The War of 1812: Why Does It Matter?

The Battle of Stoney Creek by Peter Rindlisbacher

Did you know the War of 1812 ended 200 years ago last week? (The war officially lasted from June 18, 1812 to February 18, 1815). I’m going to go with “no” because often it gets reduced to a footnote in history classrooms. That’s been my experience, at least. My American history professor spent more time discussing what led to the conflict as opposed to the actual war itself. Mind you, this was better than my grade 10 history teacher who flat out said, “Nothing happened.” Um…

War of 1812 Casualties:
8,600+ British/Canadian
11,300+ American
7,000-10,000+ First Nations*

Yes, nothing happened.

Now, I know status quo ante bellum, aka borders were reverted to pre-war status, isn’t a very sexy ending to a war. However, people seem to forget that just because the borders didn’t change, that doesn’t mean everything stayed the same. Here’s why the war still matters:

1) Canada (as we know it) Exists

If we had not won the war, Canada would certainly not exist as it does today.

The Americans thought that British North American colonists would welcome an invasion. After all, a good number of settlers were from the US and who wouldn’t want to “throw off the British yoke” as Washington had put it and join the republic? Needless to say they were surprised when the colonists responded with “nah, we’re good” and gunfire. The settlers who relocated to Upper and Lower Canada for the free land and low taxes, had no intention of rejoining the US—especially the British loyalists who had fled during the American Revolution. More than half of the British forces were made up of Canadian militia.

By successfully defending British North American territory, the colonists prevented the US from annexing the areas that would become Ontario and Quebec. In addition, English and French-speaking citizens developed both a better understanding of one another and a mutual feeling of distinctiveness from their southern neighbours. Nothing unites people like fighting off a common enemy. This sense of community and the high level of Canadian involvement in winning the war helped spark the first real feelings of nationalism, and thereby laid the grounds for confederation just over half a century later.

2) American Nation-Building

American Progress by John Gast (1872)

You wouldn’t think the US lost considering the good times that were had postwar. They were so good that historians call this period the Era of Good Feelings.

American nationalism soared because they felt like they had won a second war of independence against Britain and there was a widespread sense of national unity. The partisanship that had crippled Congress dissolved as the Federalist Party collapsed between 1816-1818 as both the presidential and congressional elections brought landslide victories for the Democratic-Republican Party. They controlled 85% of the seats in Congress. So basically stuff got done postwar. President James Monroe worked towards building an American System of national economic development, (a national bank, protective tariffs, and federally-funded internal improvements). Although the Americans were denied adding Ontario and Quebec to their list of states, they continued to press forward west. Also, even though they failed to address any of the issues that caused the War of 1812, they did get one thing…

3) Aboriginal Nations Got Majorly Screwed Over

I was going to stay that Aboriginal nations got the short end of the stick, but let’s be real, they didn’t even get a stick. First of all, the Western Confederacy, (an alliance of Aboriginal nations who formed to fight to retain their traditional lands) was crushed during the war.

Second, as a way to thank Aboriginals for their allegiance during the war, the British had promised to return all possessions, rights, and privileges to Aboriginal peoples affected by the conflict and create a neutral zone for Aboriginal people below the Great Lakes area. The US refused these terms and Britain decided keeping the peace with the Americans was more important than their promise, so they didn’t press the issue. Three years following the war, the state of Indiana was created and Aboriginal people were systematically removed from that area. This would happen over and over again throughout the 19th century as both Canada and the US grew.

So why does the War of 1812 matter? Nations began, were built, and were broken.

* Lack of formal records makes calculating the true number of First Nations casualties difficult. Even the British and American numbers are considered to be low estimates. On a latter note it was disease, not combat, was the biggest killer of the war.


Berton, Pierre, War of 1812. Toronto: Anchor Canada. (2011).

Borneman, Walter R., 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. New York: Harper Perennial. (2005).

Hitsman, J. Mackay, The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, Inc. (1999).


2 thoughts on “The War of 1812: Why Does It Matter?

Comments are closed.