David Byrne told us to stop making sense, but that’s just not how we humans roll. You can see this in folk etymologies like cold slaw, bridegroom, and butt naked, and in the way that I (and, I’m sure, many other children) tried to interpret the otherwise unintelligible “Star-Spangled Banner” in the light of its main function. Its function, of course, was to be played before baseball games, so it wasn’t too surprising that it referred to the home of the Braves, or even that its opening line asked Jose if he could see (I figured this would be either Jose Cruz or Jose Cardenal). I was probably in a smaller group of interpreters who caught the reference to “babe Ruth through the night.”
Then I learned that the song had been composed during the War of 1812, which threw a spanner in the works. Clearly the Jose in question must have been part of an earlier wave of Latino players And if Babe Ruth participated in the War of 1812, then he was extremely old in 1927 when he hit 60 homers. But hey, the world is a strange place (for example, if my mother was really 35, as she said, then she had given birth to my oldest brother at the age of 4), and it never occurred to me that I had misheard the lyrics.
So, apart from the national anthem, what do you know about the War of 1812? Until recently, my answer would have been basically zip. I had heard at some point that the Brits had burned Washington (actually, mostly a few government buildings), but I didn’t know that this was explicit retaliation for the American burning of York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. I also learned that the most famous battle, that of New Orleans, was fought after the war was over: the peace treaty had been signed, but news had not yet reached the front.
What I did not learn was that the central American war strategy was the invasion, conquest and assimilation of Canada. Not only did this seem like a good way to deprive Britain of essential timber, it struck American leaders as natural and easy. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack Halifax the next and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.” He boasted that the Virginia militia could do the job alone, without help from the other states.
The defeat of the few British troops in Canada would be especially easy because the population was going to welcome the U.S. troops as liberators. Or not…the invasion of Canada was a fiasco; the militias in the West were disorganized and amateurs led by incompetent amateurs, while those in New England and New York were opposed to the war and often refused to fight. President Madison responded by bringing in a new top general who was not merely incompetent but a flat-out traitor in the pay of the Spanish Empire.
Up to this point, according to D.W. Meinig’s Continental America, 1800-1867, the U.S. frontier with British America was porous and frequently ignored, and most people in the borderlands cared little whether they lived under the British or United States flag. Th American invasion created a new sense of Canadian national pride in having repelled the intruders and resentment at having been unjustly attacked. So quickly forgotten south of the border, 1812 remained a transformative moment in Canadian history, creating an asymmetry that still exists today. I suppose that “We’re not he United States” isn’t actually the Canadian national motto, but it could be, while Americans are still apt to forget that Canada is a separate country, as when Rick Perry announced that a Canadian pipeline would reduce our dependence on foreign energy.
The U.S. did eventually get its act together a bit on land, and the Navy surprised everyone when its handful of little frigates stood toe-to-toe with Britain’s fleet of Imperial Battle Cruisers and Death Stars. After two years of stalemate, both sides decided to take a mulligan on the whole thing (if only the various Kaisers and Prime Ministers could have done that in 1916!), returning to exactly the status quo ante bellum. To paraphrase Will Cuppy, everything went back to the way it had been before the war, except that all the people who had been killed were still dead.
And of course, we learned our lesson, and never again sent off an army to invade another country with the expectation that we would be greeted as liberators.