When war broke out in 1812, seventeen-year-old Étienne Taché quit school in Quebec City to enroll in the 5th battalion, Lower Canadian Militia. After serving in the reserve at Chateauguay in 1813, Taché’s battalion became the elite Chasseurs Canadiens. In 1814, Lieutenant Taché marched south in the Plattsburgh campaign and witnessed the battle of Lake Champlain. Later, after a postwar career as a doctor, he was elected in 1848 to the Provincial Assembly. By 1864, still a member of the Militia and now Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Étienne Taché, with knighthoods from the Pope and the Queen, he was co-premier with John A. Macdonald in the coalition that brought about Confederation. He was unanimously elected chairman of the Quebec Conference, where delegates wrote the resolutions for a federal union. More than any other figure, Taché’s life and career connect the War of 1812 with Confederation.
Taché was the titular “Premier of the Canadian Government” though in practice its co-leader with Macdonald was George-Étienne Cartier of Montreal. But Cartier, best-known for taking Quebec into Confederation, also had a close connection to the War of 1812: his father, Jacques (1774-1841), had served as a Lieutenant and paymaster in the Verchères Militia during the War. And Cartier’s right-hand man, Hector-Louis Langevin, later a cabinet minister, was married to Sophie LaForce, whose father, Major Pierre LaForce, was one of Salaberry’s Voltigeur officers in the battle of Chateauguay.
Several of the Fathers of Confederation had a connection to the War of 1812. It was part of living memory and family lore. There were only two generations — fifty years — between 1814, when the peace was signed, and 1864, when the British-American union was launched. To use a more recent comparison, fifty years was the time between 1945 and 1995, when “Victory in Europe” brought together veterans and their children and grandchildren for commemorations in Canada and abroad. Considering this proximity, the generational link between 1812 and Confederation has received remarkably little attention from historians. And in view of that link it is all the more surprising to recall that a number of professors, journalists, and bloggers — mostly on the political Left — angrily denounced the Harper government’s emphasis on the Bicentennial last year in preparation for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017, and continue to reproach the government almost as if it had scourged and crucified Clio, the muse of history.
Time was when the Canadian Left was quite enamoured of the War of 1812. For academics like James Laxer, an NDP activist so extreme that he was purged in 1972 after a failed takeover bid by the faction known as the Waffle, the War of 1812 played into a broader anti-Americanism that throve on drugs, race riots, “Vietnam,” Nixon-hatred, draft-dodgers, the “branch plant economy,” the Chilean coup, cruise-missile testing, and free trade. For them the War of 1812 was part of the case for an Independent Socialist Canada. In The Border: Canada, the US and Dispatches from the 29th Parallel, published in 2003, Laxer wrote of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “On September 11, 2001, terrorists did what no foreign power had ever been able to do to the United States in the nearly two centuries since the War of 1812.” Apparently by taking the proletarian struggle to the capitalist homeland, Canadians “were the first people successfully to resist American expansionism” — that is, until the attacks on New York and Washington 187 years later. (One had little suspected this implied affinity between Tecumseh and Brock, the subjects of Laxer’s most recent book, and al-Qaeda.)
Some critics have gone to the opposite extreme, deciding that the War of 1812 did not really happen — at least not to Canadians. “Serious historians debunk the idea that the three-year War of 1812 … had much to do with the future Canada,” declared blogger Roger Annis. “The country was not even founded until fifty-two years after the War’s end.” Annis dismissed the notion that the war “was a ‘founding event’ of great heroism and historical significance for Canada” (blog, “A Socialist in Canada,” July 3, 2012). Comment boards carried rants such as this from Postzilla: “The war of 1812 was before Canada was a country, he [the demon Harper — eds.] is celebrating Colonial History, England basically.” “ProgressiveBloggers” denounced “Harper’s bizarre obsession with the War of 1812.”
Jamie Swift, co-author of the book Warrior Nation, belittled the War as a “handful of inconclusive skirmishes.” He accused the prime minister of trying “to turn the brutal little war into a noble, nation-building enterprise,” a notion “widely rubbished by historians.” All of this is a far cry from the old Waffle position that the War of 1812 was a milestone of Canadian independence.
