Book by U.S. historian concludes Canada won the War of 1812

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Safe to say Eliot Cohen may not be getting many invitations from Americans marking the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812, though he could find himself an honoured guest at Canadian festivities.

The Johns Hopkins University history professor, once a senior adviser to former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, has just published a book that concludes Canada won the war.

The admission comes as the Conservative government ramps up plans to celebrate the war, which it is elevating to the kind of defining historical moment for Canada on a level with the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War.

Cohen's book, entitled Conquered Into Liberty, states "ultimately, Canada and Canadians won the War of 1812."

"Americans at the time, and, by and large, since, did not see matters that way," he said.

Most historians have seen the war, launched by the Americans over Britain's policy of stopping and searching U.S. ships bound for Napoleon's France, as a draw. Americans consider they won based on the U.S. victory in the Battle of New Orleans and a decisive battle on the Great Lakes. Canadians believe they won because colonial militia and British troops repulsed several invasions aimed at annexing Upper and Lower Canada.

Canada wouldn't exist as a country for more than 50 years after the war ended in 1815 but the book bolsters the federal government's narrative that the war set the stage for the creation of an independent Canada.

"If the conquest of (Canada) had not been an American objective when the war began, it surely had become such shortly after it opened," Cohen argues in the book. "Not only did the colony remain intact: It had acquired heroes, British and French, and a narrative of plucky defense against foreign invasion, that helped carry it to nationhood."

Cohen told Postmedia News that "all countries have to have these myths — not in the sense of falsehoods, but really compelling stories that are, in fact, rooted in some kind of truth, even if they're not the complete truth.

"And the War of 1812 gives Canada that. It gives you some foundation myths. It gives you Laura Secord. It gives you heroes."

The book's title stems from an American Revolutionary War pamphlet distributed in Lower Canada (Quebec) that warned the colony would be "conquered into liberty" by invading American rebels.

The thinking that Canada could be annexed and that many Canadians would welcome it, persisted after that first American invasion was thwarted. Frictions would persist into the late 19th century but Cohen said the War of 1812 "was the last point at which the United States thought really seriously about trying to take Canada by force of arms."

However, Eliot argues in his book that the concept of imposing liberty has echoed in U.S. foreign policy right through to today.

The book, reviewed on the History Book Club's web site chronicles 200 years of warfare on the North American continent.

"This book is a lively account of the men and their battles as well as an analysis of their significance in the development of the American way of war," said reviewer Edward M. Coffman.