British / Canadian Perspective Essay, Research Paper
A British/Canadian Perspective
At the outset of war, Upper Canada consisted of a loose collection of villages scattered between Cornwall and Amherstburg. Most of the settlers were subsistence farmers who grew wheat, raised livestock, and distilled whiskey when they found the time.
A substantial portion of the population were Loyalist refugees who had fled to Canada during the American Revolution. Many more were recent American immigrants who had been lured to Upper Canada by the promise of cheap land. These new arrivals did not consider themselves British, and as far as they were concerned, the term “Canadian” referred to their French neighbours. Evidently, most Upper Canadian settlers did not feel especially patriotic towards British North America. Sir George Prevost, commander of the British forces in Canada estimated that the militia in Upper Canada had a potential strength of 11,000. It is interesting to note that he also warned it “might not be prudent to arm more than 4000.”
Major General Isaac Brock, the political and military commander of Upper Canada, was also acutely aware of the American presence in this region. In February of 1812, Brock asked the Upper Canadian legislature to adopt certain preparatory measures for war. The legislature voted for some of his proposals, but a pro-American faction sensitive to civil rights quashed Brock’s request for the power to suspend habeas corpus (detention without trial) and a partial exercise of martial law.
While most Upper Canadian settlers might not have been enthusiastically pro-British, they certainly didn’t welcome an American invasion. When General William Hull stormed into Upper Canada with a proclamation stating that the American forces were going to emancipate the locals “from tyranny and oppression”, Upper Canadian settlers were amazed. After all, most settlers were comfortably ensconced in their new homes and felt no need to be liberated.
Many Upper Canadian settlers were neutral at the beginning of the war, but as increasing numbers of their compatriots were killed in battle, forced from their homes, or had farms pillaged by American forces, local support for the British defenders increased.
Considering the foreign origins of most Upper Canadians in 1812, it is not surprising that there were some traitors in the crowd. For instance, Joseph Willcocks, a former member of the Upper Canada assembly, led a group called the Canadian Volunteers around the Niagara region. They fought alongside the American invaders, gathered information and did whatever they could to help the U.S. cause.
The majority of Upper Canada’s population actually developed a stronger commitment to their country over the course of the conflict. These settlers-cum-soldiers were extremely proud of their efforts to repel the enemy from Canada, their new home.
A British/Canadian Perspective
The War of 1812 was a time of relative peace in Lower Canada. Faced with the possibility of an American invasion which posed a social, political and economic threat to their society, Lower Canadians from different social classes and political factions chose to close ranks.
For instance, the francophone professional class temporarily suspended political bickering with the English-dominated government for the duration of the hostilities. They realized that their cultural interests were more likely to be protected under British institutions than they would be under American rule.
The “habitant” farmers who made up the majority of the population were also wary of an American invasion. They believed that land-hungry American settlers would cause overcrowding and exacerbate the land shortage problem. In an effort to preserve their rural heritage, the “habitants” enthusiastically joined local militia units. “Les Voltigeurs”, a unit created by Charles-Michel de Salaberry, successfuly fended off the Americans at the Battle of Chateauguay.
The elite members of Lower Canadian society also helped to foster loyalty to the British crown during the war. For example, the new governor general, Sir George Prevost, was a bilingual British officer with a great talent for conciliation. He successfully eased the cultural and linguistic divisions within the colony. Also, the Roman Catholic clergy and the “seigneurs” (landholders) used their influence to promote the defense of established order over revolutionary American forces.
Ironically, after the war ended, Lower Canada was once again torn apart by political bickering. The growing tension between Lower Canada’s English rulers and the mainly-French citizenry erupted with the Rebellion of 1837.
By 1812, First Nations had been battling American expansion for more than a century. In a last-ditch effort to protect their homeland and their culture, many First Nations, some of whom joined a native confederacy led by the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, joined forces with the British Army to fight a common enemy – the Americans. In return for their services, the British promised the First Nations people they would not agree to peace without securing an autonomous native territory. When the British abandoned this pledge and signed the 1814 Treaty of Ghent the fate of a First Nations homeland was tragically sealed.