthened naval frigates, there was also no way that these ships could even hope to stop a fraction of Britain’s supreme navy if it was brought to bear.

There was also the fact that the British themselves were in no mood for this war. By 1812, they watched as Napoleon assembled his Grande Armee, a staggering force of 680,000 men, and launched himself at the Russian Empire. Following elections, the parties in London swapped for the first time in ten years, and the new Prime Minister rescinded the Orders in Council, the legal code the British navy was using to blockade and appropriate American shipping. The final men from the Chesapeake incident were also released, as a show of accommodation.

Henry Clay Matthew Harris Jouett
Prominent statesmen and warhawk Henry Clay, in an 1818 portrait. Credit: Matthew Harris Jouett.

These gestures were no cure for war fever though, and on June 1st, 1812, President Madison launched a speech rattling off America’s grievances with Britain. While he stopped short of calling for war, the dagger was clearly visible to everyone in the room. Falling entirely on party lines, all 13 Federalist Senators and 26 representatives voted against the Declaration of War against Britain, which the President signed on June 18th. From here on out, “Mr. Madison’s War” would be the sarcastic call of American critics. In response to the news, the British War Minister reacted with a sigh and some classical British understatement, “lads, this has the potential to complicate matters to an uncomfortable degree”.[4] The War of 1812 had begun.

[1] Borneman 2004.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Incidentally, “To place any dependence upon militia, is, assuredly, resting upon a broken staff.” –George Washington, 1776

[4] Twamley.

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