Inevitably the reductio ad Hitlerum was quick to appear. One blogger compared “the propagandistic opportunism of the Harper Regime” to “the ‘Triumph of the Will’ with Hitler symbolically descending from the clouds” (“AppalledBC,” online, Oct. 7, 2011). Ian McKay, a leading light in Queen’s University’s history department, wrote in Canada’s History magazine that, “Ottawa, its streets bedecked with War of 1812 banners, has the martial air of … 1930s Berlin.” (Feb.-Mar. 2013, p. 50). Has McKay taken leave of his senses? Surely Mark Reid, the editor of Canada’s History, made a questionable decision in publishing this tripe. Serious historians at Queen’s must be shaking their heads at McKay’s equation of a few Laura Secord banners in Ottawa with swastikas in Berlin.
Unfortunately these ideas have been wrongheadedly adopted by mainstream commentators. Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail has accused the government of “rewriting the past.” In a debate at the War Museum in Ottawa last year, he and Jack Granatstein belittled the Canadian role in the war. “To suggest, as [Harper] did recently, that the Canadian military’s roots lay in this war was a complete rewriting of history, such as we might expect but do not deserve,” Simpson claimed. In reply Granatstein (billed as Simpson’s opponent) agreed with him: “Most of the fighting by our side was done by British regulars, and the Canadian militia … did almost nothing and sustained very light casualties.” In fact, the belief that Canadian participation is a “myth” has been greatly exaggerated. (See “The Myth of the ‘Militia Myth’” by Robert Henderson on page 12 of this issue.)
For the record, Ottawa’s case for the Bicentennial is that the War of 1812 “established the cornerstones of our political institutions and laid the foundation for Confederation,” as heritage minister James Moore put it. The prime minister was slightly more nuanced: “The War helped establish our path toward becoming an independent and free country” and “define who we are today, what side of the border we live on, and which flag we salute.” At an event in Quebec to announce new battle honours for Canadian regiments which in point of fact trace their origins to the War of 1812, Harper added: “These bonds created by our ancestors are at the origin of a truly pan-Canadian identity that made possible our Confederation, and led to a country of great diversity with two official languages.” As Moore told Maclean’s, with a touch of historical panache, “This war leads directly to Confederation in 1867.”
Not everyone would agree with Moore’s “direct” linkage of 1812 and 1867. Still, many of the delegates at Charlottetown and Quebec in 1864 did have family, friends, or neighbours who were participants in the War or victims of American pillage. Their family experiences comprise at least part of the Canadian and Maritime establishments’ collective memory of 1812 and its antecedents, the Revolutionary War and the flight of the Loyalists. Some of the delegates were descendants of officers deprived of their property and livelihood in the American War. But even those immigrant delegates such as Macdonald, George Brown and others who settled in Canada after 1814 had also been exposed to memories of the War of 1812 in their youth, at school, in church, in the periodicals they read, and on the political hustings.
Mainstream historians with real expertise such as John R. Grodzinski and Donald E. Graves, have broadly sympathized with the Bicentennial. Even Christopher Moore, whose blog has of late carried surprisingly bigoted leftist views,* wrote in guarded defence of the Bicentennial: “Though I approve of historical controversy in general, I’m not very sympathetic to the argument … that all this War of 1812 commemoration is a vast state conspiracy to turn us into tory warmongers. But after just a couple of months, I do sense a touch of 1812 fatigue …” (“How’s the War going, 200 years ago?” Aug. 16, 2012). Moore cited no evidence of fatigue, a feeling that was presumably not shared by the thousands who gathered for re-enactments last summer.
Historians closer to the events had no such doubts: Lt.-Col. W.F. Coffin wrote in 1812: The War and Its Moral, A Canadian Chronicle, published in 1864, that even the numerals “1812” were “a sign of solemn import to the people of Canada” which “carries with it the virtue of an incantation … an episode in the story of a young people, glorious in itself and full of promise.” A.H.U. Colquhoun wrote in The Fathers of Confederation, published in 1916, “The War of 1812 furnished another startling proof of the isolated and defenceless position of the provinces.” As Colquhoun noted, the first plans for federation were proposed in 1814 by, among others, Chief Justice Jonathan Sewell, a first-generation Loyalist.
To this day, most historians are quite prepared to agree with A.R.M. Lower, a Liberal and the author of the influential 1946 Colony to Nation, who wrote that the war was semi-mythical but formative all the same. “The sense of Canadian nationality dates from the war of 1812. … The essence of the war … is that it built the first story of the Canadian national edifice.” Like other wars in history, 1812 contributed to the development of a cohesive society and a national spirit. There is nothing unusual in a fledgling frontier society cultivating a patriotic myth to build social cohesion. After 1815 thousands of immigrants poured into Upper Canada from England, Scotland, and Ireland, tripling the size of Toronto. Their assimilation into the myth of 1812 was part of what Jane Errington of the Royal Military College in her 1995 book, The Lion, the Eagle, and Upper Canada, called “the process of integration and assimilation which the war had sparked among the colonists” (p. 91). By the late 1860s “historians of the period had immortalized the myth.” It was this image of 1812 that was infused into the next two generations of colonists and immigrants, including a number of Fathers of Confederation.
The Canadian founder with the closest connection to 1812 was Colonel Taché. Born in 1795, he was a product of the pragmatically nationalist French Canada that upheld the nineteenth-century Tory entente between English Imperialism and ultramontane Catholicism. He became an archetype of the Victorian Canadien, serving in the Army, taking a profession, representing his home constituency of Kamouraska, marrying well, siring fifteen children; living, loving, and dying on his native soil in communion with the Catholic Church. Like many prudent contemporaries, he had rejected both Patriote demagoguery (knowing where such behaviour invariably leads) and the chest-thumping commercialism of Anglo-Montreal.
“Our Loyalty is not one of speculation, of pounds, shillings, and pence,” Taché told the Legislature in Montreal in 1846. “We do not carry it on our lips, we do not make a traffic of it. But we are in our habits, by our laws, and by our religion … monarchists and conservatives.” This was the famous speech in which, recalling his experiences in 1813, he predicted, gesturing toward the portrait of Queen Victoria in the chamber (the same painting that now hangs in the Senate foyer in Ottawa), that the “last cannon shot” in defence of Britain would be fired by a French Canadian.
Taché’s experience was unique — almost. His oldest brother had served as a Captain in the Voltigeurs under Salaberry. A nephew, Joseph-Charles Taché, was an early advocate of federation in a series of articles in the Courrier du Canada of Quebec City in 1857. Meanwhile in Upper Canada Sir Allan Napier MacNab, born in Niagara in 1798, volunteered at the age of 14 and served in the Militia at Sackets Harbor, Plattsburgh, Black Rock, and Fort Niagara. He went on to be a senior politician in Upper Canada, a link between the old aristocratic Toryism of John Graves Simcoe’s successors and the pragmatic Conservatism of William Henry Draper and John A. Macdonald. MacNab said, “All my politics are railroads,” a motto later embodied in the transcontinental Dominion and its first prime minister.
MacNab was conscious of the memory of Sir Isaac Brock, known to generations of Canadians as “the Saviour of Canada,” and it impinged on him at various times throughout his life. In 1841 Baron Seaton (Sir John Colborne, former commander-in-chief of North America) wrote to MacNab asking him to arrange for a certain Lieutenant Brock, one of the hero’s relatives in England, to be appointed to “a company in the Canadian Corps.”1 In the 1850s MacNab served as chairman of the Brock Monument Committee, which constructed the pillar that is extant today at Queenston. It was completed in 1856 and inaugurated in 1859 with funds approved by the Canadian Legislature, including future Fathers of Confederation such as Cartier, Macdonald, Galt, and Brown. In 1860 MacNab received a written tribute on “The Invasion of Canada” by one John Clark, which MacNab called “Clark’s effusion in memory of General Brock’s command in 1812.”2 Invocations of 1812 were common enough in the 1860s.
Like Taché’s, MacNab’s life bridged the War of 1812 and Confederation — even though, MacNab dying in 1862 and Taché in 1865, neither lived to see the new federal arrangements brought to fruition. After Taché’s death, McGee said his “sense of duty was that of a soldier of the Spartan stamp.”3 He had stood with the few against the many at Chateauguay. For Taché and MacNab’s generation, as for Macdonald and Cartier’s, the United States never ceased to be a menacing presence, any less in the 1860s than in 1812. Taking a closer look at the Fathers, what do we find? Why have historians made so little effort to draw out the connections between 1812 and Confederation?
Sir Charles Tupper, who attended all three conferences leading to Confederation (Charlottetown, Quebec, and London), was born at Amherst, NS in 1812. His father had trained in the local Militia in anticipation of an invasion. The Tuppers, a clerical family, could hardly have been unaware of the “ecstatic rejoicing” when HMS Shannon sailed into Halifax harbour in 1813 with the captured USS Chesapeake as a prize, or of the celebrations including the bonfire in Halifax upon Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. Years later, Charles Tupper got his start in politics in the 1850s under the influence of an 1812 veteran, James W. Johnson, the Conservative leader and pre-Confederation Premier of Nova Scotia whose portrait hangs in the Nova Scotia legislative chamber today.
Joseph Howe, the father of responsible government in Nova Scotia who was a federation sceptic in 1864 but later joined Macdonald’s cabinet, was eight years old in 1812: “The moment [war] came we prepared for combat without a murmur. I am just old enough to remember that war,” he said in 1862, the fiftieth anniversary. His father, an ardent Loyalist from New York, was a publisher, postmaster and from 1807-9 a spy in Washington on behalf of the Nova Scotia governor; his father-in-law had served in the Nova Scotia Fencibles. In later life, Howe often referred to 1812 in letters and speeches: “The United States joined the French in 1812 because they were at war with England,” he wrote to W.E. Gladstone in 1855. “Republican America fell upon the flank of England, while her fleets and armies were engaged in the great struggle with Bonaparte.” Our “great instincts” in Nova Scotia, Howe boasted, “prompted us to oppose Bonaparte in 1812” because “we apprehended danger to freedom and civilization.”
John Sandfield Macdonald, who became Ontario’s first premier in 1867, was not technically a Father of Confederation because he did not attend the conferences. But he was almost present at the creation, and like some of his contemporaries he had been recruited into politics by a War of 1812 veteran, Colonel Alexander Fraser, in the 1840s.
Sir Oliver Mowat was a delegate from Upper Canada at Quebec in 1864 and went on to become Ontario’s third premier and its eighth Lieutenant Governor. His Scottish father, John Mowat, was a Peninsular War veteran who was among the 6,000 troops sent from Britain to Canada to fight in the War of 1812, and served at Plattsburgh in 1814. Thus a fair number of the Fathers were only one generation removed from an 1812 veteran.
John Galt, the father of Alexander Tilloch Galt, the Father of Confederation from Sherbrooke, made part of his living with the Canada Company, which in the 1820s sought compensation for Loyalist settlers whose property had been destroyed by American troops in the War of 1812. Also among the Montrealers was Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who in 1858 published the ballad “Along the Line!” in the collection Canadian Ballads. It is subtitled “A.D. 1812” and exhorts: “Steady be your beacon’s blaze / Along the line! along the line! / Freely sing dear Freedom’s praise / Along the line! along the line!” The second stanza, “Let them rail against the North, … / When it sends its heroes forth” refers to Canada in 1812. As McGee’s fine biographer, David Wilson, interprets this poem, “anti-slavery sentiment could function as a cohesive force, through which Canadians could assume the moral high ground and define themselves against Americans” (vol. ii, p. 119).
But this is a rather timid and negative reading! One could also conclude that English-speaking patriotic sentiment in the 1850s, rooted in a semi-mythical defence of Canada which inspired McGee, could be understood and assimilated by recent immigrants. The poem reconstructed “the thoughts of Canadian volunteers as they prepared for the impending American invasion,” Wilson writes, presumably one reason why Canadian Ballads is today seen as “a landmark of Canadian cultural nationalism.” (The poem is reproduced at the bottom of this article.)
And what of Sir John A. Macdonald, who immigrated to Upper Canada with his family in 1820 at the age of five? What are we to suppose young Johnny gleaned of the recent war at the local school in Adolphustown or at the Loyalist church, or the Midland District Grammar School, a bastion of Loyalist education? While attending Midland Grammar, which was a day school, Johnny lived with his cousins, the Macphersons, his “second home,” writes Donald Creighton (vol. I, p. 15).
His uncle, the patriarch, Lt. Col. Donald Macpherson, had landed at Quebec 1807 with the 10th Royal Veteran battalion and served with the 71st Highlanders. In the War of 1812 he saw action in Chauncey’s attack on Kingston harbour, where his daughter (one of six) could remember bullets penetrating “the wooden walls of the pretty white cottage that then did duty as the commandant’s residence.” Afterwards Macpherson became a leading figure in Kingston.
Young Johnny Macdonald, devouring “his uncle’s library and the ‘slices of pudding’ set aside by Macpherson’s youngest daughter,” grew up in the shadow of the War of 1812. He was fourteen years old when his uncle died in 1829, buried in Kingston with full military honours, “the minute guns from the city battery being answered by those from the fort,” fired by the 71st Highlanders. The funeral undoubtedly made an impression on the bright young man who had read his uncle’s books.
Later, everywhere Macdonald campaigned in 1860, Creighton relates, he met “lawyers, merchants, farmers young men … and old men who had fought in a dozen political battles and bore the medals of the War of 1812 upon their chests.”
Sir Alexander Campbell, a Father of Confederation and Macdonald’s sometime law partner, moved from England to Canada with his family in 1823 as a child, and like Macdonald, he was classically educated at Midland Grammar in the spirit of Bishop Strachan. Other Fathers of Confederation with military connections included R.B. Dickey of Nova Scotia, whose father had served as Lieutenant Colonel of the Cumberland County Militia in 1812. J.W. Ritchie’s father, Thomas had been a Militia officer and member of the Assembly who helped organize Nova Scotia’s wartime finances during the War of 1812. Edward Barron Chandler was from a Loyalist family, his father-in-law, Joshua Upham, having served in the Revolutionary War. Hewitt Bernard, born in Jamaica and the recording secretary at the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, and whose sister married Sir John A., later became a Militia Colonel. William Henry Pope, one of the more picturesque Fathers of Confederation with his Lord Salisbury-style beard, was the son of a postwar immigrant to Prince Edward Island from Devon who was a major in the Prince County Militia.
Colonel John Hamilton Gray, the Premier of Prince Edward Island who hosted the conference in 1864, was born at Charlottetown in 1811 and had a career in the British Army in India and South Africa before returning to PEI. His father, Robert Gray (born in Scotland, 1747), served in the Revolutionary War as a captain in the King’s American Regiment under Col. Edmund Fanning. Of the New Brunswickers, Samuel Leonard Tilley came from a Loyalist family. The other John Hamilton Gray, born in Bermuda in 1814, later became a Captain in the New Brunswick Regiment and Lieutenant Colonel of the New Brunswick Rangers. Such men had not served in the War of 1812 but the Militia ambience of the time was coloured by the War’s memory.
Nor was it untypical for Macdonald’s caucus members, including the Quebecers, to have a connection to the War of 1812, albeit sometimes more remote. Theodore Robitaille, the MP for Bonaventure after Confederation, was a longtime Tory loyalist who remained a backbencher for much of his career except for a stint as Receiver General, until Macdonald made him the fourth Lieutenant Governor of Quebec in 1879, and afterwards a Senator. Even here we find a link to the past, as Robitaille’s great uncle served as chaplain of the Lower Canadian Militia during the War of 1812.
In 1882 Macdonald received an appeal from Major J.R. Wilkinson for help in getting the Essex Battalion gazetted, properly manned, and better equipped. Essex County deserved a “good strong battalion,” Wilkinson wrote, as an “exposed frontier county.”5 They did not have much longer to wait, as the North-West Rebellion of 1885 provided the occasion for standing up the 21st Essex Battalion of Infantry under Lt. Col. Wilkinson’s command. It is notable that the Essex Battalion perpetuated the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the Essex Militia, which fought in the War of 1812. (Mr. Harper last year ensured that proper battle honours went to such regiments, the modern perpetuators of 1812 fighting units; left to its own devices, DND was planning to issue a cheap lapel pin.)
Biographers have paid less attention than they might to the War of 1812-14 in the collective memory of the Confederation era. The life of Sir George Cartier by John Boyd, Sir George Etienne Cartier, Bart., his life and times: a political history of Canada from 1814 until 1873, published in 1914, omits any mention even of Cartier’s father’s having fought in the war. Newer biographies by Brian Young and Alastair Sweeny mention the fact but only in passing. Recent biographies of Taché and Langevin refer to a family connection to the War but do not develop the significance of British military service by French Canadians. Murray Beck’s biography of Joseph Howe has little to say about the War of 1812, despite the frequency with which Howe himself referred to it. The two volumes of Creighton’s life of Macdonald, despite their Tory nation-building inspiration, merely allude to the war. Richard Gwyn’s more recent (and more Liberal) John A.: The Man Who Made Us, is more explicit: “Memories of the 1812 War had a powerful effect on Canadians’ consciousness,” having “occurred within living memory.” (p. 254-5). But little is said of Sir John’s uncle, an 1812 veteran.
In 1887, the House of Commons dealt briefly with the question of pensions for 1812 veterans. Sir Richard Cartwright was a Liberal MP and the grandson of a Loyalist officer from the Revolutionary War who, retired and in his sixties during the War of 1812, wrote articles for the Kingston Gazette explaining why Upper Canada’s “traditions” should be preserved from US aggression. Sir Richard, the grandson, asked the House in 1887 how many 1812 veterans remained living, seventy-three years after the Treaty of Ghent.
The answer came from Sir Adolphe-Philippe Caron, the Minister of Militia and Defence, whose grandfather had served in the Militia at Beauport in the 1790s, and it is a remarkable fact: there were in 1887 as many as 271 living veterans of the War of 1812, of whom 221 were receiving a pension of $30 each; 49 were getting $80 each, and one pensioner in Quebec was receiving $60, the total allocation being $6,630.
It is clear, then, that for the Fathers of Confederation and the generation of politicians who occupied ministries in Ottawa down to the 1880s, the War of 1812 was a constitutive element of British North Americans’ collective memory. There are therefore quite respectable grounds for linking the two events for the purposes of the Bicentennial. It is perverse for critics, motivated more likely by personal hatred for the prime minister than by zeal for accuracy or truth, to deny the historical connections between the war and Canada’s founding as a way to set the stage for the sesquicentennial of 2017. Any date could have been chosen, but the federal government’s emphasis on the War of 1812 as part of a five-year ramp-up from 2012 to the 150th anniversary of the Dominion is an inspired approach worthily commended to the country.
1. Sir Allan N. MacNab Papers, Bundle 5, Reel A-22, April 1841, Library and Archives Canada.
2. MacNab Papers, Reel A-22, Stamped “St. Catherines, Upper Canada, May 1860.
3. House of Commons Debates, Nov. 14, 1867, p. 70 (McGee’s maiden speech in the Dominion Parliament).
4. The Life of Sir John A. Macdonald, by his nephew Lt. Col. J. Pennington Macpherson, ADC, St. John, N.B., Earle Publishing, 1891, vol. 1, p. 80; “Donald Macpherson,” by Laurie (Stanley) Blackwell, Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
5. Sir John A. Macdonald Papers, Vol. 313 (1882), Reel C-1968/9, Library and Archives Canada.
* In one egregious example, Mr. Moore blogged on Oct. 22, 2012 that Saint Kateri Tekakwitha is “a tragic figure rather than a role model, and copping [sic] a sainthood from Pope Benedict seems like, I dunno, accepting an honorary degree from a shady online college” — a vulgar throwback to 19th century anti-Catholicism. By contrast, local First Nations, who have been Catholic for centuries, were uplifted by the canonization and gathered at the Kahnewake shrine in high numbers. One said, “it shows we can be respected too.” In Catholic terms, of course, a saint in Heaven is far more powerful than the mere human respect eschewed by Mr. Moore